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.
The good part is the happy hour menu, which reprises several dishes (each $8) from Boulud's Big Apple eateries. There's the "Piggy Slider," a plump, juicy nugget of designer beef topped with barbecue-sauce-slathered pulled pork, mustardy cabbage slaw, and jalapeño aioli on a pillowy brioche bun. There's tuna pain bagnat, diminutive slabs of seared-raw tuna on a plank of house-made focaccia with arugula and pesto mayo. There's a coil of spicy-savory merguez (lamb sausage) on a bed of gently braised spinach and chickpeas with the texture of crushed velvet. There's even a trio of tiny (and, sadly, soggy and stale-tasting) sugar cones filled with otherwise estimable mousses of chocolate, pistachio, and mocha.
Other desserts from the main dining room exhibited some of the same tentativeness as the appetizers. A nifty-sounding mango and guava vacherin ($10) with mango curry sauce and micro cilantro might have been nifty tasting too... if you could find the mango curry sauce, which might have been a brush stroke that barely colored the bright-white plate or maybe was on vacation with those Moroccan tuna spices.
If all marriages were as successful as that of the fruit of the cocoa tree and Arachis hypogaea, divorce lawyers would be as rare as pterodactyls. Pastry chef Arnaud Chavigny consummates the pairing of these two ingredients in a chocolate peanut bar ($10), a rectangle of dense, intense, peanut-studded chocolate and hazelnut dacquoise glittering with flakes of edible gold and tricked out with little eggs of dreamy chocolate-peanut butter mousse and creamy chocolate sorbet. It's precisely the thing to savor during your last few moments in luxury's very nice lap.