The idea is a novel one: Japanese food served alongside French/American cuisine prepared before your eyes by a star chef. No prix fixe, no reservations, with the average main course costing $16.
This is David Bouley’s latest undertaking, a “casual” neighborhood place that he’s opened in a building across the street from his eponymous restaurant on West Broadway in Tribeca, around the corner from Danube. The dining room has just 30 seats, marble-topped café tables, an open kitchen and a small sushi bar.
Joël Robuchon, the three-Michelin-starred chef, introduced a similar concept in Paris two years ago when he opened L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, serving tasting plates and simple main dishes he cooked in a sushi-bar setting. At Mr. Robuchon’s place, you sit at the counter and watch the chefs at work. At Mr. Bouley’s restaurant, which doubles as a cooking school, you can watch him from your table. Or you can sit at the sushi bar and see the Japanese chef at work.
The first time I tried to come here for dinner, I made a stupid mistake and went to the wrong building. (It’s a common error, according to one manager, who said he’s had to redirect many a confused customer.) I sat down in the dining room at Bouley, straining my eyes for signs of a sushi bar or an open kitchen and wondering why the place looked exactly as it did last time I was there two years ago. Meanwhile, my dinner guest went to the right restaurant. On the ground floor, he found a bakery and takeout (in the cellar, which he didn’t visit, there’s a market selling meats, fish, cheese and produce). He went upstairs to the restaurant but thought it was a cooking school, so he came over to Bouley.
By now, it was too late for us to leave. We had a surprisingly mediocre meal redeemed somewhat by the restaurant’s signature mashed potatoes, wonderful loaves from the new bakery, sliced tableside, and dessert: a great bread pudding and chocolate soufflé.
A few nights later, I walked down to the small white building on the other side of Duane Street, where tables set with white cloths had been placed on the sidewalk. Upstairs, the cooking school was now a restaurant, in full throttle. Behind the stove, aided by two sous-chefs, stood Mr. Bouley himself, tall, bespectacled, lips pursed in concentration as he stirred the contents of a gleaming copper pan and checked the plates before they went out.
He was presiding over the Ferrari of stoves: a magnificent, gleaming, brick-red, eight-foot-long $55,000 Molteni. Just the name alone will cause the sap to rise in a chef’s veins (its burners can boil a pot of water in seven seconds). Next to this amazing piece of equipment is a small white marble bar, crowded with bottles, above which a plasma television has been installed. Instead of the Yankees game, images of vegetables and fruits and a gently bubbling tomato ragout flashed on the screen.
We sat down in front of the kitchen and ordered some cocktails. Albert and Stefan Trummer, the restaurant’s mixologists, have come up with exotic concoctions such as the Asian Dawn (vodka, sake and fresh yuzu in a martini glass floating with a lump of grapefruit granite) and the Green Hornet (vodka with green tea liqueur). I’m usually wary of such inventions, but these were delicious.
The compact but airy room has large windows on two sides and is lined with black banquettes. There are small café tables with elegant green and purplish-brown marble tops. Tungsten lamps hang down from the ceiling on wires wrapped with a weaving of charcoal shimmer voile and crushed red velvet, casting a pleasant glow.
Tucked away to the left is the sushi bar. “Take your time!” said a middle-aged man at the counter in a kindly voice to the chef who was preparing his food at top speed. The customers throughout the room were an eclectic mix. A young woman who looked like Anna Karina’s twin, with a ponytail and a blue T-shirt stamped with tennis rackets, dined alone. A group of six men, whose conversation suggested they were Hollywood filmmakers, sat at the next table. The smell of cooking filled the air. It could not have been more gemütlich.
The sushi is straightforward but beautifully fresh: yellow tail, lobster and uni, and the spicy tuna roll layered with uni, are marvelous. But it’s the hot Japanese dishes that are a revelation. Uzaku, crispy grilled eel, is curled in the center of a large, indented white plate with cucumber in a wakame seaweed vinaigrette. I could have eaten three of these. Japanese mountain potato, a kind of yam that becomes moist and sticky when grated, is served like angel hair and immersed in a delicate, clear dashi broth made with bonito stock, soy sauce and mirin, and laced with fresh waterweed. This fascinating futuristic vegetable looks like an amoeba: Half-inch strips of green resembling cut grass dot the inside of thumbnail-sized gelatinous blobs. In another dish, chunks of raw bluefin tuna are tossed in a sweetish mustard kyoso miso sauce with scallions. Steamed homemade tofu, like a delicate panna cotta, is submerged in a sublime truffle sauce with tiny mushrooms. It was all you could do not to lick the bowl clean.
As you might expect, the ingredients here are superior (the grilled calamari, for example, is remarkably tender), and with Mr. Bouley behind the stove, the cooking is superb, especially the sauces. Buttery scallops come with fresh coconut juice, an Asian-accented seared black cod with a gin and sage sauce, and roast chicken (which was a tad dry) with a lovely pungent tarragon sauce.
There’s even a “Bouley burger” on the menu ($12), made with ground sirloin and served on an English muffin layered with cucumber, lettuce, red onions and fresh herbs (picked to order from pots on the side of the stove). This juicy burger is one of the best I’ve ever had, but the toothpicks holding it together can be hazardous. They’re the same length as the burger, and (as one of my friends discovered) they can get buried in it.
For dessert, pastries from the bakery are brought around on a tray: éclairs and tarts with various fillings, including raspberry, apple, lemon and chocolate. They are nice but ordinary compared with the rest of the meal.
The upstairs room at Bouley Bakery and Market is a jewel of a restaurant. My friends pronounced it their new favorite. They’d recently been to L’Atelier in Paris, where they’d waited an hour for their seat. So when you come to visit Mr. Bouley’s new venture, I suggest you bring a book just in case.