Boulud Sud: New York City -- Daniel's Club Med(iterranean)

Daniel Boulud takes you cruising through the Mediterranean at his Boulud Sud restaurant, near Lincoln center in New York City.

I'd be happy if Boulud Sud (sud is French for south) stuck to cuisine from the South of France. But Daniel gives you a peek at Greece, teases you with a little Africa, and waves Spain right under your nose, waking you up. Monaco is there too, along with her poor cousin Tunisia, who huddles in the corner reeking of Harissa.

It's only a short walk across Central Park, but as I entered his bright, wide-windowed Westside Boulud Sud, it hit me that this is a far cry from Daniel's original East Side establishment, or house of skilled repast -- the dark, sexy room where he pimps the world's most gorgeous dishes. They sidle over to your table, paraded by as if they were high-class hookers. I lick my lips and devour his French cuisine, savoring the flavor pheromones as they race down my throat. I swallow, and my tongue pops a boner; the chef's work is done.

But his new Boulud Sud had special appeal for me this night.  My raison d'être was their offer of a prix fixe, pre-theater, three-course dinner for $60. As the hostess pulled my chair away from the cozy table, I reminded her that we had tickets to Book of Mormon. I said it too loudly for emphasis; had I tickets to a lesser show I'd have kept my mouth shut. The young, dark-eyed girl looked at me and sweetly smiled. She didn't speak, but I could smell the confidence coming off of her. It wasn't condescension; I hated that smell and avoided places that served it. This was more like saffron, but it might have just been actual saffron wafting from a dish a passing waiter brandished.

We opened the menu and were pleased with the selection. The menu covered the bases with beef, chicken, fish, and then rounded third and came home using fennel, spigarello, socca, and chickpea.  I could start with hummus and falafel -- but why? I grabbed the waiter by his skinny, trendy tie and pulled him close. Did Daniel do something funny to the hummus that makes it special? It better be amazing fucking hummus and the falafel better literally sing if he's going to have something so banal on his menu, especially on my special night. I have Book of Mormon tickets!

The waiter wriggled free, begging that I look towards the kitchen. I saw a white chef wearing a coat to match his pallor. The waiter rubbed his throat to speak, imploring me to listen to his tale.

The chef was Aaron Chambers, a British progeny of Daniel himself. The waiter suspected that Aaron once headed to Morocco on holiday, traveling alone because all of his little chef friends went to Paris, again.  He didn't speak the language, but he found his way to a cafe and sat, looking confused by the menu. He caught the eye of an old man who wore a spice-stained apron. Just before the old man ducked back into the kitchen, he sent his beautiful young daughter out to the pale stranger. He looks like flour, the old man muttered in Arabic.

With a lot of pointing and miming, the girl guided the chef through one of the most flavorful, inventive meals of his life. He bedded the waitress that night. Hungry for more, they sneaked into the old man's kitchen. Giggling, naked, she took his hand, and through the unspoken language of spice and sex, together they cooked eye-opening traditional dishes. By sunrise, Aaron was culinarily walking funny.

His trip ended, and as he tearfully said goodbye to his hot, spicy lover, he vowed to continue what she showed him. In the kitchen only, he assured her with a wink. The old man tucked some old, wrinkled recipes under the boys arm and kissed him, hard.

Trust me, the waiter whispers to me, leaning in close, his hummus is amazing. And so is Book of Mormon, I've seen it twice. We all have.  

As I tasted the hummus, a food you can buy at any 7-Eleven in a personal-sized squeeze tube, I knew that Aaron had paid attention in Moroccan cuisine school.  It was brilliantly laced with English peas. The bread was so thin and crispy it was like fried butterfly wings. The dash of cumin had a purpose other than to offset the green.

Boulud Sud hummus, falafel, and baba ghanoush

I picked up a falafel, and split it open as I always do. I was taken aback by the bright green inside. I called the waiter over to alert him that they had served me old, moldy food. They work off tips, and he kindly whispered, That's mint, it's traditional.

Octopus was softened by Jerez vinegar to the point that this normally frightful and tough animal could be gummed by a granny without her teeth. I picked up a little arugula, orange, and slivered almonds, along with a bit of cruel Ursula with each stab of my fork.

I discovered that, prior to this meal, I had been eating some mild, watered-down excuse for Mediterranean cuisine. The scallops with fennel and frisée spoke a language I had heard whispered, but never tasted. The chicken tagine, bright with lemon, kept poached turnips captive in its broth of coriander and ginger, long enough for me to dredge warm, crusty bread through it like I was at a church picnic soppin' up gravy. 

It was at this point that we went off the prix fixe script. They paced the dinner so well that we had extra time, so for an extra fee, they augmented our three courses with a shared sea urchin and crab tart, plopped on a cracker slathered with lemon creme. They could have slathered that with Pond's cold cream and I would have paid twice what they charged. Best decision of the day, and I had had a long day.  

Dessert sneaked up to my table, a sultry woman in harem pants, disguised as a cardamom chocolate cake with surprisingly non-pungent goat-milk gelato as her veil, looking me directly in the eyes and asking me, Do you want to split a tart? I hoped she was talking about the lemon cake served with lemon-basil sorbet in her other hand.

I am a strong believer in sharing plates. If I weren't, I feel that there was a fat man in a dark, shadowy corner of this room who would pop out and hold a scimitar against my throat and threaten to split me in two if I didn't.

We paid. I dashed downstairs to the bathroom before our short walk to the theater. When I came out, I thought I retraced my same steps, but the basement has several choices to make -- it's like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. When I emerged upstairs, I was in a totally different, very busy, crowded restaurant!  I saw hams hanging from the ceiling and smelled roasting coffee. Had the world changed? I had eaten food from cultures that freely trade spices, women, goats, and phone numbers, so I figured I might now be in Jordan or Philadelphia. I suddenly regretted whispering to my dinner companion earlier, I would give my left nut for more hummus. This might be the testicle market.

A kindly old spinster woman approached me. My eyes adjusted to the light and I could see that she was in fact a young, unmarried New Yorker working as a hostess. She explained that I was in a different Boulud. Apparently Daniel owns the whole block, and has about a dozen different bars, eateries, and shops all under one giant Bedouin tent. I'm sure there's an ice rink, but I had a show to see. Book of Mormon.

It's a funny show, riotously funny. I looked around at the Midwestern businessmen and grandmothers who probably had no idea what the show they just had to see because everyone went on and on about it was actually about. I wondered what was going through their minds as Jesus tap-danced with the Devil on the Broadway stage.

I wondered if I could stomach the play because my stomach was so full of passion and flavor that was still coursing through my body as I sat in my theater seat.

Just as Chef Aaron did when he released the hand of the spicy Moroccan slut and returned home, I too would be smiling inside for a very long time.

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