Photos in context are here: http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2013/03/...
My boyfriend and I have long had Bouley on our radar, but when we wanted to try a David Bouley restaurant, we went for his newer, Japanese kaiseki one, Brushstroke, and had a great experience. We’ve been trying to cover some new ground lately, though, and thought maybe it was time to pay respect to his eponymous restaurant that was so huge in the 80s and recently saw a facelift in the late 00s.
We booked dinner simply because we saw a reservation available on OpenTable, but as we looked into visiting, we wondered if we hadn’t made a very costly mistake. Dinner at Bouley is $175 for six courses, $280 with wine. Lunch is five courses for $55. So the darkness and that one extra course cost you $120. We thought about trying to switch to lunch. We thought about canceling our reservation completely after reading some of the unflattering reviews floating around the Internet. But we ultimately decided to go for the full dinner tasting menu and judge for ourselves, expectations appropriately set.
Bouley is opulent. It’s like a country home where everything has been coated in gold leaf. Heavy drapes, tall candles, fresh flowers everywhere. Wood, iron, vaulted ceilings. Bathrooms the size of most NYC apartments and laden with enough tapestry to dress every diner for life. Private dining rooms where every inch seems to be covered in red velvet. Even the picture frames are upholstered in purple velvet. And the foyer is lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of apples so that the room smells like an orchard.
• amuse: blue cheese foam, beets, pecans
Very beety, with plenty of blue cheese flavor and nutty sweetness.
• amuse: kuzu, black truffle, aligot
Japanese flatbread, truffle, potato and cheese sauce. Yes.
• fresh Malibu sea urchin terrine
On top of and inside this cold aspic (savory gelatin) was uni made extra sweet by broiling. The complex ocean flavor of this dish was balanced by the cream and caviar underneath.
• forager’s treasure of wild mushrooms, sweet garlic, special spices, grilled toro, black truffle dressing
If you knew me just a few years ago, the idea of my ordering an all-mushroom course would be hilarious to you. I remember being at Cafeteria in Chelsea one night on one of my first dates with my boyfriend and piling millimeter-long chips of mushroom from my risotto on one side of my bowl and hoping he wouldn’t notice. But ever since I had the wild mushroom salad with jalapeno puree at Momofuku Ko forced on me and found it one of the most unforgettable dishes of my life, I’ll give any mushroom a try.
These were sweet, a little spicy with something like cinnamon or nutmeg, and so umami with that Parmesan foam and black truffle. There were so many textures on the plate, including an entirely different one from the grilled tuna.
• bread service
The bread man with his cage full of fresh loaves came to our table and offered us slices of anything we wanted. The flavors were varied and interesting: saffron, sourdough, black currant, French onion. I loved how different and personal the service was.
• porcini flan, Alaska live dungeness crab, black truffle dashi
Our server described this as a chawanmushi, but all of the chawanmushis I’ve had have been thick, broth-less custards. This was more like a creamy crab soup with a broth flavored like yuzu and cardamom. They sure didn’t skimp on the crab, though.
• live Scottish langoustine, bay scallops, some sort of mango sauce
Sweet, with perfectly-cooked langoustine and scallops. The sauce was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. Maybe it could have been more spicy and salty for my taste, but it really let the natural flavors of the scallops and langoustine shine through.
• pistachio miso marinated fresh black cod
Flaky fish, smoky almond milk, and so much sweet ginger.
• Chatham day boat lobster, turnip, black truffle
Tender, buttery lobster with a crunchy black truffle julienne. I enjoyed the texture contrast between the slice of turnip on top and the puree underneath.
• Japanese true Kobe mille-feuille, toasted garlic, frisée, carrot, turmeric ($50 supplement)
We’ve had a lot of Kobe, a lot of Wagyu, and a lot of Kobe and Wagyu that were probably not actually Kobe and Wagyu, so we wanted to try this “true Kobe”. Just to be sure. We were both entirely underwhelmed. The point of eating a really good piece of beef for me is to cut through it and notice how tender it is, but with the way this was sliced so thin, any cut would have been tender. Although I liked the crunchy texture with the beef, the watery frisée completely diluted the taste of the Kobe. Having just had the much-better calotte de boeuf at Per Se last month, this was an unfortunate let-down, and one that came with a hefty price tag.
• organic Long Island duck, black Nevada dates, Hudson Valley organic hand milled polenta, Washington huckleberry
Delicious crispy skin aside, the star of this was the date “paper” spread on the bottom of the dish. When heated, it became like a sauce, and it formed such an interesting new flavor when eaten with the lima beans. I loved the black pepper chunks in the polenta and the buttery fingerling potatoes served on the side.
• white chocolate cloud, green tea foam
Light and fluffy on top, a little icy on the bottom, and milky throughout. When the server put this down, my boyfriend and I immediately went to work imagining how it was made, and when the woman next to us tried to ask her date the same thing, he said, “Let’s wait for our neighbors to figure it out.” Food nerds!
• tangerine, clementine, Mandarin parfait, lychee sorbet
This very sweet and lychee-ful sorbet made the accompanying fruits VERY tart. This was a complex dish that I secretly wanted to simplify by just eating a big, ol’ scoop of that delicious sorbet.
• chilled fall rhubarb soup, Santa Barbara organic strawberries, buckwheat gelato
Mmm, grain-flavored gelato. I wasn’t a huge fan of it on its own, but the creamy soup and strawberries (which were such a treat out of season) were so pleasant with it, and my boyfriend actually liked that it was like eating a field.
• tree ripened golden Hawaiian pineapple soufflé, pistachio melting core, 10 exotic flavor sorbet
Not a souffle in the molten cake sort of way but more like a meringue. “Pineapple egg foam”, we called it. So many things were good about this, from the warm pineapple chunks throughout to the sugar granules on the bottom to the unexpected pistachio core. The “10 exotic flavor sorbet” was really just two flavors for us: pineapple and yuzu. But it was very intense and delicious.
• hot Valrhona chocolate soufflé, white coffee cloud, coffee ice cream, chocolate mousse
This was the souffle I was expecting, with a liquid center and a little crunch to the exterior. I liked the semi-sweet mousse and the crumbled cookie crisp, but the coffee ice cream really made the dish.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Truthfully, the food at Bouley was only okay. It looks like it should have three Michelin stars, but it only has one, and the reviews about it wavering from delicious to just decent were spot-on. Date paper duck? Delicious. Kobe that should be pretty hard to not make amazing? Just decent. For the price, which is well above a lot of the better tasting menus in the city, I would either expect plenty of off-menu courses (think Eleven Madison Park, where you could almost make a meal of all of the amuses they bring you) or at the very least, much more complete courses; two langoustines and three bay scallops does not a complete dish make. This was the same complaint I had about the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, though, so perhaps the protein with very little else is just the mark of a really French-y restaurant.
And yet, we left Bouley talking about what a great time it was. Despite not loving all of the food, we loved the experience of eating here. The decor is completely different than in any other fine dining room we’ve seen in NYC–not modern and simple but full and almost flamboyant. When I asked the sommelier, who was excellent, if I could take photos of the bottles, he said, “You SHOULD!” The guy on the bread cart joked with us every time he wheeled by, while the more serious servers would slide the food down in front of us, rattle off the ingredients in their French accents, and turn on a dime to go back and stand in their corners. It didn’t feel stuffy here, just professional and special. Maybe I’m not dying to go back for the food, but the overall dinner was something I’ll talk about.