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.
You could barely taste the Dover sole with all the carping. The biggest name in New York fine dining had come to Palm Beach... and flopped.
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.
A "simple" fillet of Florida pompano ($40) cooked en croûte was far from innocuous. Instead of soggy puff pastry, this sexy fish was decked out in a fine, brittle, uniformly golden crust, as thin as a sheet of parchment and tasting like essence of pancake. The ethereal crust broke open to reveal snowy, mellow flesh, practically hissing marine-scented steam. Smoked eggplant purée made a silky and wicked divan for this diva, as deeply perfumed as the bed in an opium den, along with a dab of high-compression tomato confit, braised fennel, green olives, and lemon, olive oil, and herb sauce vierge.
I've never tried the famous dish at Antoine's, but Boulud's oysters Bienville ($18 for a half dozen) were beyond divine, and anybody who wants to extol the aphrodisiac qualities of oysters need look no further for final proof. New Orleans couldn't possibly improve on Bell's execution: baked Maine oysters topped with a reduction of minced pink shrimp, mushrooms, white wine, and cream under a crisp, lightly browned gratinée. The flavors were so carefully balanced within their little gray shells that it was like the invention of an entirely new food. A mild, flaky redfish fillet ($34) braised with beautiful fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, and white wine in court bouillon made the second course as buoyant as the first was fleshy.
Throughout the presentation of these lovely dishes, the staff never made a wrong move. Our waiter was particularly graceful. He had ready answers to every question about ingredients and provenance and interesting suggestions for wine pairings by the glass. The timing of everything was choreographed — from the little Parmesan shell amuse bouche to the young woman bearing the bread tray (the bread comes from Old School Bakery in Delray Beach, and she knew it) to the shy busboys who cleared the plates.
Our desserts were particularly gorgeous: a fresh strawberry tart with pistachio mousse, a tiny jewel of gold leaf at the center, paired with an intense, fruity oval of strawberry sorbet. And a savory square of chocolate pavé, a dense, flourless cake made with dark Araguani chocolate — one of Valrhona's "Grand Cru" line — flecked with Maldon sea salt and paired with a scoop of olive-oil ice cream. The ice cream had the richness and subtle pepper of olive oil without a trace of bitterness.
It was a perfect meal, the kind of dinner you spend the next two or three days obsessively reimagining, a little woozy and lovestruck. It's a no-brainer for special occasions — Boulud ought to top everybody's birthday, anniversary, and celebrations list — but it's worthy of more frequent splurges too. I figure you can skip two mediocre lunches a week or cook a month's worth of dinners instead of picking up fast food; your parsimony will buy you a trip to the restaurant and one hell of a gastronomic memory.
Having at last achieved its potential, Café Boulud is finally worthy of the master's name.