The day started off like most others. I woke up, made some coffee, went to the gym, and did some writing. But by 2 o’clock things had changed drastically—and dramatically. There were roller skates. There was disco dancing. There were Greek Gods, curses, and spells. There were leg warmers. In other words, Xanadu—The Musical.
You see, Kathy, Julie and I were in the mood to play hooky and had planned a day of silliness and indulgence. What could be better than a matinee of Xanadu and a post-roller disco meal of charcuterie at Daniel Boulud’s latest temple of wonder and satisfaction, Bar Boulud? As we found out, not much.
Before we get to the exquisite (and preposterously caloric) experience that is dining at Bar Boulud, I must say a few more words about Xanadu. (Cue “Got to believe we are magic.”) This musical is a must-see. It is soaked in hilarious 80s-isms, drenched in sarcasm, and has its tongue so firmly planted in cheek that you will split your sides with laughter. I was doubled over in my seat for a time. And by the end of the show I was singing, swaying, and dancing with Kathy and Julie in the small space in front of our seats. We were not alone. The entire audience was on its feet. The experience was truly rare and amazing. So, here’s the thing. If you’re feeling the weight of the world, having a bad week, dealing with a load of crap in any part of your life, I really do advise a matinee. It’s a short show (no intermission), not even two hours, just go. And then, do as we did. Take the 1 train to Lincoln Center for dinner at Bar Boulud. And let life’s pleasures continue.
Bar Boulud, which was designed by Thomas Schlesser, is quite a marked change from the set of Xanadu. There are no Grecian columns, no bandanas, or short shorts. Daniel wanted to do something different and more casual than his previous projects with Bar Boulud—a restaurant that reflects the rustic and rich cuisine of his hometown Lyon—but an ‘80s roller disco was not in the cards this time. (One can only hope for next time.)
The striking blond wooded room is long and lean and boasts a vaulted wine barrel ceiling and soft butter colored walls hung with handmade wine-stained prints. (These make for creative Rorschach conversation after a few glasses of wine.) While I was a bit disappointed not to find the staff delivering charcuterie and wine in short shorts, leg warmers and on wheels, they’re having as much fun as they can in crisp pumpkin-striped shirts, long aprons, and sturdy wheel-free shoes. And honestly, when the gravel-caged walls (a nod to the terroir of Burgundy) reflect the light, they twinkle not unlike a disco ball.
Bar Boulud is a Xanadu of sorts. It’s a magical place where Daniel’s hometown cuisine of Lyon meets New York City foodies. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with crowds (myself included) assembling outside at the hour of 5 p.m. (when they open for dinner) and the media going nuts over the food. The place has had quite an effect on one food writer in particular, Ed Levine. From the sound of things, he may in fact name his next child Pate Grand-Mère. I don’t blame him. After my charcuterie experience at Bar Boulud, I might name my first-born Gilles, after Gilles Verot, the consulting charcutier who’s responsible for this meat heaven. Gilles is a third-generation Charcutier from the Rhone Valley who has been practicing this dying art since the age of 17, and has won the Tour De France of charcuterie, the Charcutier de L’Année (1999). Gilles’ protégé, Sylvain Gasdon, was relocated to New York to create the menu for BB, and together they’re turning out food that is truly both rare and extraordinary.
First, you must relieve yourself of the notion that charcuterie is just a plate of prosciutto or salumi. That’s not how they roll in Lyon. In Lyon, charcuterie refers to a culture of intricate artisan saucisson (sausage), patés (often pork-based, prepared in loaf pans and either made smooth or coarse for country pate), terrines (made from a combination of meat and fat from pork, poultry or game), en croutes (paté or terrine wrapped in a savory pastry or brioche), and headcheese (no cheese, just the boiled head meat in gelee). Think of it like this: the equivalent of our chopped liver with schmaltz and onions is Lyon’s Pate Grand-Mère, a smooth paté of belly-stretching richness made from chicken liver, pork and cognac ($10). Perhaps it’s my Jewish roots and love of chopped liver that made the Pate Grand-Mère my favorite of the charcuterie, though I have to say it’s hard to pick a winner with choices like Pate Grand-Père ($13)—a coarse country pate made from foie gras, truffle juice and port, and the paté de Bourgogne, a daily special, made from pork, bacon, guinea hen, red wine and chanterelle mushrooms. Oh, yes. That one was quite good, too.
My recommendation is to go for the Degustation de Charcuterie ($22 small, $46 large), which comes with a few of the house charcuterie to share plus a selection of pickled and marinated vegetables like carrots with coriander, mushrooms a la greque, beets with horseradish, and potato with fennel and olives. These vegetable “hors d’oeuvres” are bright and acidic so they act like palate cleansers and also balance out the richness of the charcuterie nicely, preparing you for more.
