The Return of David Bouley: His Simple Flavors Are Genius

When David Bouley closed his temple of gastronomy on Duane Square several years ago, he left a large coterie of followers feeling seriously bereft. I, for one, found the haute Bouley to be somewhat stiff and intimidating, despite the innovative cooking, which was often brilliant. The new restaurant, which is actually half bakery, promised to be much more informal. (After all, what does a bakery evoke but the comforting smell of warm bread in the air and motherly strong-armed women in floury aprons?) But when David Bouley opens a bakery, you don’t expect it to look like any other on earth–and you don’t expect it to be turning out Parker House rolls, either.

Bouley Bakery occupies a strange little one-story building on the corner of Duane Street and West Broadway. It is long and sleek, with semi-circular picture windows and an arched doorway in the middle. Half the place is a working bakery with a gigantic rotating oven. The other half is a serious restaurant with 82 seats. (Bouley also plans to open a Viennese restaurant called Danube next door, but the date has not been set yet.) The dining room has small cut-glass chandeliers and rust-pink vaulted ceilings that reflect the light of the candles like water. Thick curtains are drawn across the windows at night and the room, spare of decoration except for a few murky oil paintings on the walls, is divided down the center by a long banquette.

The atmosphere is much less stuffy than his previous restaurant and the diners don’t have that glazed look as though they’ve driven through three states to pay homage to the master. Here customers are dressed informally, some even in T-shirts and cargo pants–but the mood is not totally relaxed. A lot of this is due to the same supercilious and inattentive service that made the other place at times infuriating.

“Could you find us a waiter, please?” we asked a busboy in desperation one night after we had waited for 15 minutes.

“Yes,” he said, making a vague motion with his arm to direct our gaze to the other side of the room. “He’ll be right with you.”

We never did figure out who was supposed to be our waiter. The staff here is like the military of a small Latin American country, all privates and generals and nothing in between. The maître d’ took our drink order himself.

Since this restaurant is part of a bakery, the bread, not surprisingly, is wonderful. Apple-raisin, garlic (not like Little Italy garlic bread but studded with sweet-tasting, soft whole baked cloves), olive, pistachio, anise (not Stella D’Oro chunks, but crunchy, and studded with blond raisins). And it is brought around frequently.

One of David Bouley’s great strengths is in extracting the most intense, clear tastes from ingredients. From the old restaurant I will never forget his tomato soup–which has been much imitated since. It was clear and at first glance looked like water but one sip yielded a luxurious, concentrated tomato flavor that was like nothing I had ever tasted. His pea soup at the bakery, although it did not look like water, was also incomparable, a vivid deep green, laced with wild mushrooms. It tasted the way peas do when you pick them off the vine on a warm day and eat them standing in the garden. The same exquisite balancing and concentrating of flavors is evident in a first course of impeccable crab meat under a shield of asparagus spears, complemented by a vivid parsley vinaigrette.

But while some dishes are phenomenal, others seems to have escaped such careful scrutiny. The crabmeat that arrived on a perfect gazpacho sauce, compliments of the kitchen at the beginning of dinner, was perfectly tasteless. The tuna sashimi with shaved fennel was bland both times I had it; the fish, which was cubed and piled in a mound, had nice texture but there was little evidence of the marinade. Eggplant and goat cheese terrine was too restrained; it could have used more seasoning and more aged balsamic vinegar. Actually, what it made me crave was a nice piece of charred oily eggplant.

Sometimes there are too many flavors and they cancel each other out. This was the case with the shrimp, encased in a shredded phyllo crust and served with crab- meat and sea scallops in an herb broth. Individually, the ingredients were extraordinary, but the dish didn’t come together. Similarly the black sea bass with artichokes barigoule, treviso and sweet yellow bell pepper sauce didn’t quite work.

But when you taste a dish like the lobster, which was served with asparagus, baby carrots and tiny turnips in a vinaigrette scented with curry and fennel, you get back to a sense of what David Bouley’s genius is about. The spices in the sauce were perfect, and it had a lemony tang that brought out the taste of the lobster. It was sensational. So was the grouper, a meaty piece of fish with heirloom tomatoes and chives. I also loved the rare duck with asparagus, cèpes and rhubarb–a bizarre-sounding but utterly successful combination–and the juicy pink squab with baby yellow carrots and figs. But the roast baby lamb, in a wonderful preparation with lovely chopped pesto vegetables and crisp fingerlings, lacked flavor. No matter, for it came with a plate of heavenly mashed potatoes. No one in town does them better than Bouley.

As we were winding up our main courses, the maître d’ stopped by the table. “The Époisse is perfect tonight,” he said. “With the rest of your red wine you should have some cheese.” So they brought over a tray of excellent ripe cheeses–and the Époisse was indeed à point . But I was surprised when the selection of bread offered was entirely made with fruits and nuts, a bit busy to go with cheese.

Up there with his tomato soup and mashed potatoes is Bouley’s carpaccio of pineapple. The pineapple is sliced paper thin and fanned out on the plate. Crystallized coriander leaves are placed around it and a tart lime sorbet placed in the center. So simple. And perfect. The coconut macaroon with red fruits was too sweet, but the melon and strawberry soup was delicious, again because Bouley had managed to extract so much flavor from the fruits. Sable breton came with an intense strawberry sauce and a creamy yogurt sorbet. The chocolate brioche pudding with chocolate sorbet, maple and prune Armagnac ice cream was phenomenal.

When you leave, you are handed a shopping bag with a loaf of bread in it. It’s a nice touch. (Balthazar, which has an adjacent bakery, does it, too,) It’s the one moment when the place feels like a casual restaurant, very much part of the neighborhood.

Bouley Bakery

* * *

120 West Broadway, at Duane Street

964-2525

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Interesting but expensive

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $22 to $32; dinner $26 to $32;

Tasting menu $68

Lunch: Daily 11:30 A.M. to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Daily 5:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor