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Two things impossible to imagine Daniel Boulud doing at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival: (1) dropping his pants on stage, like Paula Deen; (2) spewing drunken obscenities at the King of Spain, à la Mario Battali. Boulud is the antithesis of Gordon Ramsey, Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain, and their culinary ilk. He doesn't perform pratfalls on TV, get into public shouting matches, or routinely make the gossip columns. In fact, the 53-year-old Boulud is so dignified and reticent that most people wouldn't recognize this "celebrity chef" if he personally fed them their foie gras from an engraved silver fork.
But you can't mistake his food once you've tasted it: the impeccable grasp of technique, the deceptively simple dishes. Boulud owns a small galaxy of restaurants now, including Café Boulud in Palm Beach. Many of them emit halos of light from the stars they've earned — from Michelin, the New York Times, the Mobil Travel Guide. You won't find his face on jars of sauce or frying pans at Macy's, but he's nevertheless had an incredible ascent from a kid who grew up on a farm in Lyon, France, selling vegetables at a country market stall. He completed a tortuous apprenticeship in a three-star French kitchen before beginning his cooking career at 18. Eventually he landed at Le Cirque, New York's illustrious eatery, where he made his reputation among the politicians and society ladies who jockeyed and schmoozed for the best seats in the house. By the time he opened his first restaurant, Daniel, in Manhattan, he was the most acclaimed chef in a town that takes its chefs very seriously.
So there was a lot of buzz when he opened Café Boulud here in 2003: first the buzz of 300 giddy socialites, then the buzz of a half-dozen baffled food critics, and finally something that sounded like an angry hornets' nest of disappointed customers. The reviews Boulud's place at the Brazilian Court piled up in its first years amounted to a universal "meh." Except for the very well-to-do, diners had a tough time with the prices: Even back in flush 2003, nobody wanted to pay $100 per person for gourmet café fare. The dispatches continued to arrive: Dishes were oversalted or bland or just dull. Service was uneven, waits between courses long. Cheap wines were marked up outrageously.
301 Australian Ave.
Palm Beach, FL 33480
Region: Palm Beach
From the beginning, Boulud had installed Zach Bell as his chef de cuisine at Café Boulud, a Florida boy who'd graduated from Johnson & Wales. Bell had been a saucier and then sous chef at Boulud's New York restaurants. But he was still young, still green. Now, it seems, he's finally hit his stride. Last year, Bell was a James Beard nominee for Best Chef in the South (Miami's Michelle Bernstein beat him), and he's been nominated again in 2009. Last month, Café Boulud was awarded four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide — one of just 11 restaurants in Florida.
Lately, Boulud has hired a new chef patissier, Matthew Petersen, to replace Bell's wife, Jennifer Reed, who left the café to start her own dessert business, and a new sommelier, Jenny Benzie, who regularly updates the wine list with international labels and half bottles for pairings and tastes. And some things, happily, haven't changed: Most notably, the café's prices have hardly budged in five years. A $34 entrée still isn't cheap, but in 2009, it doesn't seem quite as crazy either. And the café offers a three-course pre-theater menu from 5:30 to 6:30 that's a genuine bargain at $45.
Based on a couple of recent visits, it's clear the entire Boulud experience is now as starched and polished as the dining room's tablecloths and heavy silverware, as refreshed as the splashing fountain in the courtyard.
Boulud's menu is divided into four sections, with an occasional fifth holiday menu (we lucked into the Mardi Gras quite by accident), and they change often. "La Tradition" is classic French country cooking, the man's roots, featuring dishes like paté de campagne, potato leek soup, Dover sole, and braised short ribs with hanger steak. "La Saison" is a seasonal menu, currently offering roasted beet salad, heirloom tomatoes, Peekytoe crab, Scottish salmon, and Pekin duck, a common domestic white fowl (like Disney's Donald), from Pennsylvania. "Le Plus Simple" is a bit harder to define, but it seems comprised of fairly straightforward dishes. Finally, "Le Voyage" plays with global ingredients. We found Hawaiian tuna tartare, mushroom risotto made with black trumpets and hedgehogs (the wild fungus, not the burrowing animal), Chinese steamed red snapper, and Austrian-inspired venison.
You can travel across boundaries, of course, but if you order within a section, you're guaranteed a meal that hangs together faultlessly. We chose from Le Plus Simple and the Mardi Gras menus. The "simplicity" of the former is quintessential Boulud — he's a chef who can coax every molecule of flavor from his ingredients. The Swank Farms romaine ($12), with its tart-sweet pink grapefruit sections, toasted sesame seeds, and ginger dressing, came to the table so crisp, fresh, and glistening that it looked like some glossy food photo shot through a macro lens. Every leaf of lettuce appeared to have been individually dressed and arranged, each crisp, marinated vegetable hand-sculpted. The total effect: someone's best intentions, materialized. It's blasphemous not to eat every bite, so we did.