Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Cafe Boulud, New York NY
There is a part of my food ramblings that will unfortunately remain lost in the void – a handful of meals from a work-related trip to New York that are annotated and photographed but of which my memory has faded over the course of 5 months of work and trips to Paris, Boston, and Chicago. While it is somewhat unfortunate that these experiences will not be documented with my standard breadth of detail considering all were good and some were great, it is what it is and the most vivid memories still shine through. For the third of these meals, I give you Café Boulud – by far the longest, most complex, and most delicious of the group yet the one during which I took the least notes as I was dining with friends; friends who were admittedly known to both the front of the house and Chef Gavin Kaysen.
Having already acknowledged my shortcomings in annotation I will first note that what I can and do recall of the meal was first the setting – with an early reservation made by Roz and Michael and my arrival preceding theirs by a good twenty minutes the front of the house could not have been nicer in offering me a seat at the bar or instead a seat at the table, the later which I accepted, and providing me not only a copy of Food & Wine to read while I waited but also a complimentary artisan Planter’s Punch with notes of pineapple, cinnamon, and nutmeg – a punch that may have been “one too many” when added to Boulud’s signature house Champagne also provided on the house when my companions arrived.
With the restaurant located in the former Daniel space at The Surrey amongst the museums and million dollar apartments of the Upper East Side the dining room has a distinctive feel from that of Daniel – smaller and a bit less formal, classy without being opulent, and with both seating and service more befitting an upscale café than a glamorous five star meal – yet at the same time a number of similarities including the splashy art, well-heeled clientele, circular lighting fixtures, and of course the world class cuisine which instead of simply utilizing techniques from around the world instead opts to literally divide the menu by technique and location into 5 sections; Daily Market, Classic, International, Seasonal, and Vegetable.
With Chef Kaysen greeting us tableside as we sipped our champagne I figured deferring to my friends would be the better part of valor and much like their previous visit to the restaurant they opted to place our night in the hands of the Chef with a couple of specific requests to which Gavin was happy to oblige. A humble man who seemed to politely quash all comments about his talents instead preferring to discuss his children, wife, and opportunity to meet with Paul Bocuse who was in town along with many other chefs to honor Thomas Keller at Per Se there was something immensely likable about Chef Kaysen almost immediately and I quickly understood Roz and Michael’s fondness for the restaurant – and all this before a single bite even touched the table.
With Gavin now returning to the kitchen and the restaurant filling to perhaps 3/4 capacity our server stopped by briefly to discuss beverages with our trio and with one opting for wine pairings while I’d already had more than my limit things were underway with a trio of amuses (note, no menu was ever presented until we requested one as a keepsake at the end of the evening) including a Blue Point Oyster with Lemon and red onion, Octopus Carpaccio with Olive, Romesco and Watercress, and finally a Rice Croquette with aged cheese and breadcrumbs – all tasty, each presenting a different texture and diverse flavor profile to open the palate for things to come.
With amuses finished the next man to arrive tableside was the bread man – a dangerous fellow indeed given the diversity and quality of his wares, each still warm from the oven and paired with the same smooth and salty cow’s milk butter served at Chef Boulud’s flagship. Never one to skimp on the carbs I can say without a doubt that Café Boulud ranks alongside Bouley as the best bread services I’ve experienced in the Big Apple and their servers rank amongst the most generous the young man kept my plate filled with Pumpkin seed sesame, Olive wheat, raisin walnut, French baguette, and sourdough throughout the evening.
Moving on to our first course I’ll once again state here that my memories are fuzzy, especially as each diner was served a different plate for each of the first four courses plus dessert, but what I can remember is that all but one dish was impressive while many bordered on outstanding and a few crossed the threshold to perfection. Beginning with the first course then, the ‘salad’ course if you will, the three plates were as follows: #1) Maine Lobster Salad - Sugar Snap Peas, Preserved Lemon, Pearl Onions plus lobster fritter and cilantro mayo, #2) Ahi Tuna Niçoise - Haricot Vert, Romaine Lettuce, Quail Egg, #3) Adobo Marinated Scallops - Pineapple, Red Onion, Jalapeno, Scallions – and with a much plate passing involved we were each able to taste all three with only the scallops falling short as the heat of the pepper and adobo spices simply overwhelmed the mollusk leaving behind while the other two showed great balance, particularly the sweet lobster salad.
Moving next (after more bread, I’m sure) to the “soup” course would be the moment I first realized what Chef Kaysen was capable of as three different plates arrived, each referencing a different style, place, and part of the menu; and each absolutely superb. First sourcing the International theme of Mexican, then French Tradition, and finally the Daily Market plates #1) Traditional Pozole Soup - White Hominy, Pork Shoulder, Guajillo, #2 Asperges Blanches Gratinée - Hen Egg, Sauce Béarnaise, Frisée, #3) Warm Pea Soup with onion ravioli, pea tendrils, olive oil showed a skill set not often seen in a restaurant with each of the varying styles showing great poise and using savory to balance sweet, vegetal to tame heavy, and unique textures such as the partially crisped hen egg or toothsome hominy to throw a curveball into the otherwise creamy presentations.
