So Red New York City Entry #29
At the end of our meal at Bouley, my friend and I began reminiscing about our most profound meals: she at Lespinasse; me at Lutece. We had just completed an impressive, elegant, and superb meal, but somehow it seemed natural that this meal would not be on that list.
The story of Bouley is how a restaurant that has much in its favor - in many ways as sophisticated and as brave a cuisine as any in the city - lacks the punch of memory. It is easy to award Bouley four stars, less easy to understand how it avoids the hidden half-star that makes a restaurant better than the best.
Entering Bouley in fall is to be startled. Opening the door one is pierced with the aroma of apple. Looking left one finds shelves of apples, to the right are bushel baskets. I was told that sometimes grapes are the star, but often apples are selected, even out of season. The effect is startling and compelling. Perhaps the apples prepare the diner for a cave of a restaurant that is more red than any room has the right to be: an emotional hotspot. The space has a certain Iberian quality; all those scarlet domes raise seraglio thoughts.
At a restaurant like Bouley, the five course tasting menu beckons. We also selected the wine pairings.
The service was oddly mixed. The waitstaff was congenial, particularly the wine director, Brad Hickey, whose commentary on the wines was spot on. As someone who is not a specialist in the grape, I occasionally struggle to connect the description of wines to the taste. But the accounting of Mr. Hickey could not have been more precise. Our J. Leitz Rheingau Riesling had the puckery tangerine taste as advertised. Our Gruner Veltliner described as having a white pepper aroma was almost sneeze-worthy. However, oddly, for several courses, Mr. Hickey decided that we should be served two wines - one for each - even when we ordered the same dish. We were each given a single glass. While my partner and I are simpatico, our spouses might object to two straws from the same glass. The choices - twice - were politically and personally incorrect. I was given the heavier, guy wine. On one occasion, I was almost served a red; my partner a white. I prefer lighter wines. Never assume.
The busboys seemed strangely anxious about any wayward bits of bread that we had not finished at the end of a course. I must have explained three times that I did not wished to keep my bread, finally suggesting that I might have to arm-wrestle for the plate. Of course, the breads, fig, pistachio, raisin, and sourdough were worth fighting over.
Our amuse was a creative piece of work, goat cheese with raspberry gelee, roasted beets, horseradish, and almond foam. As I type this, I wonder if I wrote these ingredients correctly. Right or wrong these few bites awoke my palate. It did what a amuse should: to persuade us that a mind is at work in the kitchen. The various pungencies merged and crossed and exploded into a dish that perhaps didn't deserve a full plate, but was a welcome shot of culinary energy.
As the opening entree, I selected the Phyllo Crusted Florida Shrimp, Cape Cod Baby Squid, Scuba Dived Sea Scallops and Sweet Maryland Crabmeat in an Ocean Herbal Broth. Put aside the madness of the gazetteer, the herbed broth was splendid seawater and the seafood, sexy bathers. I tried to count the herbs that I tasted and gave up at half a dozen - thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro, and other good guesses. The only odd note was the phyllo crust on the shrimp. I think of phyllo as a flat sheet, but this was a nest of slivers: shrimp in a pastry haystack. The coating was crispy, but in such a bath, nakedness is seemly.
My second course was Seared Black Bass with French Cepes, Braised Salsify, Jumbo Green Farmer Beans, Lemon and Clam Broth. Such a long title for a dish in which a slab of bass in broth dominated. Yes, the other ingredients appeared, but they were bit players. Once again Chef Bouley's broth was a glorious creation, here mixing the tropic land and sea. The mushrooms, beans, and salsify were used almost as seasonings. I found the chef's subtlety of flavors to be profound, but the description misleads.
Speaking of descriptions, one of the choices for the main course was "Whole Roasted Berkshire Pig." What do you imagine will appear on your table? Wrong. Thank God! A diner should be grateful that Whole Roasted Berkshire Pig is not, in fact, a Whole Roasted Pig. Whoa. Diners receive slices from various corners of hog. I had to ask. Who needs Tony Bourdain when menu writers compose fictions?
What I did select was the most complex, robust dish of the night: Maine Day Boat Lobster with a Fricassee of Baby Bok Choy, Sugar Snap Peas, Celery Root Puree and a Passion Fruit and Port-Wine Paprika Sauce. I hope whomever created this label is paid by the word. I am usually dubious of those chefs who attempt to combine too much. Too often the dining room becomes a mess hall. However, Chef Bouley brings it off. I have had more tender lobster in seafood shacks and I would have enjoyed more vegetable, but the passion fruit, port wine, and paprika added complex layers of sweetness and pungency. The mildness and buttery quality of lobster allows it to be a divine mixer. This is a chef who is unafraid to walk the tightrope of taste.
Calling the next course a palate cleanser doesn't do justice to another layered dish: Chilled Concord Grape Soup with Candied Ginger and Fromage Blanc Sorbet: a colorful tribute to the NYU Violets up the road? The tartness of the grape soup is shaped by the pungent ginger and the cool pliable rich cheese.
Finally dessert: Warm Pineapple Meringue with Pistachio Cake with Ten Exotic Fruit Sorbet and Pistachio Ice Cream. Again I found myself puzzled by an ingredients arms race. If one chef creates three fruit sorbet, must another add a fourth. Are we headed for Heinz 57 sorbet? Nomenclature aside, this was a fine, sturdy dessert with luscious ice cream and the aforementioned sorbet of excess.
Our closing icy amuse was a flavorful strawberry granita with white chocolate mousse and yogurt foam. Of all of the dishes this was the one that played most explicitly with texture: the slightly crunchy ice, airy foam, and smooth chocolate pudding added a tactile complexity to the complexity of tastes to which we were now accustomed.
It is easy to praise Bouley. Yes, there were gaffes from the service to the ostentatious menu to the garish room to a few culinary flubs. However, Bouley is a grand New York restaurant: an establishment that betters the best restaurant in most cities. Still, it has been over thirty years since I first ate at Lutece and I can relive that menu nearly dish by dish. Lutece changed how I thought about what food might do. Bouley, for all its glory in pleasing customers, doesn't change the world.
In time these dishes will fade. What I will remember from my evening at Bouley is my entrance and, oh yes, all that red.
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