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Dec 4, 2012 05:52 PM

Bouley (review)

I'm having a mind-wracking time trying to explain my experience. To begin, the kitchen treated me to a fantastic meal, going several lengths beyond what was set on the menu. That made it a really lovely evening, and I went away totally charmed.

But besides that, I would like to use two words to describe chef David Bouley's cuisine. The first word, which dawned on me somewhere between the 3rd and 5th course, is "humbling". Basically, it is the feeling of experiencing the work of a master. The other word is "delicious", by which I mean deeply palatable. I am talking about food with spirit. I have been to a few other high-end restaurants by now, but between these two adjectives… this is eating anew.

Brief explanation is as follows. One, the dishes are at once very familiar and accessible in presentation, pushing all your typical French-cuisine buttons: soups, mushrooms, lobster, fillet of fish, duck, chocolate. Two, there is yet also ingenuity without being too explicit or obvious about it; creativity and thoughtfulness that isn't for its own sake but that feels sincerely in the service of taste (this will have to be judged from my descriptions below). Together points one and two synthesize to produce a wholly modern kind of comfort food for a fine dining setting. And that is a lovely thing. A third point is purely a technical one—I find that there is a special regard for water, notably in following components: the tomato coulis, the dashi aspic, "The" flan, the eryngii mushroom, the soupy egg, the thickened vinaigrette, the rhubarb compote. And that one pattern to me suggests the depth and sensitivity of cooking that is happening here.

One of my measures of the importance of a restaurant is, has eating there moved or changed my mind on issues of food or cooking? I still can't quite pinpoint what it is yet, maybe something along the lines of the old adage that less is more; maybe something about lightness, and the ability to balance old and new, expected and unexpected; and as with the potato dish, maybe something about letting the ingredients just be. So, yes.

Misc thoughts—
..... (Menu)
- The 6-course tasting menu is $175, and an 8+ course "omakase" is $250 minimum.
- I opted for the former, but then the kitchen saw fit to treat me to a crazy amount of extras, including a tablespoon of white truffle shavings to go with the egg soup. For all this I feel embarrassedly grateful.
- An a la carte menu would run low $100's (entrées are $50, and the table besides me appeared to order app, entree, and dessert).
..... (Food)
- I'd been for lunch a year ago, and this meal definitely supersedes that (for example I remember mom finding the duck at lunch nice but somewhat tough, and I don't even remember my first course then).
- A few of the dishes used just enough caviar or black truffle to be noticed and appreciated. Luxurious.
- Contrary to some Yelp photos, every dish looks very appetizing in person, and I would guess this is because cameras don't easily capture the subtleties of light transmitting through fluids.
..... (Service)
- The service is cordial but sometimes veers slightly old-school New York. For example, my captain pressed me through his recommendations, instead of taking the time to discuss my likes and dislikes. But I had a late seating so I can deal with that.
..... (Opinions)
- In my skimming I have seen articles and blogs claiming that the food had declined (nymag's review is dated 2002 and nytimes' is 2009). I have no idea what restaurant they are talking about!
- I think we often have a mindset that French food is stuffy and overly rich. This felt quite opposite.
- Caveat: if you really dislike "soft foods", this might not be the best choice. A bit like how classical music tends to sound relatively mushy.

around $175:
EMP (195) - haven't tried this yet
Momofuku Ko (lunch, 175) - a culinary tour de force, I suppose "haute East Village", for example the Japanese references. Not sure which I prefer more.
Jean Georges (168) - haven't tried this, how does it compare?
Atera (165) - "modernist eye candy", but actually, I find several memorable dishes from this.
Corton (155) - "modernist French" if you are adventurous for this (and being a fan, I shall always be).

around $250:
Per Se (295) - A gastronomical mecca and institution. Also, their staff is gentle and nice, which is really, really appreciated. I don't find that Bouley "loses" to this; at Bouley the philosophy is different and the food is perhaps more sensual.

at other prices:
The Modern (prix fixe, 100) - Dishes are less consistent (mainly I wonder about the ingredient sourcing), but so many mind-blowing level dishes (including the intense sorbets) that foodies should not dismiss this place.
Kajitsu (80) - Vegan shojin. My most moving meal was here.
Torrisi (prix fixe, 70) - I don't "get" Italian food, but at Torrisi there is a keen ability to capture the idea of "tasty".

