Bar Boulud

When Knucklehead was going to be too late to join us at a recent dinner at Bar Boulud, High Maintenance suggested he meet us afterwards at the bar.

"Oh no," I said. "There's not actually a bar there."

Therein lies the conundrum of Bar Boulud - and many other new places about town. Dining at the bar, which started as a solution for the reservation-deprived at places like Babbo, has now superseded drinking at the bar. So much so that you can't even get a damn drink. What is the world coming to?

For one thing, the bar-less bar makes waiting awkward. At Bar Boulud, you're standing uselessly at the edge of the room, like the kid left out of the slow dance during a school mixer. Add to that the lack of alcohol, and you have the entire junior high feeling. Fortunately, there are plenty of cool people to ogle here, like Sandy Weill, Martha Stewart, and Thomas Keller, all of whom were under one roof on the night we visited.

After a brief scuffle between High Maintenance and a hostess, we were led away from the drafty tables up front and past the long bar, which is inlaid with a lit glass display of hunks of meat in a Damien Hirst-like effect. Definitely ask for a table in back. The front area shouldn't even be a seating area in the winter - for one thing, that's where everyone's standing around waiting. Daniel Boulud, why not put a foosball table and a TV in your bar instead? They have foosball in France...

We were greeted by glorious gougeres. These were supersized to tennis ball dimensions, light and fluffy, with just the right tang of cheese.

Bar Boulud, where Gilles Verot is the chef de cuisine, has just opened and is one of the most anticipated new restaurants of 2008. The menu is extensive, impossible to cover in one visit. We couldn't try many of the dishes, but many of the ones we did still needed some fine tuning.

High Maintenance ordered the mushroom salad without the mushrooms - don't ask - so that one can't be covered here. Gibson's Mom went for the mesclun provencal salad, which was quite nice. The small tomatoes were carefully blanched and peeled to bring out a true tomato flavor in the middle of winter.

The St. Jacques au chou, grilled Maine scallops, were disappointing. They did not seem to be overcooked, yet they were rubbery and stringy. This was particularly strange since scallops are in season now. The accompanying Orleans mustard winter slaw is a sort of sauerkraut, but ironically, I liked the Guss' Pickles sauerkraut at Fette Sau better.

At least the cuts of meat were excellent. Black Angus sirloin had just the right mix of char and juiciness, and it was accompanied by delicious frites, beautifully presented. Unfortunately, someone had forgotten to salt or pepper it before putting it on the grill. This cardinal sin of cooking shouldn't be overlooked just because the chef is taking the high road. There is even a folklore tale or two about how much meat loves salt.

The roasted chicken breast suffered the same saltless fate, though it too was a juicy cut of meat. Garlic mashed potatoes were subtly garlicky and quite satisfying - we ate them right up. Cauliflower gratin was served in a little cast iron dish. All it needed was some salt. And there was none on the table.

There was one star among our entrees, though: one of the signature dishes of this high-end charcuterie, the boudin blanc. This was perfection. Meltingly tender, this white sausage was made with a subtle but effective seasoning of herbs. Bar Boulud definitely owes a debt to Kurt Gutenbrunner, who's been doing sausage right for years now at places like Blaue Gans. But as Boulud points out in the menu preamble (yes, there's a preamble), he's the sausage king of Lyon. Bar Boulud is like a Gutenbrunner place pushed to a new level of culinary esoterics and flashy interior design.

The wine list bears mentioning - it's extensive, resourceful, and gently priced, with classics balancing out sommelier Daniel Johnnes' new finds. Service was quite good - our waiter seemed like just a charming young guy, a little scruffy, until he broke out in perfect French. While it's famously hard to get a reservation here now, we noticed that a couple tables were no-shows, and there was availability after 9:30 (even at the bar!).

Would we go back? There's a catch 22 here: by the time the kitchen finds the salt, the celebrities may be gone. If you're after the scene, go now. If you're going for the food, wait.

Bar Boulud
1900 Broadway between 63rd and 64th Streets