In early December, food writer Raymond Sokolov shocked the gastronomic world when he published his Wall Street Journal article titled "The Overrated Restaurant." In it, he wrote, "We live in a world in which overrating restaurants is as rife as grade inflation in the Ivy League, thanks to what seems like a conspiracy of food writers and gourmets who hype by reflex." Thus his list of "America's 10 most overrated restaurants [which] aren't greasy spoons with repulsive, health-endangering food. They're the spots that get the ink and the encomia in the likes of Zagat, Esquire, and Gourmet -- but somehow fail to live up to their hype."
Number one on the list? Homegrown talent Norman Van Aken's restaurant, Norman's, in Coral Gables. And Miami got knocked again in the tenth spot, where Joe's Stone Crab was labeled "a tropical ghetto success." Broward and Palm Beach counties escaped such embarrassment. But don't relax too soon. Had Sokolov's list, like Spinal Tap's amps, gone to 11, surely Café Boulud would have assumed the position.
Located in the Brazilian Court hotel in Palm Beach, Café Boulud was spawned by revered French chef Daniel Boulud and eagerly awaited. His first venture outside the culinary kingdom of New York City, where he reigns -- just ask Zagat, Esquire, or Gourmet -- Café Boulud Palm Beach debuted in late June to sellout crowds of inquiring epicures. I was once such a curiosity-seeker; a piece published in these pages on July 3, "Café What May," described the genesis of the restaurant, but the place had yet to open to the public.
Precisely six months later, when I went back during the holiday season (when such a restaurant should be at its peak), the reviews were mixed. Despite complaining that "the dishes lacked the kind of edginess that comes from a mature and confident chef," the Sun-Sentinel summed up a late-summer review saying that "This restaurant is a step down in formality from Chef Daniel Boulud's first restaurant in New York City, but it's not a step down in the quality of cuisine" and that "this season in Palm Beach will push the kitchen to greatness." Talk about the beginnings of a culinary conspiracy theory.
But the Palm Beach Post, which reviewed the place more recently, didn't hedge, starting with "the restaurant lacks a certain 'wow' factor" and concluding with "the bottom line: For Café Boulud to take off in Palm Beach, it may need to rethink its approach... even the island's most formal establishments offer better value than this one."
My own new year began with a tale not precisely of woe but more like a story about how, as per Sokolov, "five-star ambrosia isn't always what it's cracked up to be." At these prices, a veritable tornado of flavors should blow diners away. Instead, indifferently served and oversalted dishes merely fan the customer with a barely perceptible breeze.
Indeed, sometimes you have to fan yourself at Café Boulud. Though we were on time for a 9:30 reservation, the earliest we could get one Monday evening before the restaurant closed at 10, we were asked to wait in the cocktail area. A long narrow room, decorated with the same pastoral oil paintings and camel-and-cranberry hues of the dining room, the lounge is adjacent to the outdoor courtyard and the small interior bar. At the latter, we purchased $15 glasses of Rutz Pinot Noir at the bar and sat on a couch, at which point a cocktail waitress asked if we would like something to drink. When we indicated we had already been served, she blew us a kiss and moved off.
Her initial delay and casual response to a lost tip were indicative of the entire evening. Once seated, we could never quite tell if our server was a waiter or a manager filling in, as he was dressed in jacket and tie and did the job inconsistently. Menus appeared 15 minutes after we were shown to a table. We had to request a wine list; a bottle, chosen from an exorbitant list that had about $10 (retail) New Zealand and Australian vintages going for an outrageous $70 and up, took another 20 minutes to appear.
Conversely, the Italian white wine from the Friuli-Venezia region that we ordered took mere seconds to disappear after our glasses were filled. A server stashed it in a corner of the room, and the staff had to be prodded to refill our glasses, which stood empty for long stretches of time.
Courses were also served erratically, and waits were long. Maybe that's because the kitchen had to deal with what was essentially four separate menus. Arranged according to La Tradition (French and American classics), La Saison (the rhythm of the seasons), Le Potager (market-inspired selections), and Le Voyage (cuisine of the world), plus specials and the option of a multiple-course prix fixe, the list of food was quite confusing and even intimidating; starters such as a simply constructed and relatively uninspiring Asian pear and chopped beet salad, spiked with endive, some crumbles of goat cheese, and a subtle walnut vinaigrette, cost as much as a main course in a less-storied establishment.
Some items are worth the price. The raw shellfish, for instance. was composed of plump, Belon oysters that had been sourced from Maine. Served as cold as the waters from which they come, with traditional mignonette and cocktail sauces, the oysters had a tight velvety texture with a bit of a crunch. The winning gesture was the inclusion of a seventh oyster -- a kind of baker's half dozen.
We also enjoyed the salade Lyonnaise, a platter that featured sautéed chicken livers, moist duck confit, lardons (chunks of bacon), and a perfectly poached egg. All the richness was cut by a light-green, young frisée that had been wrapped in a pleasant, non-obtrusive vinaigrette. Potato-leek soup, however, was less flavorful than we'd expected. It tasted more like fennel than leeks and was a bit too smooth in texture to contain much of either the Gruyère or the country-style croutons with which it was billed.
Main courses suffered across the board from too much salt: It was stirred into the dark, rich jus that accompanied a duo of Rioja-braised short ribs and hangar steak, and it was freshly ground on top of truffle-braised snapper served over Vichy carrots and pea shoots. Despite the brininess, I was pleased with Boulud's softly shredding short ribs. The hangar steak was less winning, with an unexpectedly tough texture, and a stuffed marrow bone tasted like nothing more than buttery breadcrumbs. The snapper also lacked flavor but featured salt, with no hint of truffles whatsoever. The thick fillet, however, which had a broad flake more consistent with mutton or mangrove snapper, was expertly prepared and exquisitely fresh.
The roasted Amish chicken breast, an organically raised bird, had more flavor than the norm of other commercially purveyed poultry. A strong assortment of autumnal vegetables, including braised Brussels sprouts and a sweet, starchy whip of parsnip, elevated the bird to fancy comfort-food status. Same goes for the fresh artichoke-stuffed ravioli, which was dressed with a vibrant brown butter, black truffle, and snipped chervil sauce. Again, the salinity of both dishes was high, but the other aspects compensated.
One other caveat is portion size. For $30, I'd like to see more than six small ravioli on the plate. And a dégustátion of cheeses for dessert -- a selection of four smidgeons -- is tempting for the nonsweets lover but, at $17, not for the modest of budget. The chocolate soufflé with pistachio ice cream is much less expensive, but at least it's an opportunity to sample the homemade goods of pastry chef Rémy Fünfrock. Just saying his name makes me smile.
Speaking of chefs, Daniel Boulud, as one might anticipate, is only occasionally on the premises. Chef de cuisine Zach Bell handles the kitchen, and if he confiscates the salt shakers from his prep cooks, Café Boulud could make the grade -- though perhaps not the top ten list.
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