August 2, 2010
A few weeks ago, we had dinner at Tom Colicchio‘s (head judge on the Top Chef TV show) restaurant, CraftBar, sort of a more casual version of his fancier place, Craft. It was a very, very good dinner (and even better cocktails, I have to say), but the pictures didn’t look like much, so I can’t write a blog entry about it. Mood lighting is nice to be in, but even my camera has its limits.
Those limits were also tested during dinner at Bouley. Bouley is old-school fancy-pants where every member of the staff has a unique and beautiful accent, the lights are dim, and the menu origins are French. This starting point has been reinterpreted countless times, but at Bouley, they opt to not really mess with a good thing. The food is not particularly inventive, which is totally fine, but if it’s not going to be inventive, it’d better be perfect.
I’ve never been to Paris, but my impression is that the French have pretty much figured out how stuff should taste. Somebody in France figured out hundreds of years ago how to make the perfect croissant, and that’s still how you make a perfect croissant. (Not a good croissant? Starbuck’s. It’s a butter roll shaped like a crescent moon, but if I can eat it without covering my shirt in delicious crispy buttery crumbs, then you’ve wasted my time — and my $3.50.) My point here is that if you’re going to have a French(ish) restaurant, you can be tremendously creative about it and get away with an error here or there, or you can be mostly traditional. But again: traditional is fine, but it needs to be perfect.
Well, at least the company was perfect. We ate at Bouley with, um, “Fosco” and Ben, whom we’d never met in person, but had become friends with through the beauty of the Internets — first through Fosco’s blog, and then through Facebook. They were in NY for a few days so we all met for dinner. We started with cocktails, which were fun and fine, and then moved on to the appetizers. This is Ben’s appetizer, the “North Carolina Pink Shrimp and Cape Cod Sea Scallops, Sweet Maine Princess Crab, Point Judith Calamari (spelled wrong in the menu, by the way), and Ocean Herbal Broth.” I overheard Ben saying that the calamari was (not surprisingly) very chewy.
I had the “Harwich Wild Blue Fin Tuna, Chu Toro, Fresh Hawaiian Heart of Palm, and Yuzo-Miso Dressing.” (Didn’t I say recently that yuzu is everywhere now? And note to the menu typist: it’s “yuzu,” not “yuzo.”) This was perfectly nice tuna sashimi, but I didn’t get nearly enough yuzu flavor. (For a much tastier and more innovative take on sashimi at a non-Asian restaurant, check out Scarpetta.)
AEJ’s main course was the sous vide chicken. Again with the damn sous vided, non-seared meat. Is the entire clientele at these restaurants so old that nobody has teeth strong enough for meat anymore? The sauce was good, but the texture of the chicken was so “tender” that it lacked any texture at all. Also, the menu said this would be served with some sort of ravioli, but our waitress told us that in fact, the chef had decided today that the ravioli was terrible with the chicken, so there would be no pasta. What you see on the plate is all it was. (This dish has since been removed from the menu, by the way.)
My main course was the “Maine Day Boat Lobster, Early Rhubarb, English Peas, Chervil Sauce, and a Parsnip Cloud.” The flavor was fine, but I prefer that my lobster be more buttery. The bigger problem? There were three generous pieces of lobster, and it wasn’t until my third piece that I noticed that this final piece was completely undercooked. Have you ever had undercooked lobster? It’s… slimy. Part of me wanted to say something to our waitress (the service was quite good, by the way), but it seemed silly after I’d eaten 2/3 of my dish. Still, there’s no excuse for undercooked lobster (or anything) at a restaurant.
For dessert, I had the “Hot Valrhona Chocolate Soufflé with Vermont Maple and Vanilla Ice Creams and Chocolate Sorbet.” This was very tasty, but why is my ice cream so melted? Before you ask, smart ass, it’s not because I’ve been taking pictures of it for 5 minutes. It arrived at the table this way. I mean, even without teeth, I could eat frozen ice cream. Serving it this way was ugly, and didn’t seem like it could possibly be correct. Two flavors of ice cream have completely melted together! France would be ashamed, Chef Bouley.
AEJ had the caramelized pear dessert. She said it was tasty, but again — why have they allowed the ice cream to completely melt around the plate and mix with other things?
They also served this nice (and complimentary) sorbet (was it cream cheese flavor? I forget; there have been a lot of desserts this month…) on a strawberry rhubarb sauce.
The dinner ended with a selection of “mignardises” — not unlike we’d had at Eleven Madison Park (which, for the record, is an infinitely more enjoyable dinner).
So the service at Bouley was very good, but the creativity was pretty low, and the quality of the preparation (undercooked lobster and overly-melted ice cream) wasn’t exactly top-notch.
We should have gone to Scarpetta again, where we could have had this incredibly simple — but perfect — spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce (If I do say so myself, I personally think this shot is prettier than the one on the Scarpetta website)…
… and the ice cream isn’t melted when it arrives. (This is Scarpetta’s coconut panna cotta with guava soup and caramelized pineapple.)
But Bouley? It feels like a place that people loved ten years ago, and they’ve kept coming because they haven’t noticed that the quality has dropped and other restaurants have surpassed it. My advice: go elsewhere.