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  1. Details of dishes
    {•} very very good {••} highly recommend this {•••} a kind of perfection
    {c} received as a gift from the kitchen

    Sat Dec 1, 1055p-0125a

    —3 Amuses (2 +1{c})—

    {•} Tomato coulis: ricotta, black truffle
    <Very pleasant. I love the texture of of the coulis and the umami of the three ingredients.>

    {•} Kudzu crisp and aligote cream, black truffle
    <Very tasty.>

    {rating reserved}{c} Apple foam, yuzu ice, trout roe, house tofu, and probably some other things
    <On this one I must quote Thomas Keller (in the context of creativity): "You don't know if it's good or bad, because you've never had anything like it before". It is a bunch of my favorite foods layered into a little cup; it is a kind of etude about non-fluid water; it reminds me of a trifle or of a Japanese seafood appetizer; I think it bears some structural similarity to David Chang's grated frozen foie dish; it challenges the palate and defeats expectations; it is humorous and makes me wonder WTF is going on?; and, I would like to try this one again, please!>

    —9 Courses (6 +3{c})—

    Fruit tea.

    {•} Malibu sea urchin in a terrine (dashi); yuzu creme fraiche sauce, dots of caviar, and herb oil
    <A minor architectural wonder, both in that the pieces of uni arrayed so precisely in the terrine, and that both ingredients are the same firmness. I am very intrigued by this treatment of uni, fusing Japanese and French ideas. I've read that the food writer Ruth Reichl loves this dish, and I can imagine why.>

    Mix-up course.
    {••} The signature flan.
    <I didn't want to see it go cold / go to waste, so I started to eat it anyways. It was super tasty, and I could be mistaken but the dinner portion seems bigger than lunch? Shortly, I was instructed not to eat it so that it could be returned to the kitchen.>

    {•} Day boat lobster (tail and maybe claw); brown and white shimeji mushrooms; peas cooked to crunchy ••; trio of sauces ••: passion fruit/mango sauce, green sauce, and peanut emulsion
    <The saucing is subtle and tasty, I was very impressed by the combination. I love those crunchy green peas. The lobster is in two very attractive pieces. I've tried lobster in just a handful of restaurants in NYC, and this is really fresh and tender, looking through my records I'd say only comparable to Per Se's (Actually Bouchon Bakery has made a lobster hash, which is wonderful too). I also really liked the overall lightness of the dish, no heavy saucing or flavoring>

    {••}{c} Wild mushrooms (such as hen of the woods, trumpet), slices of grilled otoro, black truffle, garlic foam, very fine microgreens
    <Centerpriece was the trumpet mushroom, so juicy. The torched otoro are hidden throughout, cleverly pretending to be sliced mushrooms. Mushrooms and tuna, who would have thought.>

    Breads—garlic • (never had garlic bread like this, so tasty), fig, olive, blackcurrant, and many more… I love their bread cart.

    {•••}{c} Tasting of potatoes: tiny tea-smoked white fingerling and purple potato coins, arranged in a circle on the plate; and then in the center, a luxurious quenelle of caviar on a large purple potato coin, and cream; a nugget-shaped piece of charred-onion dusted potato
    <These are the best potatoes I've ever had, ever. The coins are already perfectly cooked, and then enhanced with the tea smoke and a slick of oil on the upper surface. To explain why I was so moved by this dish, I would draw upon the elevation of vegetables in Kajitsu and the focused minimalism in Corton. (The person who introduced this plate also mentioned that they are are various fingerling and purple potatoes from the chef's own garden in Connecticut).>

    {•••}{c} Farm egg, cloud of specially aged comté, a spoonful of shaved alba truffle (the memory of which lingered in my mouth later while waiting for the subway), ring of green oil or sauce
    <I feel this dish is edifying. It is like a perfect soup. And soupy/poached egg dishes seem to be all the rage (from Tocqueville to Corton), but this one gets it right. I am not a cheese lover, but the cheese flavor is so subtle that even non-cheese-lovers can really appreciate this dish. BTW not actually sure if there was an egg in this!>

    {•••} Black cod (pistachio miso marinade) seared, then steamed •••; tomato slice; cherry tomato halves, and a beautiful raspberry vinaigrette with herbs ••
    <Perfection. I'm sorry, I've seen a superficially similar preparation by Jean Georges - the crusted black sea bass with tomatoes - which is lovely (I love JG's savory saucing and tender tomatoes), but Bouley's way of cooking the fillet makes the flesh beautiful—pale, translucent, smooth, tender, and slippery.>

    {••} Duck, "skin" of sliced candied dates ••, a prune-stuffed-prune (pruneaux d'Agen) ••, jus, very good quality fava beans, dollop of signature mashed potato ••
    <I didn't expect the livery taste of the duck, but otherwise it was tender and melty. The dish as a whole is delicious; it is the comforting meat/vegetable/potatoes trio of any restaurant, but cooked and composed perfectly. The dates and the prune were just enough to lend some sweetness, and I love the idea of using the sliced date glaze in place of the standard seared duck skin.>

    8. Pre-dessert.
    Strawberry rhubarb compote with diced strawberries; toasted bulgur wheat gelato
    <In comparsion the melon compote with ricotta ice cream from last winter was too good; it was shocking refreshment disguised in simplicity; but, this was nice too. Serving bowl was very pretty.>

    {••} Mini chocolate souffle, white coffee cloud, quenelles of white chocolate ice cream and dark chocolate mousse, all on one plate.
    <The chocolate desserts at Bouley are completely decadent, but rather than being overly rich, they achieve balance through lightness; i.e., the souffle, the cloud, the mousse are all aerated components. I cannot get enough of this dessert.>

    Chamomile tea.

