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Note: Click here for a more recent review of Bouley.

I’ve been dining out periodically with some consultant friends from Boston. Last week was their final week in New York, at least for a while (their contract having ended), so we decided to go for a “blow out” meal somewhere special: Bouley.

Bouley is one of New York’s iconic high-end restaurants, helmed by celebrity chef David Bouley, who also runs Danube and Upstairs, both of which are just steps away. The restaurant is located in a stately TriBeCa building that announces its importance with understated elegance. Inside are two lovely rooms dubbed the “red room” and the “white room.” The entrance lobby is lined with fresh apples. The intense aroma transports you into Bouley’s world.

Unusually for a restaurant at its level, Bouley hasn’t succumbed to the prix fixe trend. The menu is pricey, but still à la carte. Appetizers are $16–29. Entrees are $38–45. The tasting menu ($90) is also unusual, with several choices offered for most of the courses. It is also shorter than some tasting menus, offering an amuse bouche, three savory courses, a palate cleanser, and dessert. The menu mentions the availability of a seasonal chef’s degustation menu, without stating the price.

In light of the special occasion, we chose the regular tasting menu, on which I had the following:

  1. Chef’s Canapé (which I have forgotten)
  2. Phyllo Crusted Florida Shrimp, Cape Cod Baby Squid, Scuba Dived Sea Scallop, and Sweet Maryland Crabmeat in an Ocean Herbal Broth
  3. Mediterranean Rouget with Mung Bean and Saffron Risotto, Rose Olive Puree, and Parmesan Foam
  4. Maine Day Boat Lobster with a Fricassée of Baby Bok Choy, Sugar Snap Peas, Celery Root Purée, and a Passion Fruit and Port-Wine Paprika Sauce
  5. Wild Hudson Valley Strawberry Soup with Homemade Fromage Blanc Sorbet
  6. Washington State Rhubarb “Shortcake” with Crème de Cassis, Guava Sorbet, and Warm Wild Strawberry Jam

(For the record, there were two options for the second course, three for the third, four for the fourth, and two for the dessert; the list above shows the selections I had, copied from a menu I brought home with me.)

All the courses impressed me as complex, expertly composed, and exquisitely prepared. I particularly loved the seafood medley (the second course). The lobster was superior to a similar dish I had at Per Se in February. The presentations, too, were gorgeous and artistic, with each course on a different style and pattern of china, and usually accompanied by a decorative swish of some kind of sauce.

As there were only three savory courses, each came in a portion large enough to appreciate and dwell upon. As special as the Per Se experience is, the nine bite-sized courses on its menus go by too quickly, even if the meal itself is a long evening. The portion sizes at Bouley seemed perfectly judged.

Bouley is legendary for its bread service. On a cart wheeled to your table there’s a choice of eight breads, all baked in-house. They are all, of course, fresh, but I found the butter a little too hard and uncompromising.

The pacing of a tasting menu can be a challenge, and this one felt a bit rushed. From arrival to departure, the whole experience was just 90 minutes. Service was polite and efficient throughout, and no one ever acted like they were pushing us out the door, but in the end they did just that. An extra dessert course (not listed on the menu) arrived while we were still eating the first one.

As we were leaving the hostess said, “I have a gift for the ladies.” Then, my two companions were each handed a wrapped Bouley coffee cake. I didn’t say anything, but I thought it should have been obvious that I was not going home with either of them, and deserved a coffee cake of my own.

Until a couple of years ago, Bouley carried four stars from the New York Times. The current critic, Frank Bruni, demoted it to three. I can see why. Bouley doesn’t create the sustained magic of a Per Se or an Alain Ducasse. The food, I think, is up to that level, but the overall package falls a bit short.

Bouley (120 West Broadway at Duane Street, TriBeCa)

Food: ****
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***½

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