Following on from the ‘Breakfast in New York‘ post, is a lunch at the 1Michelin starred Bouley in the TriBeCa area of South Manhattan. Bouley is the mothership of the burgeoning empire of American chef David Bouley, who has had several restaurants in the area since 1987, including the 2Michelin starred, Bouley Bakery.
The food at his eponymous eatery is based in western European cuisine, heavily influenced from his days training under such luminaries as: Joël Robuchon; Frédy Girardet; Roger Vergé & Paul Bocuse. The restaurant itself very much sets the tone for a fine dining experience (which according to some, is dead).
We arrived far too early for our table at lunchtime, be decided it wouldn’t be too much of a problem as we could sit in the lounge, have a cocktail and discuss some of our remaining trip in New York. On entering Bouley we were greeted by a lady & gentleman in smart attire, in a room stocked with shelves upon shelves of shiny apples.
After we checked our coats, we moved through to the lounge where we confirmed our reservation & made our apologies for being so early. Not a problem said the hostess, would you like a drink while you wait? handing us the cocktail & wine list. I do like that restaurants are now expanding their repertoires of drinks from the usual gin & tonics, at Bouley they have a range of signature cocktails inspired by the seasons it seems. Whilst the wife had a cheeky Sauvignon blanc, I opted for a Green gin, a cocktail which is clearly an expression of the on coming Spring. Made from tarragon, gin, apple juice and asparagus, it really was a triumph, the delicate layering of flavours and combination of the botanicals of the spirit really were an excellent prelude to any meal.
As our original booking time approached, we were gently ushered through to the main dining room. For those which have been heralding the demise of fine dining and all that it encompasses, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The room is a swath of opulence: crisp linen; Riedel glassware; a small army of waiters; polished cutlery, crockery & cruites and a bread sommelier (yes, a waiter who only looks after the bread trolley).
We sat at a table in the corner by the French windows & banquette seating, where we were given the lunch tasting menu. At $55 (plus tax & tip) it is up there with probably one of the best value 1Michelin star eateries in New York. There is a choice at every stage of your meal, with the exception of pre-starter, yes even pre-dessert has a choice. Some of the choices do come with supplements, such as the Lamb main course, which was $25 and the cheese ($21), but you still get a good and varied choice.
The pre-starter arrived in due course, when I was informed what was in front of me, I had to say it had my interest peaked. The list of component parts just sounded like a car crash; yes, some would work together, but as an entity I was skeptical. Whilst not entirely a triumph, predominantly due to the so unnecessary white truffle oil, I was pleasantly surprised. The toasted pulse dentelle provided some texture which juxtaposed the light airiness of the espuma, which in turn wasn’t too overwhelming for either of the lobster or goat’s cheese.
Next a couple of bread rolls arrived at our table, which had me confused, as I’d been watching a bread trolley winding its way around the dining room. The Chef – Patron, David Bouley, made his name by achieving 2Michelin stars with a restaurant called Bouley Bakery, so he must have been distraught by the average offerings we received.
The rustic effect & flavours were disappointing for a restaurant of Bouley’s calibre; infact I’d go so far as to say amateurish. The dough was too tight, flavourings whilst present were either clumsy or left wanting.This coupled with a burnt base on the Apple & Golden Sultana roll just summed up the lack of attention.
Not long after we’d finished our pre-starter, then the next course arrived.
It isn’t very often that I get dish envy (when you look at somebody else’s dish, & wish you’d ordered that instead of what you actual did), but my wife’s starter of smoked salmon blinis came close. Normally I’d steer clear of such classics, instead looking for a dish which will demonstrate flair & imagination.
The smoked salmon blinis did this in such an understated manner. The blinis were made from dehydrated clouds of green apples, resulting in a fine almost polystyrene look, which dissolved the moment they touch your tongue. Flavouring was intense, yet harmonising the creme fraiche & and luxurious salmon. Sadly the white truffle honey looked to be missing, yet didn’t seem to be such a loss.
My choice of the big eye tuna with green apples, bergamot & caviar did seem a less technically difficult dish, but was no less accomplished. The apples took the form of a delicate foam, whose lightness defied all the odds to support the oily tuna & salty caviar. The bergamot took the form of an oil, which had been casually dribbled over the dish, it really did just edge an extra dimension to an already outstanding dish.
Prior to our intermediate course, the ‘Bread sommelier’ arrived at our table, proudly proclaiming that all the breads were baked in house. At this level, you’d bloody well hope so, I thought.
On more than one occasion, I’ve referred to a quote attributed to former 3Michelin starred chef, Pierre Koffmann, about serving good bread etc. This stems from the fact that I ate at La Tante Claire, & they had a bread trolley. It was fabulous; differing styles, shapes, flavours, techniques and bakes all on show, Bouley’s trolley isn’t that & falls some way short if you’re going to make a song and dance about it. Effectively it was Brioche, Sourdough, flavoured whites & browns, which to my mind showed any lack of imagination in developing a varied offering.
