It wasn’t yet Mothers Day or my wife’s birthday. Those would both be the following day. It was, however, the day to celebrate both as well as two bon voyages. We drove down to New York City to take our two eldest sons to JFK airport fot flights to Europe. L.J. would be on his way to Spain to attend Espai Priorat: the Second International Exhibition of Priorat Wines on behalf of this website, while Andrew was on his way to London for an academic program to study the European Union. Fortunately for us, both flights were out of the same airport and scheduled to depart within five minutes of each other. We took advantage of this opportunity to share a nice restaurant meal en famille, something we had not had the opportunity of doing since we celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary at elBulli in 2011.Well situated for us on the East Side of Manhattan and a restaurant I hadn’t been to in too long and one I knew my wife would love, I chose Cafe Boulud. It turned out to be the perfect choice.
The room was quite busy at 1PM on the Saturday before Mothers Day. We were seated at a round table towards the middle of the room. Ideal for four, the table was big enough to hold the five of us comfortably, albeit without much excess space. In the center of the table was a beautiful plant that looked like a flowering asparagus, but was something else that I am not familiar with. We were quickly offered a glass of complimentary Crémant du Jura, a tasty dry sparkler from the mountains of Eastern France made from slightly unripe Chardonnay grapes, for the adults and a light ginger ale for our youngest that matched the Crémant in appearance. These sparklers were perfect for toasting and settling in to our menus.
There were plenty of enticing options to choose from. In addition to a prix fixe selection, there were a la carte choices divided into four sections: La Tradition (French classics and country cooking), La Saison (spring flavors), Le Potager (inspired by the farmers market) and Le Voyage (world cuisine). We were informed that the different sections of the menu were simply style guides and that we could choose from within any and mix and match. Prices were next to each dish. With so many mouth-watering possibilities, choosing was difficult. Nevertheless, we all managed to be decisive (except for myself – I left my main course for Chef Kaysen to select). In the meantime, bread and butter were served.
Chef Kaysen sent us a trio of lovely amuses including a citrus marinated fluke crudo with grilled ramp purée, a plump Beausoleil oyster from New Brunswick, Canada and an arancino with preserved lemon, ricotta and spring peas.
We each ordered a different first course with each being more colorful and beautiful than the next. I didn’t actually get to taste all of them, but everyone enjoyed his or hers immensely. I ordered the spring pea soup from the Le Potager section of the menu. It was as vibrant in flavor as it was in color. The hot pea purée was poured atop a bed of goat’s milk yogurt, lavender, pea shoots and a pancetta crisp.
Our youngest had an appetizer portion of asparagus risotto with charred asparagus, pecorino and olive oil. He devoured it with abandon. This was also from the Le Potager portion of the menu.
Andrew ordered the Peeky Toe Crab Salad from the Le Voyage section of the menu. This was a beautifully presented plate that I failed to do justice to in my photograph. Its flavor was nuanced with coconut and a Vadouvan curry aioli. The coconut was draped over the salad as a yuba-like film. My son had no complaints.L.J. ordered the House made fettucine with razor clams, sea urchin, lemon, fines herbs and bottarga from the La Saison section. I did not get to taste this as he was across the table and he ate it before I had a chance to ask!
My wife’s Red Beet Mezzaluna with wilted spinach, capra con pepe and toasted horseradish was a brilliant dish with bold flavors and lovely textures. The appetizers were relatively straightforward dishes focused on presenting a direct experience. Portion sizes were generous, but not overdone. They were sufficient to get a real sense of what each dish was about.
It was lunch and we had a big afternoon still ahead of us. A nice bottle of Burgundy couldn’t hurt and it didn’t. It was a good choice to go with the variety of dishes we had coming for our mains. The mains at Cafe Boulud were built substantially differently than the appetizer courses. While the appetizers were all fairly straightforward courses (that is not to say simple), some of the mains tended to have a a bit more complexity on the plate as one would expect.
Two of my sons ordered the entrecôte of boeuf, which was classic French and classically delicious! It was served with pommes anna, chanterelle mushrooms, green asparagus, and sauce au poivre vert. From La Tradition, it was exactly what they were hoping for.Another son had the duck taken from La Saison. Served with turnips, apricots, arugula, black eyed peas and natural jus this too hit the sweet spot for him.
My wife’s jerk marinated swordfish truly evoked the flavors of the Caribbean. Spiced enough to notice, but not so much as to overpower, this was a delicious piece of fish served with basmati rice, pineapple, jalapeño, scallions and cashews. Once again, she was thrilled and I was very, very happy.
Chef Kaysen chose the Butter Poached Lobster for me. This was the most complex dish of the lunch as it explored the flavors and textures of lobster in a variety of ways. The tail was wonderfully poached – firm, but not tough and so naturally sweet it could have been used in a dessert. It came with morel mushrooms, fava beans, grilled fennel, lobster ravioli and bisque emulsion. The ravioli came two ways. The first was as several small stuffed pasta ravioli served in a traditional way. The other was as a single larger raviolo filled with the claw meat and fried crisp. The dish was superbly built and balanced. The greatest highlight for me was the crisp claw raviolo, which was pure deliciousness and luxury built on luxury.
The dessert menu, constructed like the savory menu, also left a number of difficult choices. Just after we had chosen, the newly engaged Chef Daniel Boulud himself came in with his fiancée and another woman and sat down for lunch at the next table. We had a nice chat and the adults were each treated to a glass of this lovely sparkling Moscato from La Spinetta.
Our two eldest both ordered the newest dessert to hit the menu. The cremeaux was served with pecan, banana and whiskey ice cream. They each felt that Executive Pastry Chef Noah Carroll hit a home run with this and based on my small taste, I couldn’t disagree.
Our youngest went old school from La Tradition with the Molten Chocolate Cake and Vanilla Ice Cream. While no longer sexy in a newest kid on the block way, it is a classic for a reason. This was well executed and as delicious as ever.
I was in a mood for a refreshing dessert with some acidity and this citrus based dessert with meyer lemon and blood orange fit the bill. Again, classic deliciousness presented as a lovely package.
My wife declined to order dessert, but they sent her one anyway. Spring is rhubarb season and this dessert centered around the plant and complemented by toasted oats, sheep’s milk sorbet and lemon thyme was on point. Cafe Boulud’s famous warm madeleines finished the meal.
The meal over, we got up to see Chef Kaysen in the kitchen and on the way had another chat with Chef Boulud, who kindly posed for some pictures with my sons.
I love cutting edge modern cuisine and the tasting menu format about as much as anybody, but a meal based upon the beautiful presentation of delicious food in an elegant setting with fine service and wine is always welcome. Such is Cafe Boulud. While not at the cutting edge of modern cuisine, Chef Kaysen’s cooking is still personal, modern and creative while deeply rooted in traditional culinary values. Cafe Boulud was the perfect setting and it was the perfect time for our little family celebration. My wife absolutely loved it (we all did) and I couldn’t ask for anything more.