At the end of dinner, the waiter brought out the madeleines, which were wrapped in a white linen napkin folded into a silver bowl. They were unlike any madeleines I had ever tasted-hot and crisp as you bit into their golden scallop shells, then soft and melting inside. For Proust’s narrator, madeleines summoned Maman, his childhood and Combray; for me, a similar evocation could only have been accomplished by Marmite on toast. These madeleines made me think of Henry Kissinger and Pat Buckley, monkeys dancing on the walls, and scallops “black tie” with black truffles-Daniel Boulud’s signature dish at the old Le Cirque.
Cafe Boulud opened last fall after Mr. Boulud decided to move the restaurant Daniel to larger premises in the former Mayfair hotel (on East 65th Street, where the old Le Cirque used to be). Its aim was to be a casual restaurant, in memory of the roadside cafe his great-grandparents had run on his family’s farm in Saint-Pierre de Chan-dieu, near Lyon. He sent out sepia postcards dating from 1910, showing people clustered around a table over several bottles of wine, one of the men in a straw hat and smoking a pipe, one of the women looking rather formal in a checked high-collared blouse and another wearing a long white apron, as though she had just come out of the kitchen.
The image bears little resemblance to the present Cafe Boulud, which is not so much about a cafe as cafe society. When it first opened, it attracted the same crowd who went to Le Cirque and Mortimer’s, people who like to go to places where they see their own. And just as in Proust’s day-which, after all, was no less about cafe society-these people have a habit of going somewhere until the next place opens, and when it does, they go there. And there , when Daniel opened at the beginning of the year, suddenly wasn’t so firmly on East 76th Street. Now, looking around Cafe Boulud’s dining room, which can certainly not be described as romantic or intimate, you are even more aware of the fact that it is beige, as if it had been designed especially for those vivid people to give it the life that even the pretty flower arrangements and splashes of color in the paintings on the walls fail to do.
But the food is another story. The meals that I ate there were wonderful. Since Andrew Carmellini took over as executive chef in January, the restaurant has only gotten better and better. The menu is cleverly divided into four sections: “La Tradition,” the sort of classic French dishes Mr. Boulud’s family served to the people in the sepia postcard; “La Saison,” from what’s in season in the marketplace; “Le Potager” for vegetarians or people who simply like vegetables; and “Le Voyage,” with ingredients and dishes from different locations in the world (this month it’s Paris in the springtime). The menu changes frequently and is so varied that there is always something for everyone.
At the dinner that concluded with the madeleines, I was with old friends whom I hadn’t seen for years. The madeleines, as it happened, had been preceded by one of my favorite childhood desserts, hot chocolate soufflé. The first one I ever made I followed the instruction to “fold” the egg whites into the melted chocolate literally and it came out piebald. Boulud’s deep, dark, rich concoction was another story. Proust compares the discovery of memories with the Japanese pastime of steeping in water “little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on a distinctive color and shape.” The food at Cafe Boulud is nothing if not distinctive.
Main courses range from a thoroughly modern first course of oyster and scallop ceviche with lime juice and horseradish to a bistro classic, frisée aux lardons with chicken livers, giblets and poached egg. One day, there may be airy pillows of ravioli stuffed with a delicate mix of bitter greens in a light tomato sauce; on another, latkes with smoked salmon and a quail egg, with pepper cress and green sauce. Mr. Boulud is justly famous for his soups, which have intense flavors, like the strongly spiced curried cream of cauliflower soup with chunks of apple at the bottom that I tasted earlier this year.
“I can’t imagine leaving one bite of this on the plate,” said one of my friends over her main course, a rabbit stew of white and dark meat with rabbit ravioli, tiny boiled potatoes and onions in a shiny mahogany sauce. “Do you think these chickpea fries will still be good if I ask the waiter to wrap them up so I can take them home?”
Mr. Boulud is not one of those chefs who consign vegetarians to the desultory “vegetable platter.” A vegetable cassoulet sounds like an oxymoron, but his version, made without the sausages and duck but with roasted whole root vegetables-turnips, potatoes and carrots-along with onions and beans under a parsley and garlic crust makes you miss the Toulousian version and all its duck fat not a whit. But then, when he turns his attention to short ribs, braised so that they are so silken and tender they are unlike anything you’ve had before, served with juicy rare slices of hanger steak and a red wine sauce with “two celeries,” all thoughts of vegetarianism are dismissed in one taste. The spiced duck magret was good, too, rare and meaty, with melting pommes fondantes and Swiss chard.
At lunch one day, I ordered the black bass. (I can still taste the version Mr. Boulud used to do at Le Cirque in a potato crust with Barolo.) It was delicious, a snowy fillet with fennel confit and just enough saffron to perk it up without being overpowering.
There are more delicious desserts, too: a glazed tarte Tatin with a pleasantly chewy crust, a sensuous lemon tart given a Southern twist with caramelized pecans, and a delicate sweet potato cake garnished with sautéed bananas and date ice cream, topped with slivers of deep-fried sweet potato.
Cafe Boulud is not exactly a bargain, with main courses running between $26 to $31, but they don’t overcharge on the wines, and the knowledgeable sommelier is quick to direct you to cheaper bottles, of which there is a good selection (the David Bruce pinot is excellent).
But after eating at Cafe Boulud, it wasn’t long before, of course, like everyone else who has dined here, I ended up at Daniel. At the end of a spectacular dinner, the waiter set down a napkin filled with madeleines. They were very good, but one taste and I immediately was reminded of those I had eaten at Cafe Boulud, which were even better.
* * *
20 East 76th Street
Dress:No tie required
Wine list: Extremely interesting with many reasonable prices
Credit cards:All major
Price range: Two-course prix fixe lunch $28, three-course $35; dinner main courses $26 to $31
Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday noon to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Daily 5:45 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor