Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Choices New York City Entry #32

Every menu is a case of future shock. So many choices. How can one select? If one is an optimist, greatness must be hid somewhere on the menu; the pessimist believes that there are land mines aplenty. Several strategies present themselves. One can rely on the advice of pure and just friends, hoping that tastes match one's own and that the kitchen prepares no evil surprises. Or one may rely on the advice of the server, a bought friend if only because of the romance of a tip. One desires to learn the secrets of the kitchen, although suspicious souls sometimes surmise that the strategy is to push those dishes out the door that others reject. Finally one may read the menu with the diner's mix of hope over experience that such fictions often inspire: we depend on the culinary novelist. One searches for dishes that fit our passions or our preferences.

A few nights ago some friends and I visited Café Boulud, chef Daniel's more casual establishment in the wake of Steve Plotnicki's encomia. In my experience Daniel Boulud's cuisine is technically proficient, but lacks the heart and brilliance of the very finest practitioners. The night we dined was the evening that Chef Boulud discovered that Michelin had awarded him but two stars (I concur). However, I had a passing fear that we might be served screws and bile. I eyed the knives for bloody smears. But not to worry, Daniel Boulud is the consummate professional, both the saving and the boundary of his cuisine.

One should not approach Café Boulud with the assumption that it is Daniel. The peace of the latter is nowhere to be found. Only on the haute reaches of the Upper East Side would the buzz of bumping waiters be considered elegant cosiness. I had the same experience the day before at the Halloween parade in the Village spying more frugal costumes.

I relied on the wise advice of S.P. and ordered the Grilled and Marinated Octopus "La Rioja" with Authéntico Chorizo, Peppers and Tomato Compote. For the reason that I avoid chewing gum and rubber bands, I often avoid "Big Squid." But, as Steve remarked, this was a superb rendition. The Octopus was so good that I could have ordered eight portions and eaten them as chips. With the mix of meats and pungent vegetables, this was the finest appetizer of my New York months.

Fennel Risotto with Zucchini Flowers, Artichoke and Basil selected by one of my partners was an excellent version of risotto, a delicious melding of flavors. If the risotto looked like, well, risotto, it certainly tasted as good as risotto might taste. The dish was perfectly calibrated in taste and texture.

The third appetizer, a soggy Goat Cheese Souffle with lumps of Beets was misbegotten. The souffle did not hold together as a pool of liquid was revealed at the bottom of the ramekin. The beets lacked much flavor. All appetizers are not created equally.

Mr. Plotnicki raved (I think that is the word here) over CB's Porcetta. Despite my pleading, our server assured me that the dish was not on the menu (he did not, however, accept my helpful offer to root through the fridge). I asked our server - he who had just broken my heart - what the chef would recommend. He provided me with four possibilities. I selected Door Number Three: Sea Trout served over Chanterelles and Greens (I did not catch all the ingredients). When it arrived I was startled. This sea trout looked and tasted exactly a fillet of salmon, so much so that I assumed that a mistake was made. No so, I was told. (I still couldn't check on that pancetta. Sigh.). The dish was Chef Boulud at his most pedestrian; the fish lacked heart. It was perfectly cooked, but was not a dish that would have been much outside my own culinary range. I found the dish bland, if competent, and quite unmemorable - and revealed the dangers of relying upon the judgement of a server, although perhaps one with the best of intentions.

The finest of three entrees was Roasted Duck, "Mostarda di Frutta" with Sicilian Pistachios, Ripini, Baby Turnips and Balsamic Jus. So many duck dishes are dull combinations of fruit and poultry, but these fruits in sour citrus mustard were an excellent and startling accompaniment. Imagine this savory mixture nestled near rich duck meat. In contrast to the trout, this was Chef Daniel at his best, a stellar duck plate.

Our third main dish was Veal Tortellini. While the ground veal was pleasant and the cream sauce well-made, the pasta was somewhat heavy and dull. It satisfied without inspiring.

We ended with Roasted Figs with Sangria Flavors and Fromage Blanc Sorbet. Figs are a favorite, and these figures in a sangria jus were a pleasing end, yet neither the fruit nor the sorbet astonished. Here was a fine bistro dessert, and reminded me that when the noise and perfume lifted, this is the mark of Café Boulud, a café with elegant pedigree.

There are delights to be found on Chef Daniel's menu - notably the octopus and the duck - but how to find them? We rely on the kindness of both friends and strangers, and sometimes we are not disappointed.

(I should properly note that the chef at Cafe Boulud is Bertrand Chemel - although I refer to Chef Boulud as a convenience and because the restaurant relies on his reputation).

Café Boulud
20 East 76th Street (at Madison Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

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