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Upstairs at Bouley Bakery

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to the restaurant, which closed in July 2010.

Upstairs at Bouley Bakery is the casual cousin to David Bouley’s eponymous Michelin two-star restaurant.

These days, it’s pretty common for high-end luxury restaurants to have an informal companion establishment serving less expensive fare. Jean Georges, The Modern, Country, and Gordon Ramsay all have versions of it (though the details vary). Usually, they are located in the same building. Upstairs is across the street. Unlike the luxurious mother ship, Upstairs doesn’t take reservations. Everything about it screams informality.

I’ve been hearing great things about Upstairs lately, and as I missed lunch at work today, I decided to drop in. At 6:15 p.m. on a weeknight, Upstairs is actually rather pleasant. There were only about five people there when I arrived, and it was still less than half full when I left.

That’s the best way to experience Bouley Upstairs. On weekends, the noise is deafening, and the servers need the agility of Romanian gymnasts to reach the tightly-packed tables. My last visit, on a Saturday evening, was so unpleasant that I really didn’t want to return. The food is great, but at some point the surroundings are just too oppresive to enjoy it. Visiting early on a weeknight changed the whole experience.

To start, I ordered the homemade gnocchi with gorgonzola in a cherry tomato sauce ($12). I was impressed with the pillowy softness of the gnocchi. It wasn’t at all chewy, as gnocchi tends to be when a less assured kitchen is preparing it.

Roast chicken ($15) came in a parsley root purée with grilled fava beans and a taragon sauce. I seldom order chicken in restaurants, but I wanted to see what Bouley’s team would do with such a humble meat. It was everything you could ask, remarkably tender and full of flavor.

The bread service is terrific, as you’d expect from a restaurant above a bakery. There are many three and four-star restaurants not serving bread as good as this (e.g., Jean Georges).

The staff are not as attentive as they should be. Even with the restaurant more than half empty, they don’t notice when your water glass needs filling, when your plate needs clearing, and so forth. The knife that I used to spread butter was left on my table for the appetizer course, and when I asked for a clean one, the server seemed flustered, as if it were an unusual request.

David Bouley has announced that the size of the restaurant will soon double. His Bouley flagship restaurant will move into the Mohawk Building at the other end of the block; the bakery will move into the space the restaurant is vacating; and Upstairs will expand into the downstairs space now occupied by the bakery. Got that?

Perhaps, once it has grown, Upstairs won’t feel quite as cramped as it does today. In its current configuration, nothing would persuade me to dine there on a weekend. But on a quiet weeknight, I can heartily recommend it. The food is first-class, and it comes at a remarkably low price. I mean, there are probably diners that charge $15 for their roast chicken without doing it half as well.

Upstairs at Bouley Bakery (130 West Broadway at Duane Street, TriBeCa)

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

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