Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lunch at Bouley (food)

I had never been to Bouley but the Bloomberg food critic just recently gave it a pretty good review. So when my friend JT was visiting, we went over some choices to catch up over lunch, and Bouley's $48 5-course lunch tasting menu looked the best.

Atmosphere: It's a pretty place. From the huge display of apples (with a strong apple scent) before you go in to the elegant yet comforting main dining room to the castle-like nooks and private dining room downstairs, I can see why many think of this restaurant as a romantic place.

Service: Disappointing, though I have very high standards and expectations for a restaurant that markets itself as a 3+/4 star restaurant. It was fussy without being correct was the way I felt about the service. For example, my lunch companions were running late and I asked for a menu just to see what was on it. While the server mentioned a couple changes on the menu to me, he did not subsequently mention the changes to them when they got there. Two pieces of bread were forced onto our breadplates without telling us what they were or asking what we'd like. In a dining room that was at best a quarter full, my water glass was refilled only once, even though I was drinking plenty of it.

Food: While the menu looked very exciting online, much was taken away by the time we faced the actual menu. The oyster, caviar, and scallop dish which Bruni loved in his NYT review a while back was in fact not on the 5 course tasting menu, and actually wasn't available at all that day even though it was still printed on the a la carte menu. The fish course was listed as having the option of rouget or baby skate, but the rouget was also now substituted with haddock. There were only two dessert courses although the older online menu had shown three. Since I was busy catching up with JT, I didn't really take good notes on the food.

Amuse: Tomato Coulis with whipped cauliflower, salmon roe, and balsamic was flat. I didn't feel any fresh burst of flavor that I would have expected with those ingredients.

First Course: We all chose the signature porcini flan with dungeness crab. There was a good deal of sweet crab meat, surrounded by a goopy porcini sauce and flan at the bottom. If there was truffle in this I didn't really taste it. I was hoping for actual porcini essence in the flan, like the mushroom flan I fondly remember from EVOO in Cambridge, MA. This was good, but as a signature dish it left a lot to be desired.

Second Course: We all opted for the baby skate. I don't remember all the components, but the gooseberry sauce was way too strong for the delicate skate. Not a fan.

Third Course: We each got a different main course, with the cod, duck, and striploin between the three of us. I was disappointed by the fact that there were only two pieces of breast meat for my duck entree, but when I ate all the components together it was actually very very good. My lunch companions also enjoyed their mains more than the other dishes we'd had up till then.

Fourth Course: Essentially a pre-dessert, some purple-colored sorbet with concord grape jelly and something else. It was good.

Fifth Course: Two of us got the chocolate souffles while JT got some mango-passion fruit dome thing. JT said it was a complete fail. The chocolate souffle, on the other hand, was quite rich, with a molten center (was it in fact a souffle?) and three accompanying quenelles of ice cream that were all terrific. Unfortunately, this course probably had the largest quantity of food of any of the courses.

A very disappointing meal overall in my eyes. Service-wise this was far from the class of service at places like EMP and SHO (Shaun Hergatt in FiDi, ate there a while back but never wrote the review). I felt the same way that I do about the restaurant part of Gramercy Tavern. I know there is some very solid cooking going on (I enjoyed the duck breast very much), but some of their flavor combinations just didn't work for me. I don't believe that a restaurant needs to do many things well for me to like it, but when your signature dish doesn't wow me either, it's harder for me to tolerate other shortcomings. While the $48+t/t price seemed good for a 5 course meal, it wasn't actually that great of a deal considering the portions and that essentially a predessert was one of the courses. Perhaps it's better at dinner and worth the praise then.

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