December 7, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Café Boulud: Hob Nobbing with Grownups

Chef Kaysen’s seafood spaghetti nero is the triumph of the evening. Photo: Steven Richter
Chef Kaysen’s seafood spaghetti nero is the triumph of the evening. Photo: Steven Richter

       When Daniel Boulud created Bar Pleiades, a dark and sexy little chiaroscuro den, perfect for mischief, intrigue, and gainful or aimless loitering over gougères, chicken liver pâté or chocolates off the Surrey Hotel lobby, he also gained space for a dozen more tables at his Café Boulud. Closed for the revamp and reopened now with chef de cuisine Gavin Kaysen back in the kitchen, this Upper East Side clubhouse feels rather stodgy by comparison to the chef’s cheeky new canteen, with only its collection of inoffensive art work to brighten the essence of beige.

One man’s family celebrates the reopening of Café Boulud. Photo: Steven Richter

        But isn’t a nice healthy dose of stodginess exactly what I crave? How benign it feels tonight, without elevator music or disco fever in the disreet buzz of the well-bred bourgeoisie after a fitful week of eating in dark and rudely over-amplified caverns with our town’s young scenesters, feeling like aging crockery. I can actually read the menu without a flashlight and gossip across the table without shouting.  I don’t feel prehistoric as I do in some kindergartens, indeed, pleasantly grownup, almost junior compared to some of the faces around me. Lulled by such comforts, I decide I can afford dinner, about $100 per person, with modest wines, tax and tip.

This ridiculously fussy dish proves to be fine tuna carpaccio Nicoise. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m charmed by the mushroom and barley soup with garlicky herb croutons and the lush wild mushroom ravioli with aged parmesan in mushroom broth from the Potager (Kitchen Garden) section of the menu, though the $20 starter portion of squash risotto with ricotta salata seems a bit stingy.  Finding tonight’s fine ahi tuna carpaccio “Niçoise” listed in my favorite menu category, La Tradition (Classics and Country Cooking), shows how far Daniel and I have come – he from Lyon, I from Detroit.

Is it possible the kitchen has subbed another fish for halibut? It’s ethereal. Photo: Steven Richter

        La Saison (Fall Favorites) and the daily changing menu of market specials prove irresistible to our sixsome:  Fabulous black spaghetti with bouchot mussels and rock shrimp Fra Diavalo is haunting.  A tremulous plump cut of poached halibut with lentils, brussel sprouts, gala apples and the inevitable bacon is a marvel of perfect timing.  And coconut sticky rice, bok choy, shitake mushrooms and green curry sauce is lively company for “slowly baked” loup de mer.  A gift from the kitchen, two portions of Burgundy snails in parsley purée under gorgeous balloon crackles of puff pastry are perfect for sharing though defInitely shy in the garlic department.

This marvelous duck is not to be confused with his Peking inspiration. Photo: Steven Richter

        Le Voyage has been the weakest menu category.  Certainly tonight’s flavors of Asia are elusive in the seared Arctic char with Szechuan long beans, and pan-seared short rib dumplings in their steamer are pricey, the six delicately wrapped packages at $20 rival Mr. Chow’s in chutzpah. And marvelous hoisin-glazed duck for two is tender and rare as requested, with scallion pancakes and Bibb lettuce at ($42 per person), though not to be confused with Peking duck.

Our paragon of a captain delivers the hoisin-glazed duck for two. Photo: Steven Richter

        Boulud has learned that allegations of insufficient staff diversity and rewards can be expensive. The lesson plays out impressively here with many Slavic accents well versed in menu subtleties and striking women servers, including one beauty with stunning runway posture. Boulud enterprises are bursting out across the globe. He’s in Beijing, Vancouver, Palm Beach and soon in Singapore.  New York’s Grub Street quotes him whimsically, “Does Singapore need me? Do I need Singapore? I don’t know.”  Now that Chase Bank has abandoned its corner of Broadway at 64th Street, Boulud will be expanding Bar Boulud into that space. He’s got his beer-and-bangers-on-the-Bowery dream fulfilled at DBGB. Only Southern soul and pizza remain to be conquered by this consummate self-styled New Yorker.

        It is only fair to note that Daniel and I share a mission: helping to feed the city’s frail, needy homebound elderly through our work for Citymeals-on-Wheels.  His dedication raises more than a million dollars for Citymeals every year. And we are a Citymeals sixsome at dinner tonight.  So no surprise that pastry chef Raphael Haasz covers our table with desserts. The hazelnut gateau with vanilla hojicha tea ice cream and the evening’s special pear medley we ordered are joined by the mint chocolate palet and apple tart tatin.  Frankly I’m bored, even annoyed, with dessert medleys. I want something focused and delicious and proud to be big, like an old fashioned slab of lemon meringue pie or even the sundae at DBGB.  But I must admit I’m content with some bits and pieces. The dried fruit compote, and the just-made dark chocolate and pecan-bourbon ice creams are wonderful.

And as always, dinner ends with Boulud’s exceptional Madeleines. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I’m the only one of us still game for a chocolate truffle. And of course the inevitable Daniel signature Madeleine, warm in its napkin cozy.  I’ve even managed not to spill anything on my jacket.  First time all week. Another joy of being grown-up.

20 East 76th Street between Fifth Avenues and Madison Avenues.  212 772 2600. Lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm; dinner Sunday though Thursday 5:45 to 10 pm. Friday and Saturday 5:45 to 11pm.


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