Cafe Boulud: Palm Beach -- "Paris Is A Moveable Feast"!

In 1993 Daniel Boulud opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City. He whipped the lid off of a pot and his fantastic French food popped up yelling Surprise! We fell in love.

Then in 2003, Daniel opened Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach. He put American-born chef, Jim Leiken at the helm. Daniel personally took Leiken by the neck and fed French food down his gullet like a duck being readied for a future life as foie gras. He relaxed his grasp and left the Florida ship in masterfully creative hands that conduct a marriage of French and American food each night.

Cafe Boulud Place Setting

It feels good just to approach Cafe Boulud. It's tucked away at the end of a one-way street, past classic stone mansions. Enter Boulud's sexy room and accept the French kiss on both cheeks from the warm, suntanned dining room. The powerful voice of Ziarra, who sings for your supper live every Friday and Saturday night, comes wafting from the lounge into the dining room, along with the aroma from the artisanal bread.

Cafe Boulud Dining Room
The restaurant looks like a visit to Paris when you are in love. Boulud's designer must've just met someone smart, rich and elegant. They spread that warm feeling over the tables, boldly painted the walls with passion, then danced around the room, plunking just the right hue of orchids in amber vases. The maître d’ winked as he flung out my orange napkin, as if to cover my excitement.

Just as we settled in, bouncing bronzed arancini amuse bouche rolled onto our table like Bentley's rolling through Palm Beach stop signs. When popped into my mouth, they had that crunch that I always think over-tanned people would have if I bit into one. And they were delicious.

Cafe Boulud Amuse Bouche Arnacini  

I kept my mouth closed over the soft, creamy rice, in case it tried to escape to re-apply sunscreen.    

Next came the grilled Spanish octopus -- which is the the new, super-sized calamari. Just ordering it conjured up images of a giant, swirling beast trying to grab me with one of its eight long sucker-punched legs. The shiny, spicy arugula is spun into a salad like wet seaweed beside the monster, making the meat look complacent and only curled up to sleep. 

As I cut into what I assume will be rubbery and tough, the knife slides in easily, making me feel heroic. It tastes fantastic -- it's been grilled like a lying witness, and I drag my bite through the tart blood orange sauce, running it brazenly across the dangerous-looking slash of squid ink.

This dish is like falling in love with someone who has substance. It's tender, smooth, full of surprises, and shows you a thrilling side of life that you'd feared. The sweet pepper couscous hops on your fork like pearls being lavishly bestowed on you by this rich undersea creature.  

Ziarra belted out Dim All the Lights and I think they actually dimmed as the risotto appeared, in place of a drumroll. Timing is the most crucial essence in risotto, and they pulled it off -- the right creamy-to-firm ratio. The pouf of foam on top made it seem like the sous chef pulled it at just the right moment, speeding it excitedly out to our table, where it eventually settled down. 

Cafe Boulud English Pea Risotto

I glanced over my shoulder when the foie gras and smoked duck marbre with pain d'epices, poached apricots and sauternes gelée slid onto our table. I swear I saw an heiress in one of Boulud's private booths licking this same slab off the chiseled stomach of her pool boy.

Cafe Boulud Foie Gras Terrine

The busboy discreetly looked the other way as I made small yummy sounds. The chef had gingerly deconstructed the ginger-laced d'epices element and left it up to us to spread it onto his soft brioche, placed discreetly on a silver tray nearby. I tried to mimic the heiress and the pool boy, but I am not that limber.

The French waiter had a more relaxed style here than some I've observed at Daniel NYC. Their sommelière, Mariya Kovacheva, has designed a wine list wilder than a bacchanalian orgy. Ordering wine can be challenging under pressure when you often have a waiter hovering in judgment. One of my fellow diners asked if a Sauternes was the best choice to go with an upcoming course. I expected a sharp look to drip down the waiter's long, aquiline nose, causing his lips to curl into a condescending smirk. Instead, he put one hand on his hip, the other on the empty chair back at our table, and leaned in -- suddenly we were all buddies in a Napa timeshare. He advised that a California Chardonnay would be a better fit. These moments often end in a high five.

