Is it better to eat at a restaurant where the food is consistently excellent, or one where 80% of the dishes are just average, but the remaining 20% send your eyes back into head, and make your body quiver in culinary ecstasy because you can't believe anything you food could be THIS good? After my experience at Bouley Bakery last night and recent experiences at Sugiyama, I am leaning toward the latter.
I went at 9:30 with two good friends and we were seated 20 minutes late after complimentary cocktails (because they were slow?) at Danube, the sister operation that sits behind Bouley Bakery. Dinner ended up being around $130 per person including vino and tip. The restaurant is a strange and I think ugly architectural design that seems intended to make you feel as though you are eating in the cavernous wine cellar of some 18th century French chateau. It is not the quietest room to eat in either, but if you seated in the corner at least you can converse with relative clarity. Service was also very good. And I asked for a wine tasting course (major mistake) to go with the Degustation menu that I and my two friends had chosen, but this was done by the waiter, rather than the sommelier. Does BB have a sommelier? I often make such a request, because if a restaurant really has all the bases covered that I often find this an excellent learning experience and am able to discover some new wonderful wines that I have not tried before; certainly this has been my experience at Daniel and Le Bernardin. Don't do this at BB, as none of the wine we were given was interesting or matched the food particularly well.
We all ordered off the $75 Degustation menu, but started with a sautéed Fois Gras with peaches from the regular menu. This fell pretty flat. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly good either. The FG was rich but didn't have that luscious somewhat buttery, melting quality that really good FG can have in your mouth. It just sort of sat on your tongue and said, "OK, I am fois gras, what's the big deal. Now swallow me."
Next came tasting menu appetizers. My dining partners both had sashimi of blue fin tuna with fennel in herb oils with a spicy marinade, and I ate Japanese sardines with tomato confit, grilled zucchini tart in a balsamic vinegar and hazelnut oil dressing. Both were very good, if slightly imbalanced dishes. I actually preferred the sardines to the tuna, but they disagreed, not being fond of sardines. I thought the tuna was way overpowered by the fennel, so much so that it was simply a texture rather than a taste. And this leads to a minor bone I have to pick with New York's restaurants, all of which seems to feel it is necessary to put some sort of tuna tartar based thing on the appetizer menu (eg Union Pacific has a tuna tartar and pineapple appetizer that suffers from the same problem). Tuna, if its really good like the best toro, has not only a superb texture but a very rich and subtle tonguey taste. Its also a really quiet fish, unlike sardines or salmon, that can silenced if too many of other ingredients, particularly strong ingredients (think fennel or pineapple) are thrown in as accompaniments. So if you must have a tuna tartar appetizer on your menu: a) get the best tuna, b) cut it to the right thickness (think quarter inch thinkness a la sashimi), so it can be tasted and is not simply a texture, and c) be oh so gentle with whatever exploding flavors you are going to throw in with it. Back to the sardines, which were a slimy, oily fish experience in the first class sense of slime, but in contrast to the tuna, a bit more powering up of the accompanying zucchini and hazelnut oil would have been good. Still you really could appreciate the fish since it was cut cured to just the right thickness and taste.
Second part of degustation menu was stripped bass with cherry tomatoes with basil and raspberry vinegar, and I had lobster with sweet corn coulis and baby zucchini. Both were again OK. The bass was fine, if not super fresh, but the tomatoes sitting beneath were to die for. Lobster was slightly overcooked and not as fresh as it should have been, and the accompanying buttery sauce was competent.
Main courses were a) squab with brussel sprouts and armagnac sauce, b) a slight variant of the lobster dish above but with some kind of cognac added to the butter sauce, c) baby lamb with eggplant and flat leaf spinach. Squab was uninteresting. Lobster had the same slightly overcooked problem as above, but had a sauce which was so balanced and outlandishly good that you completely forgot about the lobster. Lobster, cognac and butter came together in some Mozartian moment of saucy genius that was shocking. It was one of those little combinations of taste that silences you and makes you wonder why anyone would ever serve lobster any other way than with butter and cognac. The lamb was on the same Platonic level, as the meal moved out of the cave and into the light. It was a fantastic-soft, rich and big dance of subtle soft tender textures that soothed juiceness as only lamb can. Prior to this, meal had merely been good, at this point all the fumbling mediocrity was suddenly forgotten in a big swoon of yum/wonder that took over the table. Food can be this good? Only then it got better.
The last dish before desert was a chilled cantaloupe soup with strawberry, lychee and apricot sorbets. There aren't many dishes that make you want to never eat anything else again and to swear off meat and vegetables forever. This was one of them. The cool, sweet slightly citrusy and simultaneously creamy canatalope soup taken together with any of the sorbets was astounding perfection. It sent the eyes up into my head, made the body shudder and made all the senses quiver in wonder. Its not very often that food produces physical memories. This was astounding and the peak of the meal. There are very few things I have eaten in my life that were this good-the sashimi at Sugiyama is the only other thing I can think of that even comes close to mind at the moment.
Dessert could only be disappointing after this, unfortunately, and I can't remember even what we eat, because my culinary memory had been so violently silenced.
So it was a strange meal. As I said at one point during dinner, the quality of the meal had an extremely high standard deviation. Uninteresting for the first 2/3rds of the meal and then astounding. Consistency appears not to be BB's strongpoint, erratic genius does. So is it better to eat consistently well or occasionally brilliant food? I guess I will take sporadic perfection for now.