Friday, February 26, 2010

another fancy dinner

The Saturday night of our stay in New York, we opted to go to another restaurant for a fancy dinner.  We had just seen a matinee of Bye Bye Birdie, so dinner was a good way to spend the evening.  Steve didn't want to pack in so many shows this time, and I can't say I blame him.  After all, he prefers going to good restaurants, and I enjoy it too.

This time, we had reservations for Café Boulud.  It's one of Daniel Boulud's restaurants, although it's not his signature/flagship one.  Daniel is his most upscale restaurant and the one with three Michelin stars.  (I generally categorize Daniel Boulud with Eric Ripert and Jean Georges Vongerichten... They're all French chefs in NYC with three-star restaurants.)  Café Boulud has one star, which is still not too shabby.  It may be a step down from Daniel, but it's a pretty small step.  It's still fancier than most restaurants we've tried.

The executive chef at Café Boulud is also a familiar name: Gavin Kaysen.  We've seen him as a competitor on the first season of Next Iron Chef and as a guest judge on Top Chef last season for the Bocuse d'Or challenge.

After some fancy (ok, pretty basic) subway transfer work, we arrived on the Upper East Side in time for our 8:30pm reservation.  We checked our coats and were seated at a little corner booth.  Despite being next to a wait station and the path to the kitchen/restrooms, it was a comfortable spot.  I was already more at ease than I had been at Le Bernardin the night before.  

We looked at our menus, but we asked about the tasting menu, which I had seen mentioned on the website.  Unlike Le Bernardin, there was no preset tasting menu; instead, the chef determined what to serve for 5 courses.  They were able to work around my allergies, so we decided to order the tasting menu and eat what they wanted to serve us.

Fontina, Risotto, Black Truffle

Every table received arancini as an amuse bouche.  Little fried balls of risotto, arancini are hard not to love.  (We had some at our wedding during the cocktail hour, not that I actually ate any of the hors d'oeurves that day. )  As our waiter told us, they were filled with fontina, risotto, and black truffle. They were creamy and slightly earthy from the truffle, and the outsides were perfectly crispy.
Roasted Beet Terrine
Maytag Blue Cheese Mousse, Toasted Walnuts, Endive, Citrus Gelée

New Brunswick Oyster

Arancini (same as before)

A trio of amuses were next to come out, and one of them looked familiar.  We each got another of the arancini, which we were happy to eat.  Next to that was a New Brunswick oyster.  It was small and sweet, just how I like them.  The last bite was the beet terrine with blue cheese.  It was a little like a layered jello, but savory, and with cheese on top rather than whatever opaque stuff they use in those jello desserts.  I really enjoyed it, since I've been liking beets with cheese lately.  I was just a little sad that mine didn't have the extra garnishes that Steve had.  They left the green sprig and the endive off of mine, even though the walnut was the only part that should have been a problem.

Ahi Tuna Carpaccio Niçoise
Haricots Vert, Yellow Wax Beans, Olives, Fried Quail Egg, Tonnato Sauce


And then came the first of the real courses.  We soon found out that they were giving us each different dishes.  It was cool to try more things and take more pictures, although I wasn't always sure if there were elements of Steve's dishes that contained nuts.  I only tried a few bites of his whole meal, but I had plenty of food on my own plates to eat anyway.

Sashimi of Fluke
Pineapple, Cilantro, Jalapeño, Ponzu Vinaigrette

I got the fluke as my first course.  It was one of my favorites of the night, with the sashimi, the pineapple for fruity/sweet, the jalapeño for heat, and the ponzu vinaigrette for salt/acid.  I really like light dishes like this that pair unexpected things well.  It was also quite pretty.

Since Steve and I were being served dishes that weren't necessarily on a printed menu, I spent a minute copying down what I remembered about each course's description after they were announced for us.  Steve went back later, cross-checked those descriptions against the online menus, and pasted the official descriptions for the dishes that he found into a document to keep.  This dish was actually on the menu for Restaurant Week (a few weeks after we were in town), rather than the normal dinner menu.

Thai Coconut and Lemongrass Soup
Shiitake Mushrooms, Shrimp & Pork Wonton, Cilantro

lemongrass soup
Steve got the lemongrass soup as his soup course.  Since it had mushrooms in it, I didn't try any.  Steve was a big fan, however; he likes Thai flavors more than I do.
Cauliflower Velouté
Tempura Oyster, Roasted Cauliflower, Salmon Roe, Arugula

My soup course was a lovely cauliflower velouté.  It was smooth and cauliflowery, and the roe and oyster provided some punches of salt here and there.  There were also small florets of cauliflower, which added some texture.
Both of the soups were brought out with just the garnishes in the bowls, and the servers poured in the liquid at the table.  Steve's garnishes stayed centered, but mine didn't do as well.  So the picture of my soup isn't quite as perfect, but that's okay. 

Incidentally, I saw that someone at the table next to ours ordered the lemongrass soup as a normal portion.  It looked enormous.  I was glad to have a smaller size of mine.  I also really liked the soup bowls and the writing on them.

Rabbit Agnolotti
Beets(?), Red Wine Sauce, Pecorino Foam

Here is the point in the meal when we realized that many of these dishes were probably on the menu in some form.  Instead of being so detailed in my descriptions of the dishes in my moleskine, I started just writing the names of the dishes.  As luck would have it, the rabbit agnolotti was not on any of the online menus.  I had to cobble together a description for it based on the picture and Steve's memory of the dish.  Oops.  Steve liked it, but I don't think it was his favorite.  The pecorino foam was interesting, though.
Fall Squash Risotto
Ricotta Salata, Brown Butter, Sage

I was so happy when they brought out the risotto for my pasta course.  In looking at the online menu and the printed menu in the restaurant, this was the one dish that stood out.  If we had ordered individual plates instead of the tasting menu, I would have made sure we included this.  So it couldn't have been more perfect that I got during the tasting menu.
It was a different take on a squash risotto than what we do at home.  There was no pancetta in this, and the cheese was a hard, salty ricotta rather than a soft triple-cream cheese.  They also used brown butter, which is likely what that foam was on top.  It was a sweeter dish than ours—also good, but different.
I ate most of what I was served, and I'm willing to bet that this was the beginning of the end of my appetite.  Risotto is pretty filling, and I was only able to eat a few bites of the last two savory courses.
Poached Maine Halibut
Puy Lentils, Brussels Sprouts, Gala Apples, Crispy Bacon, Sauce Diablo
Fish was next, and Steve got the halibut.  I think I may have had a bite of the fish, but I was trying to concentrate on getting through my own dishes.  The accompaniments on this dish sounded great, though: lentils, brussels sprouts, bacon, and apple.  Can you tell that I'm beginning to really like fruit in savory dishes?
Seared Diver Scallop
Kohlrabi, Artichoke Barigoule, Herb Crust, Whole Grain Mustard Jus

For my fish course, I got a seared diver scallop.  I haven't had many diver scallops that I've loved, so I wasn't surprised that this didn't rock my world.  The texture of the herb crust was pleasant, but the mustard flavors in the dish didn't help matters much.  (I've never really liked mustard either.)  I think my favorite part of the dish was actually the little potato pieces that were up on end.  They looked a little like the artichoke, but they tasted like french fries.

Roasted Venison Loin
Crispy Polenta, Sage Crust, Treviso, Sauce au Poivre

Meat came next.  Steve got the venison, and I got the veal.  I might have preferred to get the venison, but I was full enough by this point that I couldn't eat more than about one bite of each element anyway.

Tasting of Pennsylvania Veal
Braised Cheek, Seared Loin, Roasted Salsify, Sweet Potato, Brussels Sprouts, Mustard Fruit Jus

There was a lot going on on the veal plate.  It was like three dishes in one: seared loin with sweet potato puree and brussels sprouts, sweetbreads on roasted salsify (maybe?), and then the braised cheek on top of some polenta.  Of the preparations of veal, the sweetbreads were my least favorite.  I don't have a big problem with offal, but the texture was just a little too fatty for me.  The cheek was tender and flavorful; and I think the loin was good, but I don't really remember it.  I was actually more interested in the sweet potato puree, the tiny brussels sprouts, and the polenta.  They were all wonderful and took up less room in my already full stomach.
Molten Chocolate Cake
Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream
molten chocolate cake
Finally, all the savory courses were finished, and our waiter asked if we would like a cheese course.  We were curious what they would serve us, but the only room we had left was reserved for dessert.
Steve got this relatively simple molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream (and gold leaf on top!).  I had a taste of the chocolate cake, which was very rich, but I was more interested in my own dessert.

Apple Tart Tatin
Diplomat Cream, Confiture de Lait, Vanilla Ice Cream
apple tart tatin

Both of our desserts were from the traditional French portion of the menu, but mine was just a little more interesting.  On the left, there was a stack of caramelized apples, topped with a light pastry roll that was filled with vanilla cream, and a strip of caramelized sugar.  In the middle, the confiture de lait was like caramel and cream encased in gelatin.  And on the right was the ice cream, on top of some streusel to prevent sliding on the plate.  It was originally supposed to be pecan-bourbon ice cream, but they substituted vanilla to make it edible for me.
This was one of those times when I wished I wasn't so full already.  I managed to find room for quite a bit of it, especially considering how full I was before dessert, but I was sorry to have to leave some behind.
The final send-off mignardises were small madeleines in a folded napkin.  I ate two or three of these, and they were wonderful.  They were slightly lemony and topped with powdered sugar.  Yet again, I wished I could have eaten more.

I mentioned in my post about Le Bernardin that I preferred this dinner to the one we had the night before.  It's not that the food was so much better at Café Boulud; I think it was just more my style.  The mascarpone dessert at Le Bernardin was my favorite dish out of both meals; however, the first few dishes we had at Café Boulud were all fabulous.  And they served me risotto—and fried balls of risotto—of which I am a fan.  The desserts may not have been quite as impressive, but that apple tart tatin was pretty darn good.
I think the deciding factors, besides the hefty price tag at Le Bernardin, were the overall experience and the service.  I simply enjoyed myself more at Café Boulud.  We had French waiters at both restaurants, but the one at Café Boulud was more charming while still being professional.  The secondary server—a younger woman—was also great.  They weren't as stiff as the ones at Le Bernardin.  I'm sure the formality is part of what sets Le Bernardin apart as a three-star restaurant, but I like to feel at least a little connection with the wait staff.
And as an added bonus at Café Boulud, we saw Chef Kaysen.  He stopped by one of the other tables in the dining room, and I pointed him out to Steve.  (I'm better with faces than he is.)

By the time we left the restaurant, they were finishing up the last of the tables for the night.  We had been there for about 2 1/2 hours.  We got back to the hotel and decided to go ahead and make reservations for the next day on OpenTable.  For our last dinner in NY?  DB Bistro Moderne, another Daniel Boulud restaurant.  Because hey, why not?

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