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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).
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".