    The check came with the surprising omission of petits fours—but with the ridiculously delicious and generous food tonight, and the fact that it was just past closing hour, I would have felt very awkward even just asking about it. (I do feel that new-guard restaurants would not cut corners like this, but I guess that's just how it is.)

    7 Replies
    1. re: calf

      Bravo for the detail of your review! I am so glad you had a wonderful time. I have a business dinner next week at Bouley, and I will be re-reading your report to help me decide what to select from the menu. Thanks very much.

      1. re: calf

        I was going to write a review of the lunch I had at Bouley this past weekend, but no longer feel the need :P

        I would say, though, that at $55 I found the lunch prix fixe to be superior even to the 2-course, $38 affair offered at Jean George (which I also enjoyed and considered great value). We wanted to see whether we could replace a first-course selection with a second-course choice (we wanted to try the famed flan, the forager's treasure, and the black cod) and the only question directed back at us was "which one do you want to pair with the carpaccio"? No fuss whatsoever.

        I don't know which dish or dishes I would label as my favourite (we ordered the carpaccio, the flan, the seven mushrooms, the black cod, the salmon, the beef cheeks, the soufflé, and the pear, and were given the tomato coulis and kudzu crisp as amuses). I guess I'm most in awe of the fish preparation - I remember exclaiming that I've "never had cod like this".

        IMHO Bouley is a cut above most 1-star restaurants (the only 2-star in NY I've been is Marea, and I find it hard to compare those two), so either we give it another, or we need to drop a few from the current list...

        P.S. I find the gentleman serving us the large selection of house-baked bread to be quite interesting. He reminds me of the movie stereotype who cares deeply about his creations and who seems a little detached from other things around him. Not that he wasn't pleasant or conversant, but both my SO and I saw him looking a bit..."disengaged" at times as he maneuvers his cart around the dining room.

        1. re: kyph0515

          Sounds like I'll be trying the cod at Bouley on my next visit. Thanks for your detailed report. As others on this board know, I'm a big fan of Bouley, so I'm delighted to read favorable reports from others.

          1. re: kyph0515

            Thank you for an in depth review,clearly stated with nice description. I used to really love the old Bouley restaurant, the less formal Bouley Upstairs had delicious scallops and a great lobster dish. Danube was amazing, and the decor of the "new" Bouley reminds me of Danube. My meal at Bouley the present Bouley , was around the time they first opened. Nothing was memorable. The service was overly attentive, if not annoying at times. The dishes were just OK, the only memorable dish was the egg yolk dish that I was comped. I had to eat it because I was comped. The person eating with me loved that dish. I personally just do not like egg yolk , poached egg etc. So perhaps it was a good dish. But sad that ,it was the only dish I remember. I do however, love Bouley's Brushstroke. I should give Bouley another try, as maybe I went there too soon after the opening of it.
            The "less is more" description I do like. But I find Corton to be the opposite, they seem to put more and then more of things that don't go together. Thomas Keller on the other hand. The man is a genius of food. Perhaps the best meal I've ever had, was at the French Laundry. Every dish was amazing. Per Se,, I think is excellent, but The French Laundry is perfection.

            1. re: foodwhisperer

              foodwhisperer, I think you should give Bouley another try. I love the porcini/crab flan and the wild mushroom w/ grill toro dishes. Probably the best valued high-end lunch in town. Yes, the service is overly attentive and more "old school", but they treat solo diners (which I've done there) like royalty.

              I know from your previous posts that you're a fellow Tribeca/BPC resident, so it's an easy trip there, especially when they're open for lunch on Saturdays.

              I, too, think my meal at TFL was the best meal I've ever had, albeit having the extended tasting menu there makes me want to never want to go back to TFL/Per Se unless I broke the bank on that again.

              1. re: deepfry7

                I try Bouley again for sure. I do frequent Brushstroke.
                As far as TFL, I like to say, the French Laundry took me to the cleaners. Was over $1000 for 2 of us.

                1. re: foodwhisperer

                  Same here price-wise, but with Alinea @ EMP and EMP @ Alinea costing ~$600 each; and Masa and Joël Robuchon (Las Vegas) normally costing that much for a "regular" meal, excluding wine, I'd do it again at TFL. Or go to Per Se for their extended tasting menu.

        2. I love Bouley! Did you enjoy Kajitsu, I was thinking of going.