I want to start this post with a disclaimer: I know I’m spoiled. I admit that I have lived a life of privilege, in every sense of the world, and certainly when it comes to fine dining I’ve been lucky enough to regularly partake in some of the best around. So please understand that when I report disappointment with my birthday celebration meal this year, I’m not complaining. Well, I am complaining but I’m doing it with full knowledge of how high I set the bar due to the many fantastic opportunities I’ve previously enjoyed, with which I now compare every experience.
So, lucky me, my husband took me to the Big Apple for lunch in a world class restaurant and then to a Broadway show. In a town known for great food and entertainment, I had my pick of any of the fantastic fine dining establishments in The City. Unfortunately, my selection fell just a bit short of fantastic and I found myself wishing I had chosen differently.
For lunch, I chose a return visit to Bouley, where many years ago we had indulged in one of the most decadent and delicious meals I could recall. Chef David Bouley is classically trained French chef and his New York restaurant has earned two Michelin stars. I remembered being pampered to the max, sent all kinds of extra taste treats from the kitchen, as well as parade of desserts unlike any I had ever seen at that time. As is the great tradition of top tiered French restaurants, the generosity of Restaurant Bouley was memorable. That meal, one of our first dining experiences of seriously high caliber, was a treasured memory I was hoping to repeat, forgetting that since that time I have dined in numerous 3 starred places in Paris, as well as countless French bistros and bistronomiques in France. So while the meal was pleasant, it wasn’t even close the gastronomic glory I remembered and hoped for.
Restaurant Bouley had changed address since our last visit here and we were curious to see how it had evolved. The restaurant itself is lovely, with a welcoming foyer of fresh apples and an entrance salon filled with fresh flowers and lovely furniture. We were a few minutes early for our reservation and we enjoyed the ambiance of this space while waiting for our table. Sadly, when it came time to seat us, we were led through the gorgeous sunlit front room, where every table was occupied, to a smaller cave like room in the back. Although this room was richly painted and elegantly appointed, I somehow felt slighted and was reminded of some of the snottier restaurants in Paris where English speaking tourists are relegated to a dingier room near the kitchen or on a different floor. But this was my own country and I had made the reservation almost a month in advance and told them it was a special birthday celebration and we still found ourselves seated in the small, dark, back room with 3 tables of Japanese tourists and one couple dressed in jeans and plaid flannel.
Lunch began with an amuse of puree of pumpkin soup, topped with lardon and crème fresh. This was deliciously smooth and perfectly spiced and raised our hopes for a top-notch meal. Sadly, we were to be disappointed. While every plate was beautifully presented and none of the dishes that followed were bad, they each lacked any kind of serious “yum” factor. The flavors were so subtle that in some dishes that the ingredients were only identifiable by the description on the menu.
A perfect example was my first course described as : Organic Local Green Asparagus with roasted pencil asparagus fresh garden herbs, basil dressing in a comte cloud. Having enjoyed a number of fantastic pieces of good aged comte cheese in France, I was disappointed to be unable to discern anything remotely similar on my tongue. The asparagus were perfect but the “comte cloud” mostly resembled cream, whipped to just shy of butter. Delicious, but no sharp bite of a good comte cheese, and no basil to be seen or tasted either.
Sadly, my second course, Porcini Flan, Alaska live dungeness crab with black truffle dash, had not a note of truffle and the “flan” turned out to simply be a few tiny pieces of custardy egg floating in a porcini flavored broth. Loads of crab swimming in there as well, but the dish lacked the layers of flavor or texture needed to make it a standout.
The other dishes we ate included:
Desserts were disappointing as well, especially with my memory of our last meal at Bouley, where dessert had been such a highlight including a special rice pudding (one of my favorites) for a birthday treat after three other complex and inventive sweets. This time, the “Chocolate Frivolous” made up of chocolate brulee, chocolate parfait, hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate walnut spice bread, white coffee ice cream, prune armagnac ice cream, sounded heavenly but each element was so heavy and over sweet I hit chocolate fatigue (not an easy state for me to reach!) in just a few bites. And the prune ice cream tasted bitter as could be and had a distinctive flavor of dirt! Not at all pleasant. The second dessert, Hot Caramelized Anjou Pear valrhona chocolate, biscuit Breton, hot toffee sauce, rosemary & Tahitian vanilla ice cream, was more successful, but the rosemary flavor in the ice cream was way too intense and distracting from the other flavors in the dessert.
My special birthday “treat” that arrived with a candle looked gorgeous but was a severe let down. Very thin slices of over-ripe pineapple were topped with a scoop of some kind of sorbet that was so incredibly tart it was literally inedible. It was a nice thought to have a candle and the Happy Birthday sentiment written in chocolate on the plate rim but c’mon! A little effort here?
We ended our meal with expresso and a sad little mignardise tray that held a few tired little sweet bites including stale macarons and a decent chocolate ganache truffle. They brought us the bill and then asked if we’d like another expresso. We assumed a second was on the house since they’d already brought the bill but after accepting their offer; they whisked our bill away and added 2 more expressos ($5 each!!!) to our already hefty tab. So much for that remembered generosity.
My conclusion? After all the outrageously great dining that I’ve been blessed to indulge in when visiting France, I have realized that I’m bound to be disappointed eating expensive French food here in the US. For my subsequent visits to NYC I’ll be choosing from the countless other delicious cuisines available in that great restaurant town.