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Rolling the Dice: Bouley

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the latest reboot of Bouley, the TriBeCa standout and former four-star-club member. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 15,000-1
One Star: 2,000-1
Two Stars: 5-1
Three Stars: 3-1 √√
Four Stars:

The Background: Bouley is a restaurant with a track record, now in its third TriBeCa location. After leaving Montrachet (where he had earned three stars from Bryan Miller in June 1985), chef David Bouley struck out on his own, in the space that is now Scalini Fedeli. It was a rocky opening, with Miller awarding two stars in November 1987. By August 1990, Bouley had his act together, and Miller awarded four stars.

The restaurant closed in 1996, as the chef announced big plans (with then-partner Warner LeRoy) for half-a-dozen establishments. The first of these, Bouley Bakery—a slimmed-down version of the original restaurant—opened with an enthusiastic three stars from Ruth Reichl in December 1997.

The flagship was supposed to re-appear somewhere else, grander than ever, but the chef split with LeRoy, and most of the dream was temporarily shelved. Instead, Bouley upgraded the bakery space, which William Grimes hailed with four stars in September 1999. (The word “Bakery” was dropped from the name later on, with no other changes to the concept that I’m aware of.)

By June 2004, Frank Bruni concluded that Bouley had lost its luster, quickly demoting it to three stars in the first month of his tenure as restaurant critic:

I had the sense of being at a party to which I had come too late, or at which I had stayed too long. Of watching the awkward ebb of the excitement rather than the jolt itself. The electricity had dimmed, the crowd seemingly changed and the polish worn off.

It was not one of Bruni’s better reviews, including unsubstantiated allegations of nefarious doings in the post-9/11 era, but I think he got the rating right. Among my multiple visits to Bouley, all of them after the Bruni review, I was always happy, but not quite persuaded that it was a four-star restaurant.

Last year, the chef finally started making good on the plans first announced in 1996. I won’t rehash the details (see prior posts 1, 2), but he has something like seven TriBeCa projects either operating or under construction, including a lavish reboot of the original Bouley, in a space that makes a French château look humble. It’s that restaurant that Frank Bruni reviews tomorrow.

The Skinny: It has been 221 weeks since Frank Bruni gave four stars to a restaurant that did not have them already—the longest such drought in Times history. (His four-star review for the remodeled Daniel two months ago doesn’t count, as it re-affirmed the existing rating.) Bouley is the first restaurant in quite some time that is a serious threat to break the string.

The recession has curbed my dining habits, so I’ve not yet been to the new Bouley, except once briefly, for a cocktail. But my sense is that when a four-star restaurant comes along, critics and foodies start screaming from the rafters, “You have got to eat here.” There have been no such screams for the new Bouley. Nearly every review I’ve read suggests that the move across the street is an improvement, but with significant qualifications.

Bouley (the chef) is said to be in the kitchen most nights. Nevertheless, I have to wonder how it could have his full attention, given the number of projects he is trying to manage at once. It is hard enough to launch a four-star restaurant when it’s your only pursuit, much less when it’s one of seven. Other four-star chefs have branched out, but not at the same time as their new flagship restaurant was in its teething stages.

During Bruni’s tenure, there have been only two restaurants awarded four stars that didn’t have them already, Per Se and Masa. I cannot imagine Bruni saying that Bouley is as good as those two stand-outs. In late 2008, Corton received one of the most enthusiastic three-star reviews of Bruni’s tenure. I cannot imagine Bruni saying that Bouley is better than Corton.

In short, my guess is that Bruni will note an improvement, but that he is not quite ready to award four stars.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award three stars to the new Bouley.

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