Here's the full text of a review of Cafe Boulud. For pictures, click over to the blog: http://thecollegecritics.com/2011/03/...
“You’re the youngest people here,” the woman says, leaning over to congratulate my brother and me on our fine taste in restaurants. Although no official census data on Café Boulud is forthcoming, we most certainly occupied the “youthful” end of Café Boulud’s demographic spectrum. Park Avenue dowagers and Wall Street doyens fill the room, nibbling at chef Gavin Kaysen’s carefully crafted food. The crowds tends towards the palimpsestic; a collection of ultra-wealthy grandparents and their furs. Strangely enough, Kaysen’s cuisine is not that of Le Cirque or La Grenouille—there is a playful vibrancy, if restrained, in the menu, which leaps between France and India with ease. Suitably refined for East Side palates, the food still feels young, a quality that undoubtedly appeals to a certain set of upper management types.
Rather than the stolid tasting menus of many New York restaurants that serve a fixed set of dishes to everyone, Café Boulud’s tasting menu changes for every diner. The kitchen spontaneously constructs a different meal for each individual, sending out smaller versions of dishes on the regular menu. For instance, my brother and I enjoyed 15 distinct tastes. This concept permits a single meal to cover kaleidoscopic culinary territory, traversing the entire menu with startling depth.
The meal starts with a trio of canapes. A single oyster hovers on a bed of crushed ice: cold, briny, and ordinary. In the next ceramic depression, a teaspoon of crab sits on celery root remoulade with whole grain mustard and a vivacious hunk of green apple gelée. Much less ordinary, this singular bite hints at Kaysen’s piercing culinary vision, an ability to construct precise compositions. Finally, a seared short rib dumpling in a soy-tinged, scallion spiked vinaigrette. Other than the far too tough dumpling skin—I had better for lunch at Wondee Siam V—the canape tastes fine, an acceptable but not particularly arousing opening note. Both the crab and the dumpling appear on the regular menu: order the former, but not the latter.
Next, two cold fish dishes: beet cured Scottish salmon and hamachi crudo. A plaque of rosy orange, the salmon looks like a fire opal and tastes like lox. Although the beets contribute an intriguing undertone of musky sweetness, the miniature forest of roasted beet pieces, horseradish, and orange peel brings little to the plate other than visual appeal. Better on a bagel with cream cheese than in a Daniel Boulud venture. Incorporating a bevy of Japanese ingredients, the hamachi crudo works better—the yellowtail’s distinctive pliable, meaty mouthfeel benefits from a crispy rice puff, a nutty smear of edamame, and a little vinegar. On a black slate tile, a line of togarashi stands out as violent red slash. Too spicy for the blushing fish flesh, the Japanese spice powder feels overthought and out-of-place.
After the appetizer comes soup. Sunchoke velouté, soft and dense, needs more vanilla oil to break up the tedium of homogeneous spoonful after spoonful. And a wild mushroom and farro soup tastes like a barely fancified version of a rustic staple. Of course, the farro soup hails from the “La Tradition” section of the menu. One does, however, expect more complexity and richness from a stock-based broth.
The pasta course proves more polarizing. Although sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi possess the ideal texture—almost insubstantial, like a melting mouthful of snow—red wine risotto is the night’s first true failure. Gritty and undercooked, the rice lacks the tumescence of properly prepared risotto. Instead of inhabiting that liminal space between fluid and solid, this dish suspends still solid rice in a thin, acerbic liquid. Even a sensational hunk of braised oxtail can’t rescue this bilious disaster.
Fortunately, the evening’s best dish followed the worst. Tandoori spiced Chatham Cod, slow baked until flaky, feels whimsical when paired with an undersized samosa. Filled with brandade, that samosa achieves the Platonic ideal of fusion cuisine, a seamless integration of disparate ingredients and technique, generating a product better than the its individual parts. With dabs of spiced squash and a geometrically perfect spinach subric, the cod speaks to Kaysen’s potential. A veteran of the Bocuse d’Or, Kaysen inflects pure technique with intense injections of creative energy. Yet, the cod’s partner, a piece of pan seared striped bass, illustrates Café Boulud’s primary problem. Served with cubes of transcendentally jellied pork belly, a dense white bean cassoulet, and a classic Bordelaise sauce, the bass tastes fine—too salty and soggy under the weight of so many heavy components, but nonetheless absolutely acceptable. In a French bistro in the West Village, this dish would satisfy hordes of young publishers and whatever tattooed pseudo-hobos wander cross-town. In an upscale French restaurant on the Upper East Side, this dish does satisfy hordes of old publishers and whatever tattoo-removed ex-hipsters (now reformed and working for blue chip firms) wander across the street. Cafë Boulud’s menu, however, is hopelessly fragmented between “La Tradition” (which includes this particular striped bass), “La Saison” (seasonal dishes), “La Potager” (anything inspired by the farmer’s market), and “La Voyage” (world cuisine). The restaurant feels like four different conceptual projects operating under one roof. Rather than a harmonious chorus though, this polyphony devolves into fatiguing noise. Moreover, the lack of focus damages the quality of each individual menu, detracting from the pursuit of perfection. Kaysen would be better off reframing Café Boulud as a coherent restaurant of one particular type, not a heteroglossic menagerie.
Despite the discombobulated menu structure, Kaysen and his team manage to put together artful, thoughtful plates. For example, a portion of New Zealand venison loin—gamey, not at all like the sterilized product often served in New York—needs its custardy, aerated sweet potato flan for a light counterpoint. Shallot confit and juniper berry sauce tie the starch and protein together, sketching a tranquil March glade strewn with winter detritus. Similarly, a shockingly sweet stack of rutabaga slices accompanies rib eye and braised short rib. Like a basso continuo that elevates and complicates the melodic line, the root vegetable is an integral component, not an addition for addition’s sake.
Pastry chef Noah Carroll outfinesses Kaysen—his baba au rhum tastes like a vaporous cloud of alcohol and vanilla. Topped with a crunchy slab of macadamia brittle, the baba seems in imminent danger of collapse—but withstands the pressure with an invisible strength. Acidic pineapple swims in rum sauce around the baba’s edge, a meteor storm of sparkling sour ice. In stark contrast, a weighty bar of butterscotch gateaux explores a darker range of dessert flavors. Sandwiched between a chocolate biscuit and bourbon glaze, the butterscotch gets a sprinkling of salt. Although salty desserts tend to make me thirsty (and regretful), the salt here accents the interface of caramel and cocoa. Marscapone cream and a mild brown sugar ice cream provide playful distractions from the main event: a reason to return repeatedly for yet another spoonful of gateaux.
Dinner concludes with a basket of madeleines, puffy, bronzed, and impeccably fluffy. Paired with a cup of coffee, the cookies extend the evening, dragging the culinarily comatose through a dreamland of Parisian fog and New York puddles. I’ll skip the Proust reference. (Paralipsis much?)
While Café Boulud offers diners an escapist tour across the known culinary universe, serious mistakes plague an otherwise pleasing menu. More importantly, age and class boundaries inform the Café Boulud experience—for younger, supposedly less experienced diners, Café Boulud (and its patrons) affect a certain attitude of condescension. Surprisingly, Café Boulud is not an opulent palace of gastronomy—the banal carpet and spackling of modern art feel more dentist’s office than luxury den. A place becomes that which is imagined, however, and Café Boulud is exclusive by virtue of attitude, not reality. Pleasant and sometimes pleasurable, Café Boulud is an interesting experience for those not initiated into a certain social circle. Feeling young and being young are not mutually exclusive—but my return to Café Boulud is delayed until I am old but want to eat young.
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