When you walk into Bouley, the eponymous flagship restaurant of Chef David Bouley, you’re immediately hit with the scent of apples — the walls of restaurant’s anteroom are lined with apples, from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. This is a preview of what’s to come: ingredients and ideas that are familiar, repurposed in a way that is somewhere on the edge between crazy and genius. All the while, Chef Bouley’s menu incorporates vegetarian options, making this one Michelin stared TriBeCa restaurant quite vegetarian friendly. In terms of quality, presentation, and service, Bouley was spectacular.
Perhaps some backstory is in order. In mid-June 2011, I got called for jury duty in state court in Manhattan. Those of you that have been know that the odds of getting actually selected for a case are pretty slim, but you have to show up for (usually) two days. At this point it had been about a year since my last visit to Bouley, so I thought I’d head over for lunch. I was concerned that the time we had for the lunch break might not be long enough, so I tweeted at Chef Bouley, not really expecting a response. To my surprise, the chef tweeted back. And so, hopeful that I could get in and out in about 90 minutes, I walked crosstown to the Chef’s latest location. (Here’s some history.)
I got the vegetarian tasting menu for lunch, which started with Provence style cold tomato soup with homemade ricotta and black truffle (pictured at the top of this post) as the first of several amuses. This kicked off the theme of “familiar, yet different”. The cold tomato soup was reminiscent of a gazpacho, but the ricotta and truffle gave it a distinct flavor profile. I was pleasantly surprised that the truffle didn’t dominate.
The soup was served with a chip, cheese, and truffle pate. Cute!
My first course was Provence white asparagus with celery puree, Oregon morels, and pine nuts. This was nothing like what I was expecting! In 2011, I saw beet salads on lots of menus; in 2012, I’m seeing morel mushrooms. I’ve had them in a curry at Jamavar in India; prepared rather simply, with a morel puree, at Eleven Madison Park, and now here. Bouley’s preparation is my favorite. I was expecting an asparagus dish to be very light, without much depth to it. I was completely wrong. The asparagus went great with morels, which lent an earthy undertone to the preparation. The pine nuts were a nice garnish, but the morels really made the dish.
At this point I should pause to talk about the bread at Bouley. This is the only place I’ve been to that offers a full bread cart, with a dedicated server just for the bread. He’ll serve you as many different types of bread as you want, and the slices are incredibly thin. One “serving” is three thin slices.
I had apple raisin bread (not pictured) and rosemary bread (above). I definitely liked the former better, though I hasten to add that there was nothing wrong with the rosemary. I have heard rumors of people who order “one of everything”. Though I’m sure that’s delicious, this is not a restaurant where you want to fill up on the bread, no matter how good it may be. (I will say that I later tried the saffron walnut, which was nice, though I didn’t get much of the saffron. Other choices included apricot walnut, fig, garlic, and several others I’m forgetting.)
Next up was an interlude of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, roasted with a pineapple chamomile soup. Here’s the theme again: something you recognize (tomatoes) and something you don’t (pineapple chamomile soup??). But it holds together. The acidity of the tomato contrasts with the sweet pineapple-chamomile combination, and you get James Carville and Mary Matalin: a marriage that shouldn’t work, but does.
Next up — this, by the way, was my “second course” — were the mushrooms with white asparagus. I was not expecting the white asparagus to be liquefied, but there you have it. In a sense this was the inverse of the asparagus with morels: in that course, the asparagus was the focal point of the dish, and the morels gave them some depth. Here, the mushrooms are the focus, but the asparagus lightens them up so they’re not so gloomy. (I believe this can also be ordered with tuna, which I obviously did not get.)
After all this came my main course — garagnelli pasta with peas and comte cheese. I have to admit I was wary about this. I had already eaten quite a bit (see above!) and I thought a pasta dish after all of that would be heavy and off-putting. It wasn’t. The cheese was actually quite light, and the peas were fresh. Between the peas and the greens, the dish had a much lighter (and more manageable) feel to it than I initially thought. Overall, this dish was good, though of everything I had it probably stood out the least.
At this point we transition to the dessert sequence. It’s kicked off with this thing, pictured above. Anyone know what it is? No? I’ll tell you: white chocolate cloud dusted with green tea. I don’t even know what that means. This preparation, I have to say, did not follow the them of combining familiar and unfamiliar. This was just completely unfamiliar. That said, it was amazing. It was like eating a cloud. The thing was pretty big — maybe 6 by 3 by 2 inches — but it dissolved almost instantly in my mouth. Imagine cotton candy, but way better. And I don’t know whose idea it was to combine white chocolate and green tea, but give that person a medal.
The second pre-dessert was white peach soup with amaretto ice cream and creme brulee. I have to say, I’m generally not a fan of peaches, or of creme brulee. But I’ve come this far — I have to have some trust, right? So I did. The peaches were actually quite good, and the creme brulee — interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever had cold creme brulee. The ice cream, which I thought I’d like best, was actually the most pedestrian of the trio.
And then, the grand finale. chocolate souffle, with coffee foam and white chocolate sorbet. This was simply fantastic. It was just an orgy of chocolate and the coffee had a nice bit part in the action. The dessert was a mishmash of different colors, tastes, and textures of chocolate, and it all worked very well.
Normally the meal would end with a presentation of some mignardises, but I was on jury duty (remember?). I asked the restaurant to pack these up for me, and they kindly obliged. The lunch did run a bit long, even though I said a couple of times that I had to be out in 90 minutes, but it was so good that I can’t really bring myself to be annoyed.
Overall, Bouley was just about pitch-perfect. From start (getting tweets from the Chef himself) to finish (giving me some reading material about the restaurant so I wouldn’t be bored while waiting to get called for jury duty), the service was fantastic. The food danced around the crazy-genius line all throughout, but hit “genius” every time. The course that least interested me — the garganelli with peas — would probably be a featured dish at a lesser restaurant. And I loved the way the same ingredients would come up at different times, playing different roles (tomato, truffle pate, asparagus). This was a definitely a menu, even for vegetarians, that had a lot of thought put into it.
I will end with one small point of criticism. I went to Bouley about a year prior, before I was blogging. That time, the experience wasn’t nearly as good. In particular, I was annoyed to find no main course vegetarian options. Instead, I was told that the “Kobe beef on a bed of gnocchi” could be prepared with just gnocchi. As my vegetarian friend said to me, that’s like saying, “Your main course is what’s underneath his main course.” I was disappointed to see that this was still presented as one of the vegetarian options. Luckily, there were several other options this time, and the experience was much better. As always, I try really hard to rate each visit separately, so last year’s trip won’t affect this year’s rating.
And as for ratings, it’s hard to do much better than this: five stars!