February 19, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Merci Bocuse: 1000 Tastes Are Just Enough


 Dedicating lobster to the minimalist Girardet is bold, but this critter is amazingly tender.
Dedicating lobster to the minimalist Girardet is bold, but this critter is amazingly tender.


          Meteors explode. Soldiers evacuating Afghanistan have to shoot their way out. School bus drivers can’t get no satisfaction. Laryngitis shuts off the obnoxious rant of the spiky new senator from Texas. And that’s just page 1 of Saturday’s New York Times.


We arrive at 7 pm sharp for the swift, stately tasting drill at starry Brooklyn Fare.


          Life is dangerous. Work is tough and demanding. So probably I should not complain about my life.  But between Tuesday and Friday last week I spent my evenings in gravely  delicious excess. Tuesday, I threw myself into a first tasting of 25 dishes or so at the Michelin three starred Brooklyn Fare. There were so many separate tastes at the Michelin two starred Corton Thursday that even the chef couldn’t remember them all.


Here is Chef Paul Bocuse in the gallery of his garden at Collonges. Photo: Steven Richter.

          Then on Friday, I’d committed to celebrate Paul Bocuse and the launch of The Bocuse Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The homage began with chocolate birthday cake, its many tiers and towers frosted by the students for the great chef’s 87th birthday. And it went on to diminutive steak tartare sliders with cocktails, and foie gras in the shape of a peach.


In the final thrill, the table at Corton displays the contents of Pandora's box.


          At least the CIA encouraged photos. And Corton presented the official menu for us to take home. At Brooklyn Fare the edict had gone out: no cameras, no notebooks. Naked comes the stranger. There is no printed menu. The man next to me takes a last look at his cell phone and sets it on the plastic mat beside his napkin. I tense, waiting for him to be severely reprimanded. I had intended to focus on the almost surreal aura of Brooklyn Fare this week for my BITE.  I promise to get to that later.


          These tasting dinner routines try my sensibility. I have little patience with multiple tastes in each course. I prefer the discipline of omakase sushi: a fusillade of textures on some rice.  But lamb three ways with a root purée, a cruciform puddle, a beta carotene curl, and five dots of sauce in two colors annoy me, even when one or two of the options is remarkable.  I want pommes maxime – a round of crackle or even better, a Tourondel- size side of fried potato coins.


Drew Nieporent is proud to have lured the brilliant and dedicated Liebrandt to Corton.

          Granted, Paul Liebrandt’s one-bite potato maxime at Corton is luscious, a tiny composition of potato possibilities offered alongside an astonishing cut of duck. Five years into his mastery of the flameless Corton kitchen, Liebrandt continues to follow his own muse with two tasting menus. The $125 lineup has 9 courses; the $155 offering has 14. He gives us the condensed version, but can’t help ad-libbing extras for the Citymeals auction winner we are hosting.  His billet-doux are not just striking, or merely cute. Most are delicious. 


Corton's duck is complex and tasty, something you can't eat in one bite.


          About the slow roasted duck. My back gets stiff when the waiter announces it has been cooked in Birch bark from Maine. And I am not seduced by small dribbles and drabs of young ginger-infused duck jus, Japanese turnip purée and white miso, arranged like distant planets in a faraway sky. Except the duck is marvelous, rare and meaty, full of flavor with a smoky edge. I plan to write more later.


The panel bows: Jean-Georges, Bocuse, Boulud, Keller, and Jerome Bocuse.

          But now, Friday’s excess. It was a rare day for the students at CIA. Assembled in the auditorium, they gasped and screamed and cheered when Paul Bocuse walked onto the stage in his whites with his son Jerome, to join a panel of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud on the state of their art and the future of food. “You are the future,” everyone on the panel told the students. Then the tiered and towered birthday cake was unveiled and pastry students rolled in tables with rows of individual domes enrobed in chocolate for the audience.


The Lion bowl with the famous essence of truffle soup under a puff pastry toque.


          Inspired perhaps by France’s rakish tradition of smashing the head of a Champagne bottle with a sword, CIA president Dr. Tim Ryan signals the start of dinner by smashing the pastry dome off a giant replica of Bocuse’s iconic Black Truffle Soup VGE with two big spoons.  The initials refer to Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French President who invited Bocuse to accept the Légion d'honneur in 1975. Undertaking his own reception banquet, the chef created the now iconic broth, its toque of pastry and the small tureen with lion faces that he serves it in. Give the guy his due. Bocuse understood branding before there was a word for it.


          It’s only the third day the student cooks have been able to get into the refurbished kitchen.  Ryan moves to defang the audience of chef alumni, board members, and press, by suggesting the dinner be regarded “a work in progress.” 


Foie Gras Peach, Restaurant Bocuse
The foie gras peach is an homage to Jean-Georges' mentor, Louis Outhier.

          I like the idea that tonight’s menu is not strictly Bocusian, but rather dedicated to his fellow warriors of the nouvelle cuisine. True, many sins were committed in the nouvelle name, but the CIA rightly remembers what it meant as a cry of liberation.


          Foie gras shaped like a peach, homage to Jean-Georges’ mentor Louis Outhier, is gorgeous and delicate, good with a luscious Gewurztraminer. I’m not sure why it comes  with toasted country bread rather than brioche.  The accompanying “French bean salad Paul Bocuse” resembled no haricot vert salade served in those nouvelliste times. It looked like a ‘50s mom’s desperate attempt to get the kids to eat a vegetable using winter beans.


