It’s the opening of the 2012–13 season at the Metropolitan Opera on Lincoln Center Plaza and there is an exhilarating sense that autumn is arriving as my friends and I slip past the crowds that have gathered for the red-carpet razzle-dazzle to get to Daniel Boulud’s latest restaurant. Inside, they’re ready to make you feel warm when the nights get colder: soft colours, wood panelling, comfortable but restrained furniture, rounded edges everywhere… perhaps it’s all a little too neutral and lounge-like to really stimulate, but who needs cutting-edge design when you have people for detail? Poised at the bar sits a woman with her hair scraped back in a severe bun, make-up stark and strong as if anticipating the spotlight. She is dressed in an eveningwear variation on the Snow Queen and sips slowly at her cocktail, icily surveying the scene. Daniel Boulud himself is at a buzzy table across the way, and acquaintances flit to and fro, occasionally giving him a grin and a thumbs-up. We are surrounded by clientele of the older, opera-going sort. They have great faces: part lived-in, part experimented-with, and if the menu hadn’t been so alluring, we’d have spent more time watching them. At the far end of the restaurant, what looks to be a slightly obvious choice of artworks – a pair of reproduction Impressionist scenes – are in fact versions of Cézannes by artist Vik Muniz, who piled up powdered pigment to achieve his facsimiles and photographed the result.
We are surrounded by clientele of the older, opera-going sort. They have great faces: part lived-in, part experimented-with
The food too is less familiar on closer inspection – pushed beyond comfortable Mediterranean simplicity by the sophistication of its execution. Boulud Sud’s menu is divided into three strands: you can order your sharing plates, starters and mains from the Garden, the Sea or the Farm. This may be a conceit but it does help you to balance your choices at the moment when it’s tempting to have it all. We start by sharing tangy sardine escabeche (balanced by the bite of the pine nuts and the sweetness of raisins) and slick anchovies earthed by light, crisp socca – both plates extraordinarily pretty but unpretentious. Another sharing plate, filo duck parcels, was bland by comparison.
I rave about my starter of rabbit rillette with black mission fig and fennel preserves – a perfectly balanced plate of meat, sweet and aniseedy acidity that I mourn as soon as it’s passed away – while my friends give a positive put not nearly as excitable review of the octopus a la plancha with rocket, orange and almond sauce. Each element is clearly perfectly done – the tentacles tender and singed just enough for sweetness – but somehow it’s not quite of a piece, as if the octopus is resisting integration. Still, this is a small thing, and we’re now feeling so sunny that it is tempting to assume the food could only have been made by hands dipped early in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean. This wouldn’t be true at all, however: the executive chef, Aaron Chambers, is a Yorkshireman.
There is absolutely nothing to complain about with Chambers’s entrees either: my lamb is pink and moist, the fat couscous and aubergine nutty and smoky by turns. A dish of veal saltimbocca with prosciutto and a semolina gnocchi and the Persian spiced scallops with corn are similarly perfect. Still, we’re left feeling a little nostalgic for the variety of tastes and textures that we encountered earlier.
That is, until the puddings by pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira arrive.
While I’m relatively restrained – due to allergies – with a delicate Mirabelle sorbet, one of my companions becomes teary with delight about his dessert. Since it is contained in a grapefruit shell – a presentation reminiscent of those ready-made desserts that used to be fished out of the freezer at Greek restaurants – I need some persuading this this combination of grapefruit sorbet, grapefruit compote, sesame mousse and Turkish delight topped with tuile and halva is as sublime as he tells me it is. But he convinces me. And hasn’t stopped going on about it since. The Limon – a citrus orgy of lemon cream, limoncello cake and lemon-basil sorbet is excellent too.
The service is remarkably good – our waitress almost magically commits several allergies and preferences to memory. On the downside, the sommelier persuades us to go for a more expensive red that turned out to be less interesting than our own initial choice (sampled later) – more a question of taste than intention, and certainly no reflection on her knowledge.
When we come again, we’ll be sharing even more of the smaller plates. After that, we might even head straight for dessert.
Boulud Sud, 20 West 64th Street, New York, NY 10023 USA
(212) 595 1313; danielnyc.com