Unlike the professional critics, I don’t have the time, the inclination, or the pocketbook to pay multiple visits to a restaurant before venturing an opinion. My posts are snapshots of individual meals. I can’t help it if my impressions are either much better, or much worse, than the prevailing “conventional wisdom.” I may have caught the restaurant on an unusually good or bad day. I might, by dumb luck, just happen to have ordered the best couple of dishes on an uneven menu, or the worst ones on a very good menu.
Sometimes, though, I have the distinct impression that a restaurant deserves a second chance. And that was what I thought after a friend and I had an exceedingly dull meal at Café Boulud two years ago. It’s not that we had anything bad, but that, for the price point, the food struck us as uninspired. There were also some service miscues.
In its ten-year history, Café Boulud has probably had some ups and downs. It seems to be a proving ground for chefs, who benefit from Daniel Boulud’s mentorship and move on to better things. The opening chef, Alex Lee, was around just long enough to win three stars in the Times from Ruth Reichl. Andrew Carmellini had a six-year run (1999–2005) before leaving to open A Voce. Boulud then promoted Carmellini’s sous chef, Bertrand Chemel, who won three stars from Frank Bruni and promptly departed for Falls Church, Virginia.
Gavin Kaysen has been running the kitchen since December 2007, though presumably with plenty of input from Boulud. The menu, as it has always been, is divided into four sections: La Tradition (French classics), Le Voyage (world cuisine), La Saison (seasonal items) and Le Potager (vegetarian choices). The pattern persists through dessert and even the cocktail menu.
Prices are about par for a three-star restaurant, with appetizers $16–28 (most in the high teens), entrées $27–55 (most in the $30s), and desserts $10–24 (most $14).
“Red Snapper” cocktail (left); Amuse-bouche (right)
My girlfriend and I tried a couple of the seasonal cocktails. The terrific, labor-intensive “Red Snapper” was made with jalapeño-infused gin, celery ice cubes, and tomato juice poured tableside from a glass caraffe. My girlfriend had a Rhubarb Mojito. They were both $12, which is extremely reasonable in a town where cocktails north of $15 are increasingly common.
Spring Risotto (left); English Pea Raviolini (right)
Our appetizers, chosen from the potager section of the menu, were full of bright flavors of the season: Spring Risotto ($19) with ramps and watercress; English Pea Ravioli ($18) with bacon, pea leaves, and a sherry-shallot jus.
Butter Poached Halibut (left); Greek Lamb Trio (right)
I loved the soft, buttery Poached Halibut ($36) from the Saison section of the menu, which featured an excellent supporting cast of whole grain mustard sausage, tiny potato gnocchi, English peas, and tomato fondue.
The Greek Lamb Trio ($41), from the Voyage section, wasn’t as exciting as the other items we had. The roasted loin was lovely, but as girlfriend noted, “This isn’t really very Greek.” Oddly enough, both Times critics (Reichl and Bruni) found Le Voyage the weakest portion of the menu here; this has been true both times I visited.
Rhubarb & Almond Tart (left); Madeleines (right)
We shared a Rhubarb & Almond Tart ($14), and to finish, the server dropped off a folded napkin full of warm , delicious sugar-coated madeleines.
The wine list has a section dedicated to bottles $60 and under. This part of the list seems to have shrunk since my last visit, but there are still some wonderful finds. The sommelier suggested the 2004 Stéphane Tissot Singulier ($60), made from the seldom encountered Trousseau grape from the Arbois region of France. We were struck by its light, fruity texture, resembling a pinot noir. We appreciated the recommendation, as we’d have never have found it on our own.
I wouldn’t choose Café Boulud for a special occasion, but rather, for food that is reliably excellent. The dining room is lovely and fairly quiet, though it also has the feel of an Upper East Side neighborhood place. One family was there with a two-year-old, and the staff dutifully produced a high chair. Fortunately, he was well behaved.
The service is polished and elegant, with a high ratio of staff to diners. Sometimes they get a bit confused, as when one asked us for our cocktail order after another had already taken it. Our cocktail order took a bit too long to be filled. It was a good thing I delayed our order, as otherwise the appetizers would have arrived before the wine was poured. These are minor complaints, and didn’t at all detract from our excellent meal.
There aren’t enough days in the week to give every restaurant a second chance, but Café Boulud is one that deserved it. With Gavin Kaysen in the kitchen, Café Boulud is in good hands.
Café Boulud (20 E. 76th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, Upper East Side)