Thursday, March 13, 2008

Upstairs at the Bouley Bakery

Mapgirl wrote about her nice dinner out, so I can write about mine, too, right? Right. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

My dad, who was lonely because my mom is in L.A., offered to take me out to dinner, and remembered exactly where I've been wanting to go--Upstairs at the Bouley Bakery. (He'd been meaning to try it, too: he doesn't eat meat, and it's a heavily fish-based menu, which is always fun for him.) My dad and I have kind of a camaraderie about restaurants: he loves them, really a lot--he loves trying new things and making up his mind about them, and because my mom's restaurant preferences are different (she likes neighborhood places where she can find food she wants done really well), I've accompanied my dad on a lot of his more esoteric forays.

Anyway, Upstairs at the Bouley Bakery is, sensibly enough, directly upstairs from the Bouley Bakery. It's a small, somewhat cramped room, but bright and cozy, and the chefs work behind an open counter, so you can see (and smell!) all the cooking. As soon as we got upstairs, we were greeted by the floor manager, who was making jokes with a customer who was waiting to be seated--there's a lot of jostling around the entrance--and I recognized a girl who'd been in my graduating class at school. Small world! (We definitely had an extra-good meal because of her, and not just because she comped us dessert.)

We started with appetizers of hamachi (yellowtail) salad and black cod. The cod was good--softly cooked, buttery, paired with fine-diced mushrooms and seaweed--but the hamachi was great, a little composed salad with fish, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and frisee in a miso dressing. Then we did the sashimi omakase appetizer: two pieces each of five kinds of fish. The choices were pretty standard (tuna, salmon, octopus, and two white pieces--I can never tell soft white fish apart), but it was really good fish, super-fresh--each piece bright and complex in flavor, luscious in texture. I always think butter should taste like fresh raw fish. The only weak spot was the octopus--something weird was going on with the texture. It was almost crunchy. (I thought maybe it had been acid-cured, like in a ceviche.)

Entrees: Scallops for me, halibut for my dad. I got the better end of this bargain, I think, though I'd been considering the halibut (which was perfectly good, and had a nice, bright sauce of corn and peas). The scallops were perfectly seared--they'd been frayed a little, so that the crunchy, flavorful sear crept a little further into the crosshatched crown than it otherwise would have (without overcooking the rest of the scallop!), which meant extra goodness. The sauce was the real revelation: peas and mixed seasonal mushrooms in coconut milk and ginger--mindblowingly good. Sauces like that one are the reason we go to restaurants--who can do that stuff at home? Not me. Definitely not me. Perfect.

My friend the waitress brought us dessert on the house: I had this incredible bowl of mandarin orange (the same as a clementine? I can never figure it out) segments in elderflower gelee with two little scoops of sorbet (lemony-buttermilky)--I've never had a dessert that refreshing; it was almost a palate-cleanser. I asked my friend, but she said the chefs won't even tell the staff what's in it. The other dessert was a delicious hazelnut terrine--a nice combination of textures, but not as interesting as my dessert--with blackberry sorbet and pralined pecans.

What a great meal!

When I googled the restaurant, I read mixed reports of the service, but I thought it was by far the best I've had at a dinner out (other than at Orso, but that's because my dad's a regular) in a long, long time. The floor manager remembered my name and came by frequently to ask how things were, and seemed genuinely interested in how we were liking our food. When I didn't like the Riesling I'd ordered (too sweet, not enough finish), he happily swapped it for a Sauvignon Blanc and took it off the bill--so kind!

There is a personal-finance upshot here, I promise. You can easily get out of