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Report: Cafe Boulud, Nobu and Gotham (long)

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Report: Cafe Boulud, Nobu and Gotham (long)

docsconz | Apr 5, 2003 11:34 AM

This board is a great forum for following the city’s trends and special places. I had earlier posted an enquiry re: Chanterelle vs. Babbo and had some thoughtful responses. More on that later.

My wife and I just returned from a brief, but delightful food foray into NYC. I was supposed to be in China, but didn’t go due to a last-minute illness (better before than after!) from which I recovered. We like to get down from upstate NY when we can to enjoy some of the finer culinary bon mots the city has to offer, so with some free time we decided to come down for a spontaneous brief excursion.

We drove into the city Thursday morning for a tour of the Velasquez/Manet exhibit at the Met – outstanding show. Afterwards, we had lunch at Café Boulud. This was our first visit to this restaurant, although we have previously enjoyed Daniel and DB Bistro. The space was elegant, but restrained – not particularly noteworthy, but also not a distraction. We opted for the prix fixe lunch. My wife started with a creamy chilled asparagus soup with marinated maine crab and Japanese citrus. I began with a tatine of grilled Spanish sardines. These were lightly grilled and served on a bed of roasted peppers, tapenade and toast points with a provencal vinaigrette. The sardines, extremely fresh and not in the least “fishy”, were complemented perfectly by the sweet peppers. The dish was exactly what I was hoping for with fresh sardines. My wife and I both had the same main course – roasted atlantic codfish with tiny potatoes, fava beans, watercress and blood orange sauce. This dish was killer – a true “wow”. It was a perfect blend of textures (soft and crisp) and balance (sweet, salt, acid and bitter) with great flavors. This was the best dish of our entire visit and one of the finest fish dishes I’ve ever had. Dessert ws very good, but not quite at the same level. It was a savarin of braised fruits and crème chantilly. The service was professional and invisible. Overall a marvelous experience.

Nobu was the restaurant I hadn’t been to in the city that I most wanted to go to. I tried to make reservations for Thursday evening, but couldn’t get them myself, so made a lunch reservation for Friday. My next choices were Chanterelle and Babbo. I was put on the wait list at Chanterelle, but could not get a reservation at Babbo. I did manage to get a reservation at Gotham Bar & Grill. Wednesday, a good friend in the business managed to get us a table at Nobu for Thursday evening after all. I then exchanged lunch/dinner reservations with Gotham. Wednesday evening I got a call from Karen Waltuck at Chanterelle offering us a table at our preferred time. She was extremely gracious. I thanked her, but explained that we hadn’t been to Nobu, but managed to secure a reservation and would be dining there. She was pleased that we would at least be in the neighborhood. I very much appreciate the personal touch from an owner and/or chef. This very much reinforced my desire to return there in the future.

We checked into our hotel – 60 Thompson- Thursday afternoon and walked around SoHo before heading over to Nobu for dinner. On arrival, I was slightly disappointed that the space was not as interesting or as elegant as I expected. It seemed to be a fairly typical, trendy, loud NYC restaurant without an overwhelming character (I did not really like the birch umbrellas and I live in the Adirondacks and have birch bark in my home) Nevertheless we were seated at a well-situated table for two and started with a couple of great martinis – I had the lychee martini, which had nice lychee flavor without being too sweet. We had already decided to go omakase. Our waiter came and explained that there are three levels of omakase - $80, 100 and 120. He recommended that as first timers we go with the $80 or $100 choice. When asked he could not say what would be different about the selections other than the chefs have increasing free rein on the exoticness and underlying ingredient value with the different levels. We took his advice and ordered the $100 omakase and sake to go with it.
The meal started with a bang –toro tartare swimming in a broth of soy and spicy wasabe. This was delicious and served with a small, red Japanese peach as a palate cleanser. The next course, my favorite, was a stunner. It was new style sashimi – Japanese red snapper over shiso leaf. What a fabulous combination! The next course was my wife’s favorite – sashimi salad with kampeche (sp?) and pressed smelt roe. I thought it was ok, but nothing special. This was followed by lobster tempura with creamy spicy sauce. It was a generous serving and while tasty, it wasn’t fabulous. The next course was a Nobu signature dish of broiled marinated black cod with seared foie gras and grilled Japanese eggplant. The eggplant was my favorite part of the dish, which is ironic given that I love foie gras and generally don’t eggplant. The cod itself was too sweet. I would not order this dish off the menu. We were next served miso soup along with five pieces of sushi: chu toro, live fluke, Tasmanian trout, kisu (my favorite) and surf clam. We were advised to drink the soup as we ate the sushi. It was interesting and good, but once again, not incredible. The dinner itself was very good, albeit overall unspectacular. The dessert, on the other hand, was downright awful. It was a passably good passion fruit sorbet over a bland and tasteless cookie nestled atop a dry and tasteless coconut cake. This was surrounded by a meager drizzle of a tasty shiso sauce. The waiter noticing our unfinished desserts inquired as to how we like them. We told him. He subsequently brought us “bento” boxes of warm chocolate soufflé with green tea ice cream. This dessert was better and adequate, but still less than sensational. The service was enthusiastic, friendly and competent, though it was often difficult to understand the servers as they described each dish. My overall sense was one of disappointment. While the food was good and provided some pleasant new experiences for me, most noticeably shiso (Japanese mint), I was far from blown away. I thought a lot of the dishes lacked complexity, subtlety and precision balance. I would have preferred to be faced with a single omakase level rather than have to choose between three especially without having an idea of what I would be served at the various levels. I would go back if someone else were paying or I was with someone who really wanted to go there, but it is no longer my first choice.

After Nobu we met up with friend just off of work. We accompanied him to Patria, where we had a glass of wine and he had dinner. He had a couple of ceviche appetizers (Nobu was better) and roast suckling pig for dinner. While I didn’t taste that, it did look good. We left there and walked back south to check out a couple other interesting restaurant spaces, Woo Lae Oak, which was no longer serving food or drinks (about 11:30 PM). My friend loves that place and then over to Suba, where we had some drinks. I don’t know about the food, but it is a very cool space.

Friday, my wife and I got up and made a pilgrimage to Murray’s cheese shop and then over to MarieBelle for chocolates before checking out of our hotel. We stopped for lunch at Gotham B&G. Their prix fixe lunch at $25 really is an incredible bargain. My wife started with an Arugula salad, while I had an amazing white bean and spinach soup that was served with a single, wonderful shrimp. The soup was awesome. My wife had a delicious roasted atlantic salmon over mashed potatoes, while I had pappardelle with a braised pork sauce. This too was outstanding and reminiscent of being in Tuscany having a cinghiale based sauce over pasta ribbons – great comfort food. Dessert was a delicious warm chocolate cake with chicory ice cream for me and a sampling of sorbets including a noteworthy pineapple-carrot sorbet. The service was professional and friendly and I loved the space. All the other dishes served around us looked equally delicious.

On the way out of town we loaded up on H&H bagels off the west side highway.

While the single best dish of the visit was the cod at Café Boulud, the best overall restaurant experience (food, décor, service and value) was Gotham Bar & Grill.. The best novel flavor (for me) was shiso.

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