Moving on to the pasta course I’ll note that one of my dining partners made a special request based on a meal at Café Boulud during which famed blogger theulteriorepicure enjoyed his “best dish” of 2010 and without hesitation Gavin was glad to send out #1) Spaghetti Nero - Bouchot Mussels, Prawns, Baby Squid, Fra Diavolo along with #2) Housemade Cavatelli - Braised Pork Ragoût, Roasted Eggplant, Shaved Pecorino and #3) Spring Green Risotto - Crispy Frog Legs, Watercress, Ramps. Obviously paying close attention to the spaghetti given the praise I have to admit it was an outstanding dish with the varying textures of the seafood all sharing the spotlight with flawless al dente pasta and the perfect amount of semi-sweet sauce clinging to each morsel. Not to be outdone, the thick Cavatelli were nearly gnocchi-esque in their density but with the hollow interior more than capable of soaking up plenty of the smoky ragout and smooth eggplant while the risotto was nicely prepared and eerily similar in both texture and flavor to that at Rouge Tomate earlier that afternoon, but this time with a crispy frog leg providing the textural component and it’s characteristic saline tones.
For the fish course we would once again see the Classic, Market, and Mexican presentation with the classic actually a dish harkening back to the days when Daniel inhabited the space. With the dishes presented as #1) Striped Bass en Paupiette - Pomme Purée, Baby Leeks, Sauce Meurette, #2) Slow Baked Branzino - Carrot Ginger Purée, Shitake Mushrooms, Scallions, Miso Emulsion, and #3) Chili Spiced Monkfish - Black Beans, Cilantro, Chimichurri, Housemade Tamale this trio once again showed Kaysen’s deft hand with globe-trotting flavor profiles and while the classic Bass was quite impressive with the crisp potato skin and flaky fish nicely complimented by the rings of sauces and purees it was actually my least favorite of the trio largely because one featured my favorite fish, Branzino, paired with a beautiful assortment of Asian inspired flavors that brought out many of the fish’s sweeter tones while the other did something I’d have never expected with Monkfish and made it spicy without losing a bit of it’s buttery undertones while also delivering a Tamale with sweet corn and pork that was as good as any ever to grace my palate.
For our final savory of the evening the courses would finally converge (on our request) with the lone item served being the Roasted Duck Breast with Venere Rice, Spring Radishes, Red Beets, and Natural Jus, a competent version of the fowl to be sure but overwhelmed in “wow” factor by the toothsome and fragrant black rice whose nutty undertones balanced perfectly with the spicy radishes and tender beets.
Asked next if we should like to enjoy some cheese before desserts the answer was “of course,” and given the 9:00pm hour the lights went down as the board arrived. With five cheeses served, 2 cow, 2 goat, and one sheep per my recollection I’ll admit that without my notes here I’m at a loss for names, but I do recall the blue to be excellent, particularly with the toasted cranberry pecan toast and accoutrements including poached cherries, honey brittle, and salad with a light vinaigrette.
With cheese blocks cleared and my companions getting full three desserts would arrive and having seen one that particularly interested me on the online menu my inquiry led to a fourth on the house. Again traversing the globe the plates arriving included #1) Rum Glazed Bananas - Milk Chocolate Crémeux, Smoked Cinnamon Anglaise, Hibiscus Sorbet, #2) Basil Poached Mango - Coconut Mousse, Passion Curd, Pina Colada Sorbet, Basil Caviar, #3) Dark Chocolate Mousse with Pistachio Cremeux, Chocolate Sable, Pistachio Ice Cream, and by request #4) Baba au Rhum - Poached Pineapple, Macadamia Brittle, Vanilla Ice Cream – each larger than expected – and all but the mango right up my alley with ornate presentations and delicious complex flavors abound, particularly the wheel of caramelized boozy bananas atop creamy chocolate and the dense baba finished tableside with aged rum carrying a crunchy tropical shell atop its rounded base.
With desserts being enjoyed slowly coffee and warm Madelines would arrive next from the kitchen and just like Daniel the fluffy lemon kissed cookies were textbook while deep rich notes of La Colombe led to at least three refills before the night was over.
With Gavin again stopping by to see how we’d enjoyed everything and praises flowing from our lips the last bites to arrive were in the form of seven mignardises; a true embarrassment of riches with a Vanilla Macaron, Chocolate covered pistachio marshmallow, tangerine pate a fruit, lemon meringue, cannelle, caramel tarte, and pineapple financier all quite good – particularly the caramel almond tarte which roused memories of pecan pie and the Vanilla Macaron every bit as good as those at La Maison du Chocolat.
With a great meal now behind us and Gavin again thanking us and signing copies of the night’s menu before returning to the kitchen we sat as a group for a while chatting before making our way to the door where coats were collected and thanks were provided both ways for such a lovely evening – an evening that nearly 5 months later still resonates with me and makes me wonder just what Michelin is thinking by giving Kaysen only one star when the food – supposedly the only thing that Michelin judges when awarding stars – is every bit as good as Boulud’s Three-Star flagship.