July 6, 2009 | Short Order

Upper East Side Lunch at Cafe Boulud

By G.G. Merkel

Risotto: “Too many grains in one bite cause the flavor to run amok.” Photo: G.G. Merkel

        A few weeks ago one of my friend's mothers, Carol, who I adore, decided to treat me to lunch at Café Boulud as a graduation present. I had heard about their reasonable and tasty prix fixe, and was excited about going. Reservations were set for 2:30 pm. We arrived at 2:20 and were told it was too early to be seated. Finally they offered us a table in the front, where we would be jostled during our meal. What really angered her was the fact that there were open tables throughout the restaurant. We ended up being stuck at a table that was beside a service station. Clearly she was upset.

        Onto the food: as we looked at the menu we were served three fried fennel risotto spheres. The outside had a nice crunch, but the innards were not creamy, instead mushy, congealing in a dry mouthful.

Ravioli:  “Chewy pasta skin…but I enjoyed each bite nonetheless.” Photo: G.G. Merkel

        My mother and Carol ordered both appetizer and entrée from the $24 prix fixe menu, while I went for an appetizer from the prix fixe and an entrée from their Spring Flavors menu. Prix fixe appetizers included a creamy, pale sage asparagus soup. The soup was excellent, simple and embodied the fresh taste of spring.

        I ordered squid stuffed with a caponata-like tomato-and-olive combination, served on a bed of arugula. The two stuffed pieces of squid had a charred, grilled flavor that went along well with crisp tendrils, which were fried in a light batter and adorned the sides of the plate.

        Our entrées took an awfully long time to prepare, so to make up for the previous mishap and to fill time till the next course, our maitre d’ brought us three pasta dishes. Tomatoes and zucchini were some of the vegetables hidden throughout a corn risotto. Too many grains in one bite caused the flavors to run amok, resembling an oatmeal mush. But, with just the right amount to fill the end of the spoon, the pearl-like grains melted on my tongue, leaving a subtle cream corn taste.

        “Pici pasta” containing poached clams cooked in parsley, served on top of thick noodles, offered a refreshing flavor of salt from the clam juice, whose taste of the sea remained along with the clean taste of parsley garnish.

        The third dish was an English pea ravioli with mushrooms, whose pasta skin was slightly overcooked, resulting in a crunchy texture. Chewy pasta interrupted the salted, creamy insides of cheese, and puree of English pea, but I enjoyed each bite nonetheless.

        My mother and Carol had ordered the hanger steak prix fixe entrée, while I had ordered the duck, which was on the Spring menu. The kitchen seemed to be confused by my prix fixe appetizer choice and served me the wrong entrée: the hanger steak instead of my long awaited duck.

“Pink sliced steak above lo mein? I was confused. Photo: G.G. Merkel

        Carol and mom ate while I waited. Pink sliced hanger steak was served atop lo mein? I was confused; had Café Boulud just served us Chinese food? I mean, it was a nicely flavored spaghetti, but no different than good Chinese takeout. The meat itself was deceiving; a succulent pink appearance hid a chewy texture and bland flavor. Only a few slices of meat were consumed and I even left the tough pieces my mother had given me on my bread plate untouched.

        Fifteen minutes after they had both finished, my duck arrived. I have to admit this dish was worth the wait. The quality of the duck was beyond my expectation. It was presented not like a breast of duck, but like a cut of meat and even its taste was similar to that of a high quality cut of lamb. Moist, thick, flavorful eyes of duck rest on quinoa whose grains have absorbed the au jus. A cranberry reduction dots the plate among a garden of softened turnips filled with red currants and watercress greens.

“Bittersweet chocolate flowers with every fork pierce…” Photo: G.G. Merkel

        I had many foodie moments as I sighed, took deep breaths, sat back in my chair with a smile on my face, enjoying succulent meat dipped in the tangy reduction, paired with slices of smooth turnip, and accompanied by the occasional green. I bestowed my mother with a tender slice, along with a sliver of turnip, and she hungrily consumed her piece, eyes wide open and exclaimed, "That is one of the best duck dishes I've ever had."

        We received the book of desserts, whose contents could make up a whole meal in itself. We chose the molten chocolate cake. Bittersweet chocolate flowed after every fork pierce from the center of moist cake that was out of this world. Along with our a la carte option, Carol and my mother enjoyed a refreshing raspberry and lime mousse served alongside a shortcake strip and paired with a scoop of whip cream. There was also a large plate of petit-fours, which consisted of small tartlets with various fillings, mini eclairs, carmel rolls, mini cakes and a basket of Madeleines.

“There was also a large plate of petits fours…” Photo: G.G. Merkel

        Duck and dessert are definite reasons to visit. I didn't get the feeling many of the people were there to indulge in a delicious meal, but rather fulfill the restaurants duty as an Upper East side hang out; mainly to see and be seen. Scaffolding on the street blocked any glimmer of the afternoon sun and we were accompanied by the occasional hum of jackhammers throughout our entree and dessert courses.

        The duck was excellent, not in a form I am used to but definitely one I can eat over and over again. Next time bypass the prix fixe, don't think about the prices of the regular menu and indulge.

Cafe Boulud, 20 E 76th St, (212) 772-2600.

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