I stepped off Duane Street and into chef David Bouley’s mind. Apples purposefully line the vestibule's walls; they are a taste of what’s to come. Orchids spray confidently up and out of a Japanese jar, just as some of Chef Bouley’s food inspiringly springs from his loved time in Japan. Let the room spin, the French bench will catch you, and foreshadows the gilded dishes inside.
The hostess politely handed me a pin-striped jacket, which I was humbled to wear; I was unprepared today. Passing through the lounge into the dining room, I looked up at the lacquered gold groin vault ceiling – those deep dents and joints must have been caused by countless pops of champagne cork assaults, echoing shouts down at me that lunch at Bouley is a celebration.
Chef David Bouley was born in Connecticut, but the doting kisses from his very French mother touched his heart and linger there. Her influence rattles and shakes in his soul, uncontrollably pouring onto his plates. His modern restraint uses butter sparingly, replaced with health-inducing herbs and vegetables for flavor.
Bouley's famous five course lunch tasting menu for $55 isn’t a secret, it’s a thrill. He dispatches his perfectly executed food in personally designed dishes as uniformed soldiers to the tables, on the able-bodied arms of well-trained and passionate waiters. An effective general must be loved by his troops. Here they share a belief in his mission.
Nicholas was posted to my table. He walked me through my meal like an expert docent at the Louvre giving a tour of the most important pieces for a first-time visitor who hadn’t enough time to see the entire collection.
Anyone can see the Venus de Milo, but don’t miss the intimacy of Van Hoogstraten's “The Slippers", at Bouley became The Carpaccio of Kampachi is fantastic, but today you shouldn’t miss the Big Eye Tuna in Apple Foam. We went course by course through the menu, like I was picking college classes and he knew how far the campus walk between each one was. When he says, and then you’ll have the Valrhona soufflé it's a hint at my graduation.
I held my menu close to my chest and looked around hoping the other diners couldn’t hear him.
That's how they run out of food in a kitchen like Bouley, founded on the belief that only seasonal ingredients are to be used, and when they are used up, poof, it's over.
Bread is wheeled out on a cart and hawked by a slick carb Carny. Chef David plucked an apple from the entry wall, and held it in his hand, daring his baker, Aboubacar Diomandé, to snatch it. He did. And among the olive, fig, saffron, and walnut, baked a masterloaf laced with al dente apples.
Take several different slices, you'll need them to dredge sauces from the bottom of your bowls. Yes, I do that here, careful not to also dip in the sleeve of my borrowed jacket.
I threw a panicked glance to the different cutlery on my left, then to my right – I knew they were all lined up in a specific order that I did not wish to rube-ishly violate. I am one fish knife shy of drinking the finger bowl.
I shot Nicholas that help me look Julia Roberts threw to Hector Elizondo when unsure of the escargot procedure. Nicholas narrowed his eyes and nodded a silent it’s cool to pop the entire thing in your mouth – we’ve all done it. My tongue effortlessly lifted the blini to the roof of my mouth; it flew up and was gone before I knew it, leaving me with smoked salmon to savor and chew, enjoying trace amounts of sweet honey.
Bigeye tuna swim peacefully in the Atlantic ocean, but even the keenest can't keep one eye, big as it is, on every hook, and sometimes one gets yanked from the sea. The chefs here lovingly rehab the tuna, cuddling it in a protective, puffy bed of tart, lemony apple foam. Osetra caviar is applied as ointment.
I know booths at farmer’s markets sell professionally foraged mushrooms, but I like to think that Chef David did the foraging personally for my plate.
Busy as he is, he wakes early, and decides to skip the fish market. He dons rubber boots, grabs a bucket and walks into the figurative woods that all chefs live nearby. This is his quiet, reflective time, and he contemplatively solves sauce-breaking problems as he picks up a wild hen-of–the-woods mushroom, scratches the flesh, sniffs it, and tosses it into the bucket. Dawn turns into day, snapping him out of his trance and he heads in the kitchen to pluck a chicken.
The plate is a fungilicous wine tasting, and I held each bite-sized mushroom up on my fork and twirled it as if spinning a glass of wine to watch the "legs" form. The toro I love and heretofore have only eaten raw, was broiled, turning it a singed brown, and making it appear as a mushroom, hidden on the plate as the mushrooms themselves were hidden in the woods. The little poofs of truffle paté dabbed on top were perfectly rich, and the welcome gilding of the lily Bouley's lobby had promised.
Kumquat foam from his own Kent, Connecticut farm is cozied up on the side, adding refreshingly citrusy effervescent bubbles.The milk hints at a French fish stew Bouley's mother might have made.
This room is so sexy you could have wild, acrobatic sex in a secluded booth, stuffing chunks of soft bread in your limber lover's mouth to quiet them down. Hush darling, it's lunch and deals are being made.
Nicholas orchestrates the staff with quiet cues and gestures -- as a plate is whisked away a fork swings in and lands to my left, as a film trailer's coming attraction. Nicholas did time at Daniel's Boulud Sud and it shows. He believes one year at Bouley is ten years knowledge elsewhere.
Chef David spent time with Joel Robuchon, and presents a savory homage -- a crispy bread made from health-fortifying Kuzu, spread with Robuchon's potato puree and Bouley's truffle paste. I felt better immediately.
