May 4, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
The serenity of the lounge leads to candelit luxury in the dining rooms. Photo: Steven Richter
I listened to David Bouley spin the saga of his quest for perfection at the new Restaurant Bouley – the antique beams, the stone work from the yard that supplied Versailles, the vintage flooring and mercury-etched glass, the secret society of storied craftsman imported from France. He was on a jag, drunk with the dream of it. So sue me. I’m a fool for vulnerability in a man. After his fiasco at Secession across the street, I wanted to give him time to get it right. So I waited.
I’ve been fascinated by David Bouley’s gift for self-destruction. Abandoning his three-star spotlight at the old Montrachet to build his own place a few blocks away, then taking forever to finally get it open in l987, crates of apples perfuming the entry behind the heavy walnut door. Luring the gourmandlich troops with his mastery of French cooking and making them wait in a closet-like bar as long as 45 minutes for a table. Torturing groupies and fans with the magisterial pace of dinner. I explained it all, or so I thought, in a 1990 essay in New York.
“Perhaps it is not necessary to be crazed, possessed, monomaniacal (if not megalomaniacal) to flourish in New York,” I began. “And yet so many are. Count David Bouley in that pantheon. Bouley knows he is mad. Every moment of his existence is focused on his obsession, the majesty of a dinner in his charming country auberge on Duane Park, the measured pace, the quality of the products, the deep sea divers who stalk his urchin, the farmers who plant the seeds he chooses.”
That was 1990. In 2002 I ranked him at the top of the Chef’s Power Chart in a special issue on food. “Stalked by demons and setbacks after early meteoric fame at the original Bouley, he is back at the new Bouley, and as obsessed as ever,” I wrote. Not much has changed. The endearing quality of Bouley is that he really likes to cook. Unlike many star chefs, he will grab a sauté pan and sear a bird in the middle of service. But he couldn’t crank the kitchen up to speed for a private Beaujolais nouveau lunch this past November at Secession with the royalty of our town’s French restaurants waiting. And tonight, at his mini-Versailles, the new Restaurant Bouley, the vast dining room troop – no waiters, all captains in trim business suits – whirls and marches, whispers in conference. I know he’s in the kitchen. The restaurant is full of very proper looking people. They look like Cheever people. But where is the food? I feel a familiar creep in its petty pace… to the last seconds of recorded time. Not that we are suffering. The six of us – we are dinner regulars meeting once a month or so to catch up, to gossip. We have much to discuss and we did take a while to order. The bread is good. We are eating it.
The crowd looks mostly like Cheever people. Photo: Steven Richter
Is this palace too luxurious for us? Fancier than our usual dives. Again, the entryway paved with apples (a few ready to be tossed). “Chef thinks it opens the appetite,” says the coatroom attendant in her small closet. Through the serene lounge. Through the wide-open 17th century walnut door. The impact is powerful. A whiplash of very big paintings. The antique writing desks with explosions of flowers, tulips bowing next to us, lilies across the way, a collection of blossoms on our table. The expensive porcelain and fagotted napkins. Tall tapers burning in a silver candelabra. Five candles sacrificed to our table alone. Do you know what that costs? The heavy silver cutlery, replacements toted about in bird’s eye maple boxes by the Suits. The too big, too heavy chairs. Sorry, I wasn’t going to complain about a certain confusion of proportion. It really is uniquely grand. A place to celebrate, to feel very rich. I am eager for Bouley’s elegant food again. Our last meal in the rose-blush Bouley on the corner was marvelous. He has said everything will be new. That definitely worried me. I know he has fallen in love with dashi and agar agar and the Japanese way of eating.
Sensuous cream of porcini flan with Dungeness crab in black truffle dashi. Photo: Steven Richter
No penny-pinching tonight. I’m primed to spend whatever it takes. I study the $95 six-course tasting, the $254 chef’s special eight-course tasting with wine parings. “Steven and I are doing the $95 dinner,” I announce. On my right Peter orders a salad. On my left Pascal orders a salad. Penny asks for the tuna tartare and duckling.
“What’s going on?” I cry. “We’re at Bouley. You all wanted to come to Bouley. You’re ordering two courses? You’re ordering a salad. I love you, but you’re out of your minds.”
“I really want a salad,” says Peter.
“We could be here for hours,” says Penny.
“Cancel our tasting,” I tell the waiter. “Pick out two dishes, Steven. We don’t want everyone sitting here watching us eat.” Indeed, it is taking a long while for that first course. I see from the bill someone ordered another Chivas and a second Cosmopolitan. A cauliflower amuse with salmon roe breaks the tension. The bread runner passes. Different breads than before. Even the dieters are eating it. Another full intermission.
Perfectly cooked lobster with spring vegetables in Pinot Noir sauce. Photo: Steven Richter
At last. Salads arrive on either side of me. Delicious salads, I must say. For all its ingredients – Serrano ham, steamed polenta, sunchokes and artichokes in a coconut garlic foam – the organic Connecticut egg is good enough but not as thrilling as the porcini flan with Dungeness crab and black truffle dashi in a little copper casserole. After a decent – or indecent – interval, depending upon your appetite for intervals, a gorgeous heap of lobster on trumpet mushrooms, sugar snap peas, hearts of palm and blood orange arrives, its exquisitely cooked flesh coated with pinot noir sauce. Ordered for the table, it sits untouched at first as we are surrounded by captains executing the scary attack of the black soot sink hole – one for each of us, good grief, a gift from the chef. Black cod custard with black onion dust, our Suit explains as we cringe in horror. The less phobic among us taste. “It’s actually sort of not that bad,” is the comment I recall. My own.
Rosemary crusted lamb, rare as ordered, with zuccini and mint purees. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m afraid I admire some of what I ate more than I relish it. Too much seems so soft, a miasma of cosmic essences. Baby food for a very rich baby. But the brilliantly cooked black truffled chicken slathered with almond puree is an exception. I could have loved the duckling in thick sliced perfection with its Balinese pepper crust if only the verjus had cancelled out the sweetness of truffled honey. And the simplicity of great lamb, really rare, with toasted leaves of Brussels sprouts is not spoiled at all by an unseemly streak of langres cheese because I can eat around it.
Those with watches and i-Phones gasp at the time but agree we can linger for one dessert: hot caramelized Anjou pear. “Imagine what time it would be if we’d ordered a tasting,” someone says.
Merengue snowball with pomegranate granité and a pair of exquisite sorbets. Photo: Steven Richter
But first, a luscious pre-dessert for all: yogurt sorbet with passion fruit and pineapple. Three kinds of sugar arrive on a tiered silver compote, candies and truffles on another, miniature pastries and cookies on yet another and then suddenly the table is quilted with desserts, another gift from the chef who is greeting friends lingering in the now-nearly empty room.
The meringue snowball with pomegranate, exotic fruit and raspberry-pear sorbets is chasing our grouches. Pascal and I polish off the Chocolate Frivolous – chocolate brûlée, chocolate parfait, hazelnut dacquoise, praline and prune Armagnac ice cream – as the more circumspect in our group can only marvel. As for Bouley, he looks like he just came in from his morning run in the park. He is smiling.
If only I had a Daddy Warbucks to finance a rematch. David and I both deserve another chance.
163 Duane Street between Hudson and West Broadway. 212 964 2525. Open seven days a week for lunch from 1130 am to 3 pm and dinner from 5 pm to 1130 pm. |