In its native habitat of New York, Bar Boulud is a casual stop-in for culture vultures who need to refuel before the evening’s entertainments. A platter of charcuterie and a glass of wine, and it’s on to Lincoln Center. This is French chef Daniel Boulud’s relaxed side, cuffs unbuttoned and Michelin stars stowed in a little dish beside the door with some spare change.
But when Bar Boulud journeys to the provinces, it takes on outsize importance. It becomes the belle of the ball, the star of the social season, the grand poisson in a petite mare. A branch of the restaurant opened in Boston in September, headed by chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers (Boulud Sud). It occupies the Mandarin Oriental space that used to be Asana. We don’t have Boulud crown jewel Daniel, or Jean-Georges or Sushi Nakazawa or L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. This is as close as we come to chefs who name restaurants after themselves and seem more justified than egomaniacal.
Boulud is a master of his craft, winner of accolades, and mentor to many. It says something good about Boston — financially and foodwise — that he has entered the market here. If we can’t have another Daniel (despite recent docking of Michelin and New York Times stars), we’ll at least take the equivalent of Bar Boulud New York.
But this is not that. Food and service are uneven. The punctilious execution of casual dishes we expect at restaurants without similar pedigree, but particularly here, is lacking. It is rare that something ever feels just so — that moment when one takes a bite and smiles because it tastes exactly as it should.
This does happen with boudin blanc, a beautifully tender and mild pork link nestled in truffle-scented potato puree. But it doesn’t with the charcuterie the restaurant is known for, which is served too cold. A single slab of pate grand-pere — made with foie gras, pork, and truffles — is as chilly as a slice of ice cream cake one night. The rustic spread tastes muted, like diluted pork. As it comes to room temperature, the foie gras reveals itself, but never the truffle. Another evening, the degustation de charcuterie is a few degrees warmer, and many degrees more satisfying. The large board includes pates grand-pere and grand-mere (chicken liver, pork, and cognac, worth ordering on its own), along with cubes of head cheese, Moroccan-spiced lamb tagine, thin slices of silky, pale-pink ham, and more. On the side is a tray of strangely wan little salads.
Bar Boulud often does a fine job with New England seafood. Timbale de crabe features Maine peekytoe accented with green apple and celery root, the flavors fresh and bright, with mustard seeds adding pungency and texture. House-made spaghetti, golden and springy, is complemented by Wellfleet clams, crisp breadcrumbs, lemon, fennel, and bottarga, funky, flavorful cured roe. (Pumpkin cavatelli, on the other hand, is one of those dishes that makes vegetarians wish they had just stayed home — the pasta overcooked, accompanied by a few tiny pieces of flavorless pumpkin, some kale, and no hint of the alluringly promised chestnut.)
Tea-smoked Gloucester lobster would be perfect with just a moment more cooking time and a titch less tea smoke, overwhelming the taste of the lobster itself. Lemon sole meuniere is not particularly lemony, and there are about two capers on our plate, but the fish itself is meaty and sweet, and it works well with Marcona almonds, cauliflower, and brown butter. In a dish of Saint-Jacques au boudin noir, Maine scallops are perfectly seared. It is the blood sausage that is the problem — barely cooked, actively bloody, like something out of a slasher flick.
Salade au Lyonnaise is perhaps the world’s least virtuous salad — a gloriously rich combination of chicory, lardons, and chicken livers, topped off with a coddled egg. But this is liver as prepared by a sashimi chef accustomed to barely torching tuna, exceptionally rare. Boeuf a la moelle, strip steak with bone marrow, is not nearly rare enough, dry and chewy. Coq au vin features rubbery braised chicken coated in thick, grayish purple sauce beginning to congeal by the time it is served.
A special one night of a roast chicken for two, however, is great, the meat juicy and scented with herbs. Order that with an anchovy-laced salade Provencale to start and a pile of tiny madeleines to finish, and you are as golden as the buttery pastries themselves, if not as light.
Tarte Basque, reminiscent of ricotta cheesecake, is also simple and satisfying, with brandied cherries alongside. Bar Boulud’s version of ile flottante overcomplicates a classic with fussy flavors of pumpkin and pomegranate molasses.
The wine program is a highlight at Bar Boulud, particularly for those drawn to the region of Burgundy, a focus of sommelier Joe Camper’s list. Prices are high, but there are selections mere mortals can afford, and Camper is a game guide through the options. He also puts a welcome spotlight on grower Champagnes.
One would like to drink them in a lovely setting. The decor here is meant as a salute to wine, but it feels dated, with burgundy accents, walls covered in wood shingles made from wine crates, and slatted wood panels overhead that resemble curved futon frames. When seated near the bar, one must shout over the thumping, loud soundtrack.
Service can be attentive. It can also be amateurish or supercilious. One evening a server clears half-eaten plates of food without asking; another server inquires repeatedly whether we want more dessert when we’ve ordered plenty. Pours of wine by the glass are generous sometimes, stingy others. And it is nice to be asked how much one is looking to spend on a bottle rather than simply sized up: Threadbare journalists sometimes like to splurge on drink, and cashmere-cloaked Brahmins can be surprisingly thrifty.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market opened in the W hotel in 2009. It closed four years later. Guy Martin’s Sensing lasted about two years. Mario Batali’s Babbo Pizzeria is coming soon. World-famous chefs are willing to open in Boston. Now they need to fully commit to these restaurants. Maybe the problem is that with midlevel concepts, stakes are too low. Bring us your Daniels, your Jean-Georges, your Del Postos. Give us your best.
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