June 6, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
I see myself making a meal of small plates before or after a movie. Photo: Steven Richter
In an era gone by when restaurant reviewing was more civilized, I would have given Daniel several weeks to wrestle his just-hatched Boulud Sud into submission. But in these accelerated times, with the impresario himself staging media hard hat tastings during construction and a champagne preview for Citymeals-on-Wheels, the charity we both champion, I join the crush to be first in the door.
The window into the kitchen gives energy and drama to a sedate room. Photo: Steven Richter
No, it’s not attached to Bar Boulud, directly across from Lincoln Center where I expected to find it – that’s the chef’s new gourmet grocery, café and carryout, Epicerie Boulud on the corner. It’s east of Broadway on West 64th Street, bigger than I expected, with vaulted ceilings, windows on the street, terrazzo floors and carpeting to soften clatter. It’s cool, blond, almost bland, with a half open kitchen at its pulsing heart.
Chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers and his team whirl and dash and duck. Photo: Steven Richter
Why am I not surprised that chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers and his driven crew are already delivering their master’s Mediterranean vision of taverna-style small plates, tagines and grills a la plancha with verve and a definite French accent only days after the official opening?
The young lion of Lyon, now quite determinedly American, got his taste for Mediterranean flavors at Roger Verge’s Moulin de Mougins, he reminds us. And Café Boulud’s menu has always visited Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and North Africa, in turn. Given Daniel’s mastery of the burger, and his embrace of a classic hot dog, of course his falafal will be a standout.
Daniel insists on covering our table with his menu favorites. Photo: Steven Richter
Boulud is everywhere tonight, directing the flotilla here, smiling, arms akimbo, delivering charred Sicilian sardines escabeche to our table himself, rearranging to make space for a slew of plates. Meanwhile, I see he is scoping the room for signs that someone, anyone, might need attention, a Boulud regular, celebrity, demanding first-nighter - Chelsea Clinton, Stephen Starr, Elaine Wynn with Elizabeth Blau, Arthur and Barbara Gelb with their sons and daughters-in-law (Peter rushes off presumably on opera business).
Duarade is cooked a la plancha and served with romesco sauce. Photo: Steven Richter
As is customary when star chefs and ambitious restaurateurs multiply like guppies, the company’s big guns are summoned from duties elsewhere to smooth traffic flow and guide the green dining room crew. With a huddle of waiters and runners mingling with managers where the kitchen peeks at the dining room - like the long narrow kitchen at DBGB - and Daniel himself fussing, it can feel chaotic.
Hunky New Caledonia blue shrimp could not be more carefully grilled. Photo: Steven Richter
I won’t say I’m seduced by every small plate or appetizer that first night, though we’re already demanding seconds of the fabulous crisps and crusts, focaccia and croutons. Daniel has asked if he can orchestrate our starters. The duck leg kataifi with date chutney is a trifle compared to the vitello tonnato with anchovy and giant capers. I’m already finding favorites: crusty little falafel planted in a paste of fresh hummus to pile on lavash. Green and black tapenade to smear on ciabatta. Crispy artichokes a la Romana to drag through a feisty aioli. Tangles of sprouts and micro greens and colorful rivulets of sauce are the upscale French touch that will remind us who’s in charge long after Daniel is off to his next venture.
Goat cheese and goat ragout make a rich dress for pasta ears. Photo: Steven Richter
“Don’t write anything tonight,” he beseeches me. But I cannot imagine any giant prawn more skillfully grilled than tonight’s large New Caledonia shrimp propped on cuts of spring vegetables. I can see myself sitting at the bar after a movie making a supper of the baby goat ragout with plops of goat cheese on orecchiette. Is it Greek? Is it Italian? Does it matter? It’s delicious. I bet harissa-painted lamb loin with Algerian eggplant is not something you’ll find in Algeria, but it’s a hit tonight. And the marvelous, aromatic tagine of chicken leg with preserved lemon, olives and tomato is Africa enough for anyone afraid to fly.
Lamb loin is painted with spicy harissa and served on eggplant. Photo: Steven Richter
One week later, visitors from L.A. are impressed by sardine escabeche and giggling at the idea of falafal in this sedate setting. It’s not easy to divide a small plate with three different items: a Napoleon of firm sheep’s milk cheese and tomato, ricotta piled on tomato-rubbed bread, and grilled manouri cheese and tomato confit. But five of us are content sharing small hills of green and black tapenade and a platter of tabouleh two ways – classic bulgar with mint, and the odd faux variation of chopped cauliflower with zaatar and dried fruit. And there is enough sea urchin on the crab tartine with green olives and lemon cream even for an uni-phile like me.
The quail itself is fine but I find the kale stuffing too grassy. Photo: Steven Richter
I’d thought we might make a meal of small plates, but Steven can never resist razor clams. Tonight they’re tossed with bottarga on saffron linguini. An appetizer portion of squab a la plancha, rare as requested, on red wine risotto is a more winning bird than pancetta-wrapped quail with a too grassy Tuscan kale stuffing. And I am not expecting “short rib grilled on the bone” to emerge so sweetly caramelized and outrageously fatty. Its haricots au pistou are just another savory reminder we’re on Boulud’s Mediterranean fantasy voyage.
For dark meat fans like me: chicken thigh tagine with lemon confit, tomato and olives. Photo: Steven Richter
Entrees here are mostly under $30 except for the peppered Tuscan rib eye at $49, although small plates $8 - $15 can sneakily add up. That will not discourage pinch-pennies like me, with sides and small plates starting at $9, and pastas so easily divided.
Rhubarb and verbena rice pudding with rhubarb sorbet and an almond tuile crown. Photo: Steven Richter
Of course there will be Turkish candy before the evening ends – rose loukoum and sesame halva in a hollowed out grapefruit. Turkish rice pudding with lemon-verbena gelee, and rhubarb sorbet. You might choose the raspberry pyramid if you’re not put off as I am by basil mousse. That first visit, Daniel has ordered desserts to cover our table. The Basbousa is the one I recommend: saffron and Aleppo-spiced mango semolina cake with goat yogurt sorbet. Though it’s that time of night when I would swear I cannot manage another bite, I can’t stop eating it.
Boulud Sud. 20 West 64th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. 212 595 1313. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday to midnight.