By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
The lap of luxury is a very nice lap indeed.
It's warm, soothing, and comforting. It's free of cares and worries and far from the petty annoyances and normal pains of daily life. It's a lap most of us get to sit in for only a few pampered, cosseted moments before being thrown back into the wood chipper of crummy jobs and traffic jams, too many bills, and the jerk at Publix trying to sneak an overflowing shopping cart into the "10 items or fewer" line.
Café Boulud sits calmly in this very nice lap. Of course, celebrated chef Daniel Boulud's 8-year-old restaurant in the Brazilian Court hotel is in Palm Beach, where luxury is as essential to basic human existence as food, water, oxygen, a good plastic surgeon, and a numbered Swiss bank account. But what's really important about Café Boulud's place in this posh cocoon of privilege is the word calmly. Luxury here isn't ostentation and bling and jumping up and down on the couch. This is luxury that doesn't shout; it purrs.
It's the luxury of a dining room finely appointed but hardly extravagant, its sole raised voice a series of blindingly colorful landscape paintings by California artist Mark Bowles. It's the luxury of service rendered with a very un-South Florida-like suavity and competence, where your server is a pro who will expertly "read" your table and adjust his or her attentions to your mood. It's the luxury of a wine list that would make an oenophile drool yet offer those with oenophilic tastes but Budweiser budgets a selection of worthy and affordable choices.
Above all, it's the luxury of food you know will be carefully sourced and just as carefully prepared, these days by executive chef Jim Leiken, a ten-year vet of Boulud's various New York eateries, who in early July replaced longtime café toque Zach Bell. The change is apparent in the proverbial New York minute, with Leiken's bolder seasoning and bigger flavors muscling aside dishes from the previous regime, many of which seem tame and underwhelming by comparison.
Case in point: tuna tartare Moroccan ($18), one of the relatively few menu holdovers. Lovely fresh tuna, the filet mignon of the sea, cut in surgically precise dice, tossed with creamy yogurt-zaatar dressing, paired with Meyer lemon coulis and three cute little sweet pea falafel. Nice dish, beautifully presented, but with the zaatar so subtle as to be nonexistent and the rest of the North African spice cabinet apparently on vacation, it didn't taste any more "Moroccan" than fettuccine Alfredo.
Same thing with a warm bluefoot shrimp salad ($18), another menu holdover. The pinky-sized crustaceans got a mahogany glaze of fish sauce, soy, and lime that added more color than flavor, though the accompanying "Vietnamese-style salad" — green papaya, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and slivered mango with a beguiling coconut anglaise — did manage to get a rise out of torporific taste buds.
Entrées are where Leiken struts his New York chops. One of the dishes we ordered came off the contemporary "Le Voyage" section of the four-part menu, the other from the classically oriented "Le Tradition." This voyage began with a Pekin duck breast ($36), pan-roasted until the skin bronzed and achieved the brittle delicacy of ancient glass, moistened underneath with just enough fat, then sliced into quarters. Each quacker quadrant sat atop a puddle of airy, silken almond cream, a little mound of still-crunchy baby bok choy, and a thick coin of tart grilled plum. A drizzle of roasted duck jus and "cigar" of crackling-crisp pastry enveloping shards of braised duck so tender it was almost liquid brought the voyage to a seriously delectable conclusion.
But it's the lamb duo "Tournesol" ($38) — "sunflower" in French — that makes you realize why Leiken is a chef for Daniel Boulud and you're at home eating peanut butter out of the jar. There was so much going on that it's hard to know where to begin, but probably the best place is with two words: lamb fat. I know, it sounds about as appealing as head cheese or dog burger or Michele Bachmann. You'll just have to trust me on this.
Leiken gets his lamb from Larry Kline Meats in Deerfield Beach, and it's terrific. The meat is almost sweet in the manner of good Wagyu; it tastes vaguely herbal, with none of the muttony flavor or stench of elderly animals. And he pimps his succulent sweater-on-the-hoof brilliantly, coating the tiny tenderloin with sunflower-seed-spiked persillade, a parsley-based rub, and wrapping another piece around tomato confit and basil before giving both a medium-rare roasting.
It's the humble lamb breast, however, with its pork bellyesque striations of meat and remarkably clean-tasting, jelly-like fat, that's the real star. Leiken gives it a classical braise in white wine and aromatics, then slices the breast into neat squares and glazes them with a richly meaty reduction of their braising liquid. The meat melts in your mouth. The fat dissolves on your tongue. You try to remember the last time you tasted anything quite so delicious.
Believe it or not, even in the lap of luxury, it's not all caviar and foie gras. Every day throughout the summer, from 4 to 7:30 p.m., happy hour takes place in Café Boulud's cute but anorexic bar, which, when packed butt cheek to butt cheek on a busy weeknight, is Palm Beach's version of a mosh pit, heavy on the Ralph Lauren.
I am looking forward to trying Chef Leiken's new dishes. I am absolutely certain that Daniel Boulud would not have put him in charge if the cuisine was not to be outstanding.I do, however, take exception to Bill Citara's description of Zach Bell's offerings at Cafe Boulud. What I learned from Bell's menu was that it was unnecessary to use 'loud' spices in order to make a dish interesting and delicious. Bell's subtle use of unusual combinations of foods, herbs and spices was an education in itself. It really is sad that Citara wasn't able to fully appreciate it.