Many of David's dishes are thrilling, as represented by his signature porcini flan. I dredged my spoon in and scooped what I thought were all of the components, and savored the peppery bite with the skepticism we all reserve for sure it's famous, but why? We cast that same doubt as we gaze at art, staring up at the thick black slashes of Motherwell and tsk-tsking, I could do that. But you didn't. I dug deeper and hit the golden paydirt of flan, the smooth thin custard layer lined the bottom. Now as I ate these fully-intended and complete bites of Alaskan crab and Japanese dashi, the reputation was validated.
His Rouget fish is fried so crispy I thought I was eating delicate fried fish fins, like my brother used to love as a kid at family fish frys. The bowl was dotted with rare and still-firm steamed bright green romanesco -- the delicate beauty of this exotic vegetable reflects the intricacy of a Cambodian dancer's headdress. I grabbed each tiny one and dragged it through the tangy sauce as if I had conquered a beauty.
In a split second I over thought the need for the knife and poked it in. The beef met my knife and fell apart with the fragility of a crushed lover. I felt foolish and tucked the soiled knife's blade under my plate, wanting to go in the kitchen and first apologize to the chef for doubting his skill to make impossibly tender meat, and then to the overworked dishwasher for making him wash the knife.
I stabbed each teensy tiny gnocchi, and if I sent one scooting across my plate, good, I deserved to miss. I guiltily enjoyed the braised Hungarian-style flavors accented with the delicate sour taste of creme fraiche.
Nicholas carried the hefty pot holding the chicken en cocotte with alfalfa and clover hay out to the dining room and placed it before me. A hero's trophy after battle. I looked inside the pot and realized that this was the kindest, most benevolent way to be cooked. It's as if the chicken is still in his warm coop, laying on his familiar bed of hay and alfalfa. As the dough is packed around the lid to seal his fate, he is slowly and obliviously lulled to tender perfection at a high, bone-numbing heat.
This is how the Egyptians entered the afterlife. Throw in some food and a cat or two, seal their tombs, and they'd phoenicianly rise on up into eternal happiness, just as the steam arose from the glass pot as Nicholas unsealed the baked dough and pried it away.
I have no idea if I ate thigh or breast meat, or a part I'd never known before and perhaps magically sprang up from this baking method. It was as tender as Adele singing to her own baby.
The kale puree made a bright, healthy, flavorful foundation for each cheese-soft bite. Looking good is the best revenge I told the pretty purple brussels sprouts as I led them through the reduction provided by the roasted chicken's grassy bed.
A white chocolate cloud appeared, floating on torn Origami paper. I was told to eat it quickly, that it's truly a cloud and disappears.
Green tea is dusted on top as fingerprint dust, to prove it's existence. I dug past the foam, greedily scraping the more formed, icy bottom, not caring if I ate paper. One can ponder the fragility of life, or devour it completely before it's gone.
If service could be ordered as a meat temperature, I'd always order mine well-done, as opposed to rare, which is the way I eat meat. I can't swallow well-done meat nor disinterested service. In either case, I just chew and chew and end up frustrated, wishing they both could be sent back.
Nicholas has a passion that peeks out of his eyes, curls into a pleasant smile, runs down his arm and out his steady, confident hand with which he places a plate on the table. His expertise on the Bouley craft made my meal taste better. Well done, Nicholas. So rare.
The parade began of sweet courses, sending my brain a note that my meal was winding down. The stem on the tall parfait glass was very long, and looked fragile and top heavy. I wanted the glass to be okay; it deserved Betty Grable's leg treatment and needed to be insured by Lloyd's of London to protect it from breaking and ruining the contents.
Like closing credits on a film, the ingredients rolled onto my spoon. Vanilla mousse, clementine puree, lychee ice cream. My tongue spotted the glittery drag queen star demanding top billing -- I loved her in everything -- Crystallized Honey.
Chef David lives upstairs. Most of us pad into the kitchen late at night and have cold cereal for a snack, but when Bouley gets hungry, he bolts downstairs, his open robe flapping in the breeze. He cranks up Vivaldi, and in the lyrical solitude of the night, wracked with insomnia and inspiration, he creates my decadent dessert: hot Valrhona chocolate souffle, coffee ice cream, and chocolate mousse. The white coffee cloud is impossible, but it's there, too, subtly curved into a smile on the side of the bowl.
I lingered in the dining room, then passed back into the chic lounge. I'd been wearing Bouley's better coat for a while and it was deliciously comfortable, so I took a little extra time as I surrendered the loaner jacket and pulled on my own overcoat. I paused in the apple-lined vestibule, appreciating it more the second time around, and wondering if the closed door led to the kitchen.
I hung on a bit before leaving, as if I had been kicked out of a bar at closing time but wanting another drink. I made a promise to someday take one of his cooking classes and visit his Japanesey sister-kitchen, Brushstroke.
Back on Daune Street, I passed multi-colored tulips springing up from their planter reminding me Nicholas had tucked a bag of Bouley macarons in my pocket. I patted them as I walked away, smiling.
Bouley. 163 Duane St, New York, NY 10013 (212) 964-2525