Café What May
The scenario should be a familiar one -- big-name New York City chef-proprietor decides to open South Florida outpost, wants ritzy hotel either to house it or something nearby for a given supply of upscale clientele, chooses South Beach as the likeliest location. Enough celeb chefs have followed this path that I don't have the space to name them. Suffice it to say that a few have actually been successful.
Only two toques, in somewhat recent memory, have chosen the path less-traveled and settled on the island of Palm Beach. I'm not really sure why. Unlike resort destinations like Miami, Palm Beach central doesn't attract enough weekend-tripping tourists that can be lured into a restaurant by marquee name alone.
Granted, Palm Beach has its share of wealthy snowbirds who can afford to eat in high-end restaurants. But in actuality, they qualify as residents who are unlikely to dine out every evening, saving the more expensive establishments for special occasions. For that reason, they are as attentive to word of mouth as they are to their neighbors' bank accounts. Once a relatively new place gets labeled as unworthy, for whatever reason, they're unlikely to give it a go, preferring to stick with tried and trues.
Charlie Palmer, who opened Aquaterra on Sunrise Avenue across from the Palm Beach Hotel in 1998, was the first Manhattanite explorer to discover just how quickly this society-driven town makes up its collective mind. At the time, Palmer owned Aureole, Astra, Alva, and the Lenox Room, a family of NYC restaurants that had the critics in a perpetual lather of saliva. Aquaterra was his only offspring born out of the Big Apple, and it was a miserable failure -- we dubbed it "Aquaterrible" -- that barely lasted the year. Most of the difficulty stemmed from an off-site chef-owner whose main concerns were in the Northeast. Unlike tourists, you can't fool the dismissive mavens of Palm Beach twice, and without repeat local business, places like Aquaterra are dead in the water or on the land.
Daniel Boulud may or may not be Christopher Columbus to Palmer's Leif Erickson. The celebrated chef-owner of a trio of New York City's most revered eateries -- DANIEL, Café Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne -- was enticed to open an outpost of Café Boulud in the Brazilian Court (BC) hotel in Palm Beach (PB). As opposed to, say, Miami, where he is friendly with folks like Norman Van Aken, with whom he often cooks at charity events, annually participates in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and has a fan base.
Regardless of the lack of visible support from Broward and Palm Beach chefs at Boulud's debut, the café will more than likely be a local sensation. After all, "regional" is in the restaurant's genes. More than 100 years ago, Café Boulud (CB) began as a meeting place on the farm of the Boulud family outside of Lyons, France. It was re-created (and upgraded) by fourth-generation Daniel, the great-grandson of the founder, in New York City in 1998. Both chef and restaurant were immediately hailed as the herald for the second coming of French cuisine. Rightly so. There's no question Boulud is one of the most talented chefs working in the world today.
Indeed, if we judge just by food, Café Boulud is hard to categorize. The Wellfleet and Kumamoto oysters alone, shucked on the spot at the June 24 opening and garnished with mignonette sauce, demonstrated both Boulud's commitment to sourcing exquisitely fresh ingredients and his classical background. The stuffed pig's feet over a bed of lentils and short ribs in a sauce so rich with wine that I immediately craved a spicy Zinfandel were welcome examples of his heritage. A trio of ceviches exemplified Boulud's willingness to embrace other cultures, and the Brazilian cheese puffs offered by the waiters were a tongue- in-cheek nod to his boutique hotel host.
Clearly, Boulud's style is traditionally rooted, but it's also contemporary in a way that circumvents nouvelle. The New York menu, which will be replicated at the Palm Beach location, is organized according to Boulud's muses: "La Tradition (French Classics and Country Cooking); La Saison (The Rhythm of the Seasons); Le Potager (Vegetarian Selections Inspired by the Farmer's Market); and Le Voyage (World Cuisines)." Each "muse" comprises options for appetizers, entrées, and desserts, leading diners from crispy veal tongue salad with dandelion greens to stuffed and braised rabbit with wild herbs, olives, and tiny ravioli to roasted lamb kebab with smoky eggplant.
Countering rather than complementing Boulud's latest creation is the amenity at the hotel's front desk: a pyramid of bruised Granny Smith apples. Quite frankly, CB and the BC aren't exactly a match made in PB heaven.
The BC was born in 1925 as a 116-apartment residence with luxury service. Back then, it was the stomping grounds of the so-called PB Old Guard -- in other words, the martini-sipping society blue hairs who now frequent the nearby Leopard Lounge.
No matter what the BC hypes today, the Ritz-Carlton it ain't. An extensive renovation has preserved the historic two-story architecture and reestablished the central fountain and courtyards. But the details have not yet been completed. When I tried to check in at the reservations desk -- a friend and I were staying overnight for the event -- the employees started frantically whispering to one another and making phone calls.
Café Boulud, on the other hand, is a polished series of rooms featuring sophisticated caramel-hued carpeting and brilliantly colored oils on the walls -- a pretty obvious clue that the prices will be as luxurious as the décor. In New York's Café Boulud, by way of comparison, appetizers run about $12 to $18, main courses from $28 to $38, and desserts from $9 to $12. The juxtaposition is, in a word, weird.
Still, for all his superior technique and exclusive price points, Boulud is not flashy; the sedate dining rooms at the BC, if not the hotel overall, suit him. In the end, it will come down to what it always does: whether the quality of the dining experience justifies the final bill. I don't think too many Browardites will voyage north, even for Boulud's absolutely perfect foie gras. But the residents of his newly adopted town might well be grateful enough to keep him in reservations and leave him far from the fate that can befall less available, overextended New York restaurateurs.
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