Entries in Café Boulud (5)


Café Boulud


Last week I paid a return visit to Café Boulud, my first since a renovation last year that brightened up the main dining room and added a cocktail lounge called Bar Pleiades.

As it has been from the beginning, the menu is in four sections: La Tradition, La Saison, Le Potager, and Le Voyage, as well as a separate printed list of daily specials. After two prior visits (here, here), I finally learned my lesson:

Order Anything but Le Voyage!

The only really disappointing dishes I have ever had here, have been from Le Voyage. Avoid them and you will have a happy experience. This was the best meal I have had at Café Boulud.

Full disclosure: my mom and I received a version of the VIP treatment, with a triple amuse-bouche (left), a comped mid-course, and a comped dessert. Perhaps the staff recognized my name, but I have never received extras at any of Boulud’s other restaurants.

For whatever the reason, service was superb—practically clairvoyant—but no amount of pampering could create excellent food unless the kitchen is already capable of it. Which it clearly is.


To strart, my mom had the oysters ($21), while I had the Jersey Corn Agnoloti ($18), with flavors wickedly fresh and vibrant. The kitchen comped a bright, colorful Heirloom Tomato Salad (below).


I love the wine list at Café Boulud. You can spend a whole paycheck, if you want to, but there is more variety under $100 than at just about any other restaurant in its class. There is still a whole page of wines under $60, but I decided to spend a bit more than that—a 2002 Bernadotte, a comparative bargain at $80, but still more than we normally spend. Not many restaurants right now have any 2002 Bordeaux at that price. We ordered it before the food (the only reliable strategy), and the sommelier offered to decant it for us, giving the wine time to bloom.


I can’t begin to describe the excellent and beautifully plated entrées in detail—they were far too complex for that, and the joy of being an amateur blogger is that I don’t have to. (If I were Sam Sifton, I’d need to call the chef and write down every ingredient, for fear of misstating one.) So go, and order them: cherry-glazed duck ($38; above left) and rabbit three ways ($37; above right).


Goat’s milk sorbet ($10; left) was a fulfilling, uncomplicated way to end the evening. The kitchen comped an extra scoop for my mom, along with a “fruit soup” (above right) that was somewhat underwhelming. We did our best to lay off of the traditional beignets that come as petits-fours, but resistance was futile.

Frank Bruni once said that Café Boulud was his favorite of the Boulud restaurants. It took me a while to see why. Daniel, the flagship, is a formal dress-up evening, and I’ve never quite had the feeling that it lived up to its price point. The other three (DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, and DBGB) are all very good, and I enjoy them, but they are casual, quick-bite places. (Two of the three are dominated by pre- and post-theater business.)

Café Boulud is fancy enough to make you feel special, but casual enough that you don’t need an occasion to dine here. The restaurant used to be booked solid weeks in advance, virtually precluding an impulse visit, unless you were a regular. They’re still doing fine, but the reservation book has loosened up, and there’s even the occasional 1,000-point booking on OpenTable. We should go more often.

Café Boulud (20 E. 76th St. between Fifth & Madison Avenues, Upper East Side)

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


Café Boulud

[Kalina via Eater]

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).

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

cafeboulud05.jpgThe 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)

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


The Payoff: Café Boulud

Today, as expected, Frank Bruni awarded three stars to Café Boulud.

As I predicted, Bruni included a backhanded slap at Boulud’s flagship, the four-star Daniel, saying that Café Boulud is “the most consistently enjoyable” of the chef’s restaurants. Daniel is the only four-star restaurant in New York that Bruni has not yet reviewed. The comment certainly suggests that it might not retain its lofty perch when Bruni finally gets around to it. Indeed, I suspect the only reason he hasn’t done so is that he has no other restaurant to replace it with, and he doesn’t want the four-star club to dwindle below its current five members.

The review was one of the few times Bruni has been able to visit this type of restaurant without bitching about the elegant service that top-tier restaurants offer. Unlike most people, Frank is actually offended when you pamper him. But the best he could say, was that Café Boulud is “no less fun to visit in this informal dining era.” Though that’s a compliment coming from Frank, I doubt the Boulud empire will be pulling it as a teaser quote.

And isn’t it just typical that it was a pasta dish that sealed Frank’s opinion that Café Boulud still deserved the three stars it earned from Ruth Reichl?

Both Eater and NYJ win $3 on our hypothetical $1 bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $36.60   $33.67
Gain/Loss +3.00   +3.00
Total $39.50   $36.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 15–4   13–6

Rolling the Dice: Café Boulud

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni sharpens his knives at Café Boulud. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 7-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 3-1
Four Stars: 5,000-1

The Skinny: “Rolling the Dice” returns this week after a two-month hiatus. Sorry to say, we don’t have much by way of original analysis. As Eater noted, Frank Bruni is already on record with the view that Café Boulud is the most enjoyable of Daniel Boulud’s three New York restaurants. I wasn’t enraptured when I visited last year, but a friend whose opinion I respect assured me it must have been an off-night.

I also agree with Eater that CB has flown under the radar in recent years, and there’s really no reliable way of telling whether the new chef, Bertrand Chemel, has his act together. And there is always Bruni’s well known aversion to French cooking. But I have to agree that three stars is the most likely outcome, given Bruni’s already-documented affection for the place.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Café Boulud. Regardless of the rating, look for Bruni to include a back-handed slap at Daniel, the only one of the four-star restaurants he has yet to review.


Café Boulud

Note: This is a review under Chef Bertrand Chemel, who has since left the restaurant. Click here for a review under his replacement, Gavin Kaysen.


A friend has just celebrated her 45th birthday. For the occasion, I decided to take her to Café Boulud, the three-star sibling of Daniel Boulud’s four-star flagship, Daniel. I’ve heard great things about Café Boulud over the years, but Andrew Carmellini, the chef de cuisine to whom it owes its reputation, jumped ship recently to open A Voce, leaving the kitchen in the hands of Bertrand Chemel.

We weren’t blown away. One can never go too far wrong with seared foie gras ($26), but there was nothing distinguished about the preparation. Peking Duck ($36) was likewise competent, and an ample portion, but wasn’t special. My friend had a similar reaction to sweetbreads ($19) and hangar steak ($34). Her cheese course ($21) was one of the comparative bargains.

One server offered a special dessert, but moments later another server told us it was unavailable. The strawberry grati ($13) was just fine, although quickly forgotten.

On the plus side, I was impressed to see that the wine list had a full page of white wine selections under $60, and another full page with reds under $60. I’ve been to plenty of restaurants less ambitious than Café Boulud where the choices under $60 were few and far between.

With so much more to choose from on the menu, I hesitate to say that Café Boulud is coasting, but both of us found the cooking uninspired, given the price point.

Café Boulud (20 E. 76th St. between Fifth & Madison Avenues, Upper East Side)

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