Another must-have is listed under “Warm Specialties”—the saucisse fumée façon “morteau,” or smoked cumin-spiced sausage on lentil stew ($16). The night we had dinner at Bar Boulud we had come in from a soaking rain, and this dish—hearty and soulful, with lentils seasoned with the smoke from the sausage, the right touch of cumin and a little bit of lemon to bring in some citrus and balance—hit the spot. It was like a culinary space heater.
While the focus of Bar Boulud is definitely charcuterie, this is also a restaurant that celebrates Lyon’s bistro cuisine with a menu of sumptuous peasant-styled dishes by chef Damian Sansonetti. To pair up with the food to come, we had a bottle of Clos Montirius Vacqueras (2003), a juicy, spicy, well balanced and reasonably priced red ($42) from the Southern Rhone. Speaking of wines, this is a great place to drink as well as eat. The wine list, by wine director Daniel Johnnes, is quite extensive and focuses on “artisan wines of character” from the Rhone Valley, Lyon and Burgundy. The 500-bottle list is divided by discoveries, classics, and heartthrobs, in a range of moderately priced ($30 range) and high-priced ($100-$2000) wines. A great team of sommeliers led by Steven Meir can guide you to the right choice. (It’s fun to enlist their help. You’ll learn something and no doubt find a wine you’ll love. On my second visit I fell for the 2004 Domaine G. Roumier Bourgogne.)
With our Vacqueras we shared the aforementioned Frisee Lyonnaise ($15), the world’s most brilliant take on frisee au lardons—a “salad” dressed in chicken jus and topped with a perfectly soft poached egg, whole lobes of glistening chicken liver and domino-sized hunks of lardons. Now this may not be a “salad” by conventional standards, but what a glorious effort and concept nonetheless.
On the opposite end of the salad spectrum is the salade nantaise ($16), a wide white ceramic bowl filled up with vibrant green mache, pristine and practically bouncy it’s so fresh, tossed with crispy shallot rings and shaved mushrooms and dressed in just a few splashes of a bright and creamy vinaigrette.
But then there were also the escargots persillade—plump garlicky snails snuggled into an indented cast-iron pan the shape of a cluster of grapes, with a quartet of golden potato croquettes ($16). These puffy potato bon bons are key. They should be sliced in half (a veil of steam may rise from their fluffy centers), and used as little edible transport vehicles for the escargots to go from dish to mouth. These are inspired. But then so is the boeuf aux carottes ($23), braised flatiron steak with carrots mousseline and onion confit (pictured below).
This dish is simple with a capital S. There’s nothing on the plate other than the beef and the carrots and onions, and yet I’ve never had steak like this before. I would have thought it was short ribs, the beef melts so willingly under the weight of a fork. The same can be said of the lamb stew, a signature served plainly in a cast iron pot, gently perfumed with rosemary and adorned with a colorful display of winter root vegetables ($26).
Desserts carry this same message of simplicity and rusticity. I’d make sure to save room for an éclair, piped to order with thick silken chestnut or chocolate pastry cream ($7), or the gateau Basque ($9), a delicate custard tart flanked by cherries swollen with brandy. (If you plan on eating all of the above, I’d recommend wearing a loose-fitting pair of pants or a nice tent dress, and possibly arranging for a stretcher to carry you out. I felt as though I needed one. Ah, excess. It’s wonderful and painful at the same time.)
Unfortunately for my waistline, I’ve already returned to Bar Boulud. And I will be returning again soon. (I must institute an extreme gym schedule to match my charcuterie consumption at some point.) My only complaint is that this “Bar” has no actual bar. There’s a long bar facing the Tiffany-like display of charcuterie, but this space is really for dining. There’s no place to just sit and have a glass of wine while you wait for your table, which can make for some cranky customers up front in the crowded vestibule area. A true bar may be added once they expand (which may happen in late ’08 into ’09) but for now, if you’re waiting on a reservation, it’s a bit challenging.
Other than this, though, I’m completely smitten with Bar Boulud. It’s not often that I eat out and have an experience this compelling. Sure, there’s great food in this town (give me a few hours and we’ll get through about a quarter of it), but Bar Boulud is something different.
First, it’s a restaurant from one of the country’s (if not the world’s) most respected and talented chefs and restaurateurs who, instead of opening another haute cuisine scene, has basically opened a tavern. A sleek tavern, but still, it’s a room filled with white oak tables topped with placemats. (And his next project is a burger and milk shake joint on the Bowery. He’s a man of the people.) What’s also intriguing to me about Bar Boulud is this: Here’s a chef who can quite frankly cook circles around the rustic menu he’s putting out, but who’s decided to explore a more peasant-like part of the French paradigm, one that means a lot to him. He’s introducing New Yorkers to the craft of artisanal charcuterie and to the meals of his childhood. I guess I’m both grateful and impressed by this. I’ve never had food quite like I’ve had at Bar Boulud. It’s disarmingly traditional and uncomplicated, and yet still thrilling. There may not be roller skates or leg warmers, but this place is magical. In some ways, a lot like Xanadu after all.
Review By: Andrea Strong