After the bread trolley had moved on to pastures new, our next course arrived.
The next two dishes were the ying & yang of this meal. I tweeted about how sometimes chefs seem to forget about the customer who actually has to eat the fruits of their labour:
It seems chefs rarely think about the logistics of actually eating their wonderful creations.
My wife’s organic egg with steamed polenta, Serrano ham, atichoke, sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and a coconut garlic broth, was a case in point. Whilst the dish was rich and unctuous, it really did lack any form of texture. But what really sealed this as a poorly thought through dish, was that my wife was given a fork & spoon to eat the several slices of cured ham at the bottom of the bowl.
The black cod I had on the other hand was exciting, balanced & vibrant. The kumquat puree sliced delicately through the richness of the smoked organic farm milk & pistachio, to give that added dimension of seasoning to the fish. But it did leave me wondering how two completely different dishes, with such polar opposites of standards, have come from the same kitchen?
On the surface of it, my wife yet again seemed to get the better deal in terms of dishes chosen. Her braised beef cheeks were declared a triumph, and I had to concur. It even surpassed the excellent dish I’d eaten at Pollen Street Social a couple of years ago. The rich yet refined sauce wasn’t too overwhelming, instead helping tie the kale & gnocchi in the dish together.
My duck breast on the other hand, looked a paltry portion. Essentially half a breast in the middle of the plate, with the now ubiquitous drag/drop/smear of puree. But looks can be deceiving, under the roasted breast was a concoction of duck ham and thinly sliced dates. Whilst fruit & duck have always been great bed fellows, this was exceptional, yes, to my mind the duck was a touch over cooked, but as a combination of flavours & textures it really did sing.
I should take some time at this point in the proceedings to mention the staff at Bouley. They are an absolute delight to deal with, professional, courteous and excellent judges of a mood at any given moment, effortlessly going about their business in the full dining room. Nothing was too much effort, even when faced by a slight curve ball in an odd dietary requirement.
Next was our respective choices of pre-dessert.
As far as pre-desserts go, this, I think it is the first time that I’ve ever been able to choose, which one to have. Normally a device for revitalising jaded or flagging palates, and generally buying the pastry chef some time, a pre-dessert has now become de-rigeur in terms of tasting menus.
Bouley offers a choice of two at lunch time, both of which were hard to separate, so we had one of each. The wife’s organic strawberries had been lightly poached in their own liquor and served on a frozen plate, with the amaretto ice cream. It really was as simple as that, they didn’t need to over complicate it and the ice cream again showed what the kitchen was capable of, when it actually thought about its dishes.
My pre-dessert was a slight deviation from the menu as there was uncertainty over which ten fruits were in the ’10 exotic fruit sorbet’. Instead a pineapple substitute was found, but when the dish arrived it was nowhere to be seen. Cleverly, the pastry team had shaped the amaretto ice cream around the sorbet, again displaying real deft touches. As pre-desserts go, it was quite accomplished, the unexpected combination of flavours in amaretto & pineapple, coupled with contrasting textures in ice cream & granite.
Sadly, these were preludes to our last course, dessert.
Yet again, even on a bargain priced menu there are good choices to be had for dessert, even avoiding the steep $21 supplement for the cheese option. Again, the wife & I went our separate ways, she opted for the ‘Hot caramelised Anjou pear’, while I went for the ‘Hot Valrhona chocolate souffle’
Both desserts were a satisfactory end to a lengthy lunch, the wife’s caramelised pear was a nod towards the French classic tarte Tatin, but we couldn’t quite work out why the ice cream was separate, and had the inclusion of grape juice.
My Valrhona chocolate souffle did seem somewhat of a let down; instead of the towering, light as a cloud, vision I was expecting. I got a hot chocolate fondant/molten cake with a liquid center; a souffle it is not. Yes,the coffee bean ice cream & quenelle of rich chocolate mousse were all very good, & complimented the half cooked sponge very well, but then again you’d be hard pressed to really mess with classic combinations like this.
Bouley’s $55 lunch tasting menu is great value and it’s a slick operation. To those that have proclaimed over recent months that fine dining is dead, you’re wrong. Places like Bouley are a great way spend 3 hours of your life, being looked after & fed good food. Yes, there are minor blemishes which slightly tarnish a once 2Michelin star reputation, but would I go again? Of course.
The asparagus cocktail, despite the wait, was exceptional, and I looked out for similar drinks during my time in NYC. The food is dairy heavy in places & rich with it, yet even with little influences from the el bulli train of thought peeking through, the food remains poised & identifiable. Some would claim that it’s old school, but really, when does opulence and decadence go out of fashion as a treat? Yes, I understand it isn’t everyday dining, and food like this shouldn’t be, but as a complete overall package, Bouley is be one of those places you can go to be pampered, and enjoy it.