Cafe Boulud — 4 stars

 

If you’re looking for great vegetarian food in a classic, upscale atmosphere on the Upper East Side, Cafe Boulud is a great choice.  Earlier this year, I reviewed Boulud Sud, part of the Lincoln Center-area trio of Boulud restaurants.  If you’re following me on twitter, you know that a little while ago, I ventured to the UES to Cafe Boulud, the slightly more relaxed counterpart to the chef’s flagship restaurant, Daniel.  Cafe Boulud gets one Michelin star and Frank Bruni gives it three stars for the Times.  I recently went there for lunch and was quite impressed, both with the quality of the food and the vegetarian selections.As Frank Bruni notes, Cafe Boulud always has four menus: “La Tradition (classic country cooking), La Saison (seasonal dishes), Le Potager (vegetarian choices), and Le Voyage (world cuisine)”.  Bruni says that this means “anything goes”, but from my perspective, it’s just great to have guaranteed vegetarian choices on the menu. When I was there, this is what the menu looked like.

Instead of the “Potager” menu, I went with the lunch prix fixe, which also had a bunch of vegetarian options.  For my first course, I got the summer vegetable tart — and this is not at all what I was expecting.  The bottom of the tart was almost cracker-like, and there was, as you can tell, not much in the way of summer vegetables.  The tart was pretty good, even if it was surprising.  I didn’t mind that it was so small — I actually liked that it was light — but the cracker-to-vegetable ratio was off.  I needed more vegetables or less cracker.  And if there was less cracker, this comes off less as a first course and more as an amuse-bouche.

The homemade fettuccine was also a bit of a surprise; this portion size, too, was smaller than I was expecting.  That said, it was pretty good.  I’ve had the fettuccine at yet another of Boulud’s restaurants — db bistro moderne — and I was happy with it there as well.  The description of the course says it is served with “caramelized fennel, roasted beets, goat cheese, hazelnuts, and breadcrumbs”.  I wouldn’t have guessed that those things could go together — particularly the hazelnuts and breadcrumbs.  But it actually worked pretty well.  I did, however, find the goat cheese to overpower the other accents.  Goat cheese is great, but I don’t like it to overpower the other ingredients.  I don’t say this very often, but:  this would be better with a little less cheese.

Dessert was the strawberry-almond cake, and it was fantastic.  It was by far the best course of the meal.  It was sweet, creamy, and crunchy all at the same time.  It wasn’t too sweet, and it was nice for the meal to end on a high note.

Overall, this meal was very good.  Earlier this year, I said I wanted to introduce some rigor into my ratings:  I was going to rate restaurants on a combination of the quality of the food, and the breadth of their vegetarian options.  Cafe Boulud rates very highly on the second dimension.  There is always a dedicated vegetarian menu, and even the regular prix fixe had ample vegetarian choices.  The food itself was great, though nothing stood out as “knock your socks off” spectacular.  I debated for a while between 3.5 and 4 stars here, and ultimately settled on 4, giving the slight edge because of the ambiance and character of the restaurant.  However, purely in terms of cuisine, I’d say you could have just as good an experience at Boulud Sud.  The food there is inventive and varied, and a few steps removed from the usual fare at the French-inspired top restaurants.  So, although I rate this a notch higher than Boulud Sud, I’d say it’s close to a tossup.  If you want a fancy meal in the traditional style, come to Cafe Boulud.  If you want high-quality food but in a more relaxed atmosphere, go to Boulud Sud.  The wild card (for now), of course, is Daniel — which will be featured in these pages before long.

Cafe Boulud’s menus are below.  First is the “regular” menu — there are always four options, traditional, seasonal, vegetarian, and global — and second is the prix fixe lunch menu. (Return to the body of the post.)

 

What are your thoughts?