I ordered the trio of heirloom pork with one fear -- that the apple wouldn't fall far enough from the pig's mouth to allow me to discern the subtle roasted differences between the cuts. But each one of Boulud's heirloom pork selections were their own man. The roasted tenderloin was moist and no-knife tender, and I wanted to spread the crispy shoulder confit all over my body. As I ate the yummy, fatty pork belly, I chewed on the very bouncy essence of the fire which drove flavor from the meat straight into the gelatinous fat. I sat in my chair doing mental abdominal crunches.
The baby carrots wore the sweet, tiny face of Alice Waters. Each looked as if the chef had reached out the back door and plucked them from the closest patch. Her plea for using local ingredients has been heard.

Cafe Boulud Pork Three Ways

Boulud lays his signature dish -- chickpea fries -- out for me as if they were Palm Beach itself -- a hot, colorful beach blanket spread on uber-soft sand. I muscled their dense, weighty bodies into the roasted red pepper coulis, realizing that looks can be deceiving. Maybe heavy in the hand, but they land lightly on the tongue.

Cafe Boulud Chick Pea Fries

The maître d’ paused by our table and asked, Are you enjoying your evening? He needn't ask if the food was to our satisfaction, if we liked the room or if the music made us feel like dancing -- he knew the answer to those was always a fast yes, yes, and oh hell yes. I love confidence when it can be backed up.

As the tagliatelle and egg was placed on the table, the perfectly cooked egg jiggled across the top, sending a subliminal note-to-self that maybe I should drop and retrieve my napkin twenty times as on-the-spot, secret core work. The yolk was poached so perfectly plump that it looked like ten pounds of sugar in a five pound bag.

Tagliatelle and egg 

The long golden pasta was tangled like lovers' legs, when, for a moment, as you blissfully lie there, you don't know whose gams are whose. A quick poke and you figure it out. I twirled and twirled my fork around with the reckless abandon of a drunk majorette, picking up yellowfoot chanterelles and luscious Parmesan cheese with each pass of the baton, the end of each bite dotted with sweet garlic chips like tiny savory sparklers.

I needed dessert to cool down. I eased into the cuddle of the gorgeous pecan-pear Belle Hélène. The level of detail that pastry chef Arnaud Chavigny crafted on the cut-out tart was tasted throughout every bite of the entire creation. 

pear dessert with cutout pear pastry and sorbet

Strawberries were in season, and looked as luscious as everyone in the room. This sweetly tart lime mousseline and super-bright kaffir lime yogurt sorbet happily puckered my lips into oooooooh.

Strawberry and key lime trio

Then, just as Ziarra queried What's Love Got to Do With It?, a star was born. His Vacherin was presented, frozen solid and cold as an ice princess.

blueberry buttermilk sorbet and meyer lemon curd

Photos can't capture bliss. The blueberry and buttermilk sorbet was wrapped into a precise and compact box, like a bride being readied to travel to her new home. The puffed floating islands of Meyer lemon curd were her dowry.

Music often plays at the most unpredictably apropos times of our lives, and we shouldn't stop it. To the tune of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, the check came and went. We walked out and passed the singer; I saw Ziarra's shoes before I heard her.

Cafe Boulud Lounge SInger
French food makes me believe in l'amour. This Boulud chef makes age-old ingredients lively, fresh and exciting, but not in the way that makes a wife suspect her husband of cheating when he tries a new move.

I was dining with two who had been one for fifteen years, and as we talked near the huge fountain in the palm-stuffed courtyard, one told me that his favorite dessert was still a French one prepared by his beloved. You may stare at an old, gnarled tree and have a hard time imagining it once a young, thin sapling, but a compliment like that from old lovers will make you believe in the timelessness of devotion.

This branch of Daniel's tree bears a different fruit than his New York City joints -- it's a seasonal and rich variety. It honors his true love of French cuisine and adds a dash of classic American boogie.

Cafe Boulud. 301 Australian Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida 33480. (561) 655-6060

1 comment:

  1. I'm craving the bouncing bronzed arancini balls!


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