with Michael Miller
The first thing one notices entering Bar Boulud is the complete absence of any trace of the economic downturn. Thank God, too! (Forget your troubles, come on, get happy!) Elegant and chic, sleek and moderne, everywhere the fashionable thirty- and forty-somethings were enjoying themselves over bottles of wine and charcuterie, as if it were April in Paris. It‘s so chic, it feels like the set of a Carlo Ponti film. With the full house we encountered at 10.30 on a Monday evening, there was just enough room for Monica Vitti or Virna Lisi to totter through the crowd in a scant cocktail dress and stiletto heels. Bar Boulud, aside from offering a more affordable and informal menu than the mother restaurant Daniel’s menu, caters to hungry denizens of Lincoln Center with delicious French bistro food, excellent—and occasionally offbeat—wine, and incredibly civilized service. After five hours of Wagner, let’s say, the staunchest Wagnerian will need meat, and this is place to get it, especially the most restorative of meats—charcuterie.
The menu changes seasonally, and now there are new plates for spring, with an emphasis on the color green. So don’t be surprised to find just a little green where you least expect it.
But there’s so much more to it.
Designed by Thomas Schlesser of Design Bureaux, twice awarded the James Beard Foundation for restaurant design (2002 and 2005), now nominated for the 2009 prize for Bar Boulud. At first impression the main dining room seems streamlined, contemporary, even abstract, with the converging lines of its long, narrow space and its interrupted barrel vault, but as one settles in one realizes that one is surrounded by stone and wood, materials associated with the most ancient traditions of winemaking. The floor is of rough hewn stone of the kind used in Burgundian farmhouses. The wall consists of the type of gravel found in the vineyards of the Rhône Valley, contained by a mesh screen. Tables, chairs, etc. are made of white oak, the wood favored for wine barrels. And of course the barrel vault, its sophisticated interpretation notwithstanding, evokes a wine cellar. The furnishings also recall the form and function of traditional Burgundian meubles, most strikingly the long communal table in the center of the space and the round tasting table at the back, which imitates to tables of the regional négociants.
The implementation of the concepts might be a little too sophisticated for, say, Georges Brassens to feel at ease there, but he would have recognised many familiar, even beloved objects, like the wall of corkscrews and the display of other tools used in winemaking, and above all the stains of wine lees collected by Bick Munis, the Brazilian artist and a close friend of Mr. Boulud, while drinking chez Daniel. Each stain is lovingly identified by name. There are quite a few, too. Judging by my Merlot, what a great time Mr. Munis must have had creating this oeuvre! Upon closer inspection, the images evoke more concrete ideas than mere color abstractions à la Morris Louis. To me, they lend an erotic—evocatively feminine—frisson to the place.
You have to see it to believe it. Interesting, provocative, eye-catching, perhaps a conversation starter for whoever may be flirting at the bar. The sum total, for the average or not-so-average New Yorker, results in a relaxing, but lively environment in which to prepare for or decompress from an evening with the Philharmonic, the Met, or perhaps the New York City Ballet.
A wall of glass divides the indoors from outdoors, but this division will dissolve when the warmer weather finally arrives. Downstairs banquet rooms provide a place for private parties, the stairway to which gracefully invites with classically-arranged marble tiles. At a glance, it resembles the entrance to an ancient underground spa, one of the glorious baths of Budapest, or, more obviously, a wine cellar, a real example of which one will obviously find below.
I was amazed at the variety of seating to suit one’s mood, taste, and group size——from a wine-tasting round table to private booths; from the charcuterie/wine bar with a mirror facing the stools (How naughty!) to a large communal table in back and regular inside and outside café tables for two or more. We took a booth, which was perfect—private yet casual, and more conservative. It felt comforting, as if we were at a picnic table outdoors. Recessed light emanated from between the booths, pointing towards the ceiling (but not reaching it), illuminating just enough to see everything without a trace of glare.
