Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bouley, New York NY

I’ll admit I was skeptical – I’d heard negative comments from a pair of trusted palates that the restaurant was old and tired – a relic resting on past glory despite the new location and positive reviews from Bruni and Michelin – it was actually these comments that had kept the Bouley off my agenda on previous visits to Manhattan. With that noted, aside from the aforementioned thoughts there were others that urged me to go – another trusted gourmand and also my dining partner from the night before at Corton who considers it one of her very favorite restaurants in the city. Exploring the rumor that Chef Bouley was back in the kitchen and everything was firing on all cylinders a quick e-mail only days before my departure for New York confirmed that the Chef would indeed be there for Saturday lunch service and that although they were full for later seatings a table for one could certainly be accommodated if a 12:45 reservation would suffice.

With meetings out of the way and a quick stop at Bloomingdales my walk south would be brisk – the sun was out for what seemed like the first time in months and being just before noon the streets were bustling…the scene was everything I love about New York (save for the odd folks dressed as Elmo.) Making good time and arriving at the easily missed location just before 12:30 I entered a foyer almost too grand to be true – hundreds of fresh apples lining one wall, hundreds of ornate flowers lining the other – the smell intoxicating. Greeted by the hostess my reservation was confirmed and I was told my table was being readied if I’d like to take a seat and wait; it would be a mere 5 minutes before I was led through the dining room to my two top in the back – every other table in the restaurant full.

With a heavily padded chair that could have likely supported two beneath me and thickly linened table, flowers, and silver before me the scene at Bouley is certainly one to behold – it is beautiful and the floral patterns dominating the room from chandelier to wallpaper to floor strike a safe balance between ornate and ostentatious, no small feat. Opting for iced water and against wine I would next be greeted by my server, a man named Marcellin who would not only provide his contact information at the end of the meal, but would also lead one of the top five service teams I’ve experienced in Manhattan – to say the least I was never left wanting for anything. With the menu presented and my selections from the 4-course prix fixe confirmed along with an added supplement I asked to make sure photos were allowed…what followed, in my opinion, was near perfection.

Kicking things off, the amuse for the afternoon would be a Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Ricotta Cheese and Roasted Chestnuts – a creamy potage balancing the natural sweetness of the pumpkin with the mellow ricotta and smoky chestnuts. Tasty albeit somewhat conventional the portion was surprisingly large for an amuse – I’ve certainly received smaller “cups” of soup at a number of restaurants.

Following the soup one of the most impressive bread services I’ve experienced in a restaurant began – I guess it doesn’t hurt to have your own bakery. Beginning first with an apple raisin roll and flaxseed baguette that were offered as a warm pair to every table, the rest of the meal would be a revolving door of flavors that changed nearly every time the friendly and gracious bread man passed through the room. With a semi-sweet butter and fine sea salt on the table the selections I remember out of the dozen offered included Black Currant-Anise, Walnut Saffron, Fig, Olive, Pistachio, Garlic Focaccia, Miche, and a warm Brioche. Needless to say I sampled a few too many.

Beginning the 5-course (or so I thought) $45 prix fixe my first course would be Carpaccio of Kampachi, Young Big Eye Tuna, and Striped Amber Jack ‘prepared in a Mediterranean manner.’ A substantial portion of high quality ceviche-style fish paired with unseasonably bold tomatoes and an array of microgreens with a mild dusting of salt and black pepper the course was dazzling both visually and texturally – an appropriately delicate way to begin the meal.

Following the fish there would be a bit of a delay – twenty minutes perhaps – but the time went rather quickly between the bread and conversing with my captain; plus what would come next was every bit worth the wait. Described as a “gift” from Chef Bouley – a gift I saw no other table receive – Sea Urchin Terrine with Golden Osetra Caviar and Vodka Crème Fraiche would prove to be quite present indeed. Served as two fresh tongues of uni – one raw and the other encased in a gelatin block tasting like the essence of the sea the dish was anchored in a bitter yet tangy cream amplified by small dots of briny caviar and basil oil. While admittedly homogenous in texture, the flavor of the dish was anything but – at times sweet and at others savory it was just a beautifully executed composition.

With little delay following my wowed response to the terrine, the next dish to emerge from the kitchen was another gift – this time Sauteed John Dory with sweet peas, celery root puree, and black Truffle Sauce. Featuring my favorite fish there was little chance for this dish to fail, though I must note it was not as impressive as the uni. Flaky and sweet the St Pierre itself was quite tasty – clearly sautéed in butter and all the better for it. Where the dish missed for me, however, was actually the black truffle sauce which although good was so potent with the nose of truffle that it overwhelmed the delicate fish and celery root.

Returning to the prix fixe, my next course would be perhaps Bouley’s most famous at the current location; Porcini Flan, Alaska Live Dungeness Crab, Black Truffle Dashi. Served in a small dish and uncovered tableside with a bit of steam and plenty of earthy aromatics greeting the nose the first thing to note about the dish is that it tastes much better than it looks. Clearly Asian in influence the heady dashi dotted with large chunks of crab is lovely – it makes the dish despite getting second billing in the title. Digging deeper, to the bottom, the creamy custard greets the palate with earthy tones – a sort of balance to the savoriness above – and when mixed thoroughly the amalgam simply “works.”

The followup to the flan was ordered a la carte in addition to the prix fixe – though I will admit it did not appear on my bill at the end of the afternoon. Never one to pass up an egg dish or polenta the Organic Connecticut Farm Egg, Serrano Ham, Steamed Polenta, Artichoke, Sunchoke, Coconut Garlic Broth dish was an obvious choice and perhaps my favorite course of the meal. With the cured ham actually served in four strips cupping the egg the breakfasty aspect of the dish was spot on and melded nicely with the substantially buttery polenta. Adding nuance, crispy artichoke and shaved parmesan plus one of the most unique “broths” I’ve ever experienced – on one hand milky and sweet but on the other potent with garlic.

When Marcellin arrived to collect my empty plate and asked how it was I merely pointed – I’d admittedly wiped it clean with some miche. With a smile he said “good, the chef is making up something special for you to try” and true to his word the next dish was another gift – another egg. Presented on a similar plate to the first, Scrambled Connecticut Farm Egg, Black truffle, Mascarpone, and Comte was not nearly as complicated as its predecessor, but was every bit as good. With the egg itself whipped with black truffles and mascarpone to form an aromatic cloud of flavor, the dish was topped tableside with grated 24 month aged compte – a decidedly luxurious touch.

Once again returning to the prix fixe – course three (or eight counting the amuse – but who is counting, right) was Organic Long Island Duck Roasted with White Truffle Honey, Vermont Chanterelles, Pencil Asparagus, Porcini Puree and a side of buttered pommes puree. Beginning with the mashed potatoes – they aren’t Robuchon – a tad more texture – but they aren’t too far off. Moving on to the duck – rosy on the inside and bronzed on the exterior the flavor was quite excellent – sweet and supple, but unfortunately not fatty or crispy enough on the exterior to rival the fowl at Eleven Madison Park or Corton. Certainly a competent dish and again impressive in portion I’ll note the accompanying vegetables and fungi were quite nicely prepared – tender and flavorful, nicely paired with the earthy mushroom sauce and sweet foam.

Rather full at this point the next course would be the only fixed option on the prix fixe – a transition from the savory to the sweet in the form of Chilled Coconut Soup with Pineapple Granite and Organic Yogurt Sorbet. Interestingly tasty and tropical much like the palate cleansers at Eleven Madison Park and Corton the day before I actually enjoyed this dish better than either of them – the pineapple was exceedingly sweet and juicy, the coconut quite restrained, and the sorbet tangy and smooth. With the added crunch of crumbled macadamia nuts this dish was more Hawaii than New York and more summer than February, but it was also delicious and light.

For my final course of the afternoon – well, it was anything but light. Loved by some and loathed by others, Chocolate Frivilous with Chocolate Brulee, Chocolate Parfait, Hazelnut Dacquoise, Chocolate Walnut Spice Bread, White Coffee Ice Cream, Prune Armagnac Ice Cream is certainly a plate to behold – if I had to guess I’d say the composition of six desserts easily weighs a pound or more. Arranged randomly and not all that attractively with the ice-cream starting to melt on arrival, this mixed bag of varying tastes and textures was largely a success with the chocolate flavors running the gamut though interestingly it would be the non-chocolate options that appealed most. A solid ending to a great meal I can’t say I loved it – but I didn’t loath it either.

As a final treat before my departure, a tower silver tower of mignardises was delivered with the check – shockingly only $45 + $4 coffee (a mellow cocoa accented blend.) Featuring White Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Rum balls, sesame cookies, almond tuilles, vanilla chocolate shortbreads, coconut cookies, and strawberry macarons the macarons were absolutely textbook while the sesame and coconut cookies were disappointingly dry and the rest good but unmemorable. With bill paid, including a substantial tip, I thanked Marcellin and his crew for a fantastic afternoon and made my way to the door with a requested copy of the menu in hand to collect my coat – plus one last gift, a nearly one pound loaf of maple cornbread.

To this moment I cannot imagine why I was treated so well at Bouley – no special requests were made, I was dressed no better than anyone else in the restaurant, and aside from my e-mail inquiring whether photos were allowed and if Chef Bouley would be cooking on Saturday my reservation was no different than any other. A substantial bargain for amuse/five courses/mignardises my meal turned out to be so much more – not only was it amuses and mignardises plus nine course and a delectable gift to take home for myself and my friends, it was also an experience I will always remember and to this date the best lunch of my life – a meal so good that I’m tempted to go back on my upcoming March visit to the Big Apple with my only reluctance being that it seems impossible Bouley could repeat such magic.


Jason said...

if you email them from your blog's email address--or one affiliated with your blog they're going to know that you're a blogger, and vip you potentially? that would be my guess

uhockey said...

Good point - but I don't. Maybe I should start. :)

ellenost said...

Wonderful review and gorgeous photos! I've never had the scrammbled egg dish (next time maybe I can go with you to Bouley, and maybe they'll serve that dish; it looks lovely). So glad that you had a great time!

uhockey said...

I contest you tipped them off, Ellen - its the only explanation I can guess.

ellenost said...

Wish I could take the credit (or partial credit) for your wonderful lunch, but I can't. You had a wonderful time all on your own! I'm delighted to read that one doesn't need to be a long-time patron to be treated well at Bouley.

Bonnie said...

Fantastic review, and it brings back wonderful memories of my own.

I am happy to confirm that I received similar treatment when I visited Bouley last summer. Polite but friendly service, delicious food, and multiple little extras (I also received the uni dish that you did, and almost swooned).

How on earth did you manage to finish your entire meal, with the extra-extra course that you ordered too?

I was also dining alone, so that's a common theme in our experience (maybe they're really nice to single diners?). But I am hopeful that this is an example of their service that is repeated no matter what.

uhockey said...

I think they're just excellent at "reading" a diner. They know if you're interested, or if you're merely there expense accounting it.