Restaurant Bocuse, décor
Architect Adam Tihany sets a trio of roosters on a silk factory table from Lyon.

          A big blast of black truffle hits my nose when I smash the pastry balloon of the Elysée soup. It has the tiny meat and mushroom dice in a fine consommé as remembered. And I laugh to see that the wine is Condrieu.  When I first tasted it at La Pyramide in 1961 -- my first taste of three star dazzle -- the local white cost $1 and came in an unlabeled bottle wrapped in straw, too fragile to export, we were told.


 Restaurant Bocuse, interior
A view of the new kitchen in the calm before service


          How confident to brave lobster with Champagne and caviar in the name of Frédy Girardet, I thought, not having forgotten the first shock of tasting the isolated Swiss chef’s gift for barely cooking seafood. That was the moment in 1977 when I wrote of Restaurant Girardet, “the great excitement in French cooking is not to be found anywhere in France right now, but in Switzerland...in a tiny crossroads suburb of Lausanne called Crissier.


Ralph Brennan at Restaurant Bocuse
Ralph Brennan, the restaurant owner from New Orleans, joined our table.

          “Girardet has been touched by the gospel of the nouvelle cuisine, has mastered it and gone on. He doesn’t stumble. His control of fire is magic. He has discovered not how long but how little a shrimp or fish can be cooked. No one is as daring and as consistently accurate…”


          Tonight’s caviar-dotted sauce with “new sorrel” is respectable enough, but the lobster itself, modernized with raw Brussels sprout leaves, instead of pureed watercress and sorrel, is the most perfectly cooked lobster I’ve had in a long time, astonishingly tender and delicate. I suspect the dour Girardet would scowl seeing the three little turned cucumber pickles riding in on his lobster.  Yes, Frédy, we will warn him, pickles are irrepressible right now.


          The Charolais beef that Jean and Pierre Troisgros served with mousserons and marrow in a Beaujolais sauce, is a filet mignon here, paired with a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It gets a contemporary marrow custard along with wild mushrooms and a red wine sauce and brings back memories of my first Gourmaniacal Detour to Roanne. I don’t mind at all.  


 Bocuse Restaurant, Desserts
Bocuse, in cookie dough, on a chocolate tasting dedicated to patissier Gaston Lenôtre


          I think the palate cleanser would come before the beef in nouvelle days, but here it arrives before the three chocolate desserts honoring Gaston Lenôtre – grapefruit sorbet, a favorite of Craig Claiborne, with vodka, “As everyone who knew Craig will understand,” Ryan annotates.


On the left, the famous cannelés Bordelais next to a spiky fritter.


          Then with great Michelin three star panache, a platter of mignardises land at the table, the classic Cannelé bordelais and odd but marvelous little beignets, along with orange-flavored madeleines in a napkin.  A wooden box in the shape of the school’s main building opens up to reveal chocolates and the legend on the inside cover: Merci Bocuse.


Bocuse Restaurant
Inside a replica of the school's main building: chocolates and a merci from Bocuse.

          Even without the excuse of just three days in the kitchen, the dinner -- forget the off- note of those pickles -- is impressive. Adam Tihany’s cool modern room setting does not excite me, except for a trio of roosters on a glorious old silk-winding table from Lyon at the entrance. The red leather mats are smart, a welcome relief from the woven plastic we find on bare tables everywhere. Tihany’s use of the soup bowls in a chandelier is amusing. And I like the painting of Bocuse with his chef friends in a kitchen where their mentor Fernand Point smiles from a portrait on the wall. It’s in the small, good-looking private dining room.


Bocuse Restaurant
I'm not wild about this look, but it's definitely fresh and modern. Change is good.


          But I wanted to stand up and scream and beg them to stop when our server first asked us, “Are you enjoying the foie gras so far?” before we had taken a bite. One waiter or another asked again, with every course, usually interrupting the conversation.  I had always thought it was amateur restaurateurs instructing servers who promoted this discourtesy.  I never dreamed it was the CIA.


 Bocuse Restaurant, Culinary Institute of America
The private dining room is small and handsome, with a painting of Michelin all-stars.


          Am I too ancien regime?  I remember when great waiters were mostly invisible. I want waiters who answer questions, not waiters who ask them. I don’t want to discuss what kind of day I had as I settle into my seat. If you feel obliged to be friendly, just say: “Welcome to our restaurant.” I don’t want the waiter inquiring if I’m swooning over that last dish, followed by the captain asking the same question.


Bocuse sent his son Jerome to the CIA and he's always been a proud patron

          At a conference earlier in the afternoon to introduce the visiting media to the new restaurant, Ryan seemed pleased with the school’s brave new amuse.  It is not a tiny bouquet of flavors in a shell, clever textures layered on a canapé, nor a demitasse of thrilling soup.  It is a box labeled Amuse, holding cards with questions on them. You can select one to discuss with your dining partners when conversation runs out. Well, I guess we’ve all seen those grim twosomes silently eating.


          “Which of the following groups is comprised exclusively of volume measure?” my card asks.  Oh dear. I’ll have another chocolate please.


Hyde Park, New York, The Bocuse Restaurant. 845 471 6608. Or reserve online.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.


Want to read more about Bocuse? Click to the titles to read my 1974 piece, "More Confessions of a Sensualist: The Dinner for Women" and to see my most recent review, "Paul Bocuse: The Lion in Winter."


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