First the Wine
The wine list is mammoth, encompassing old friends (“les classiques”), classic first growths (“les légendes), and a good many less familiar bottles (“les découvertes”). The cellar is dedicated, as they say, to M. Boulud’s favorite regions, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley and also includes “cousin wines” from all the major wine-producing countries of the world, that is, wines made from the characteristic grapes of those regions. Moreover, Boulud, his wine directer, Daniel Johnnes, and his sommelier, Michael Madrigale, are not doctrinaire: the wine list includes a number of favorites which have nothing to do with Burgundy or the Rhône. Fortunately our waiter was well-prepared and helpful. As a rule, I usually favor French wine, but for some reason I chose the Robert Sinskey Merlot from California. I never drink California wines, but this glass proved substantial, full-bodied, invigorating, moderate and got better the more I drank it. It could have been dinner all by itself. My companion (our editor) tried a Coudoulet De Beaucastel, Cotes-Du-Rhone 2006 with his first course, but later he settled on a Kingston Family Vineyards, Casablanca Valley, Tobiano “Pinot Noir” 2007 from Chile for his entrée. He was pleased with both choices.
As we picked up our menus and studied them Michael’s eyes expanded like the underside of a hungry octopus as he contemplated the foison of charcuterie described in it. There was a fine paté grand-mère seasoned with cognac and a coarse pâté grand-père with foie gras, jus de truffe, and port. There was pulled rabbit, fromage de tête, and game pie, a venison pâté seasoned with orange and cumin, stewed ox cheek, tagine d’agneau, dry Lyonnais sausage, and a variety of hams. Vegetable accompaniments to these masterpieces are also offered. But these are only the cold starters. There were also hot, crisp rillons (pork belly) and the renowed cervelas de Lyon with black truffle and pistachio. That was what Michael chose, and he was not disappointed. The sausage was smaller than the traditional version of the dish, and the crust, a true brioche, was more ample, but he found this an amusing, cake-like riff on the classic and enjoyed it thoroughly. Cajoled by my friend, I ordered the pâté de canard and was pleasantly surprised. It came in the shape of a slice of bread. Inside were pieces of ham, figs, and the super-rich duck pate in the middle, which made a kind of face framed with crust. Mustard, gherkins, and pickled onion on the side were accents, and a garnish of frisee finished the ensemble. The mildly sweet and the pungently sour worked together to quench my preliminary appetite—after a bracing concert of Prokofiev under Valery Gergiev—without stanching it entirely.
After the paté, my Coquille St. Jacques arrived smothered in a gentle sautée of onion, fennel, and endive shavings. The combination of braised scallops and sautéed vegetables erupted in a burst of flavor, not volcanic, but subtle, completely complementary, with a slightly bitter taste, tender and delicious with—Surprise!—a touch of green mustard underneath. Unlike my own vain attempts, these coquilles were not drowning in cream sauce. On the contrary, I tasted a subliminal note of some sauvignon blanc-like wine in the scant sauce which brought it to exquisite life. Michael ordered one of the specials, a boeuf bourguinon-like stew on a bed of mashed peas topped by lightly cooked fresh peas, which provided just the right lift to this earthy dish to suit the season, which had not yet arrived but was very much alive in our expectations.
The menu is replete with the classics of Burgundy: coq au vin, escargots, boudin noir et blanc, lotte à la moutarde, steak frites, and blanquette de veau. That should make it clear that we will both be back whenever we get the chance.
Though quite satisfied, I chose the coupe de café cardamome for dessert. This ambitious sweet had three parts in one glass: a scoop of cardamom-flavored coffee sorbet adorned with dark chocolate shavings, set on a pillow of whipped cream on top of a layer of chocolate mousse underneath. Wow! (No, this mousse was not green.) Light and airy, it transported me. Thus satisfied, we sat and wiled away another hour discussing Wagner, adventures, and Prokofiev.
Damian Sansonetti, Executive Chef, and Ghaya Oliveira, Pastry Chef, really know how to satisfy the even an uneducated palette, along with serious gourmands, taking a night off from Daniel, or a denizen of Lincoln Center seeking to begin or end the evening in a worthy manner. The maitre d’, German Alvarado, is willing and able to give you a warm welcome and set things right at your table—not that we encountered any problems. According to him, a smaller after-concert menu is in development, as is a retail shop, where customers will be able to buy charcuterie and cheese for a picnic in Central Park or just take it home. (Michael got quite excited when he heard this, saying that he hadn’t been able to find classic French charcuterie in the city for years. He can’t wait.) Aware of the lateness of some performances at the Met, Bar Boulud adjusts its hours accordingly.
N.B. the Pre-Theater prix-fixe dinner looks like a steal!
New York, NY 10023
tel. (212) 595-0303
Dress code: business casual
Hours of Operation: Lunch: Monday – Friday: 12:00pm – 4:00pm
Dinner: Monday – Saturday: 5:00pm – 11:00pm, Sunday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Brunch: Saturday – Sunday: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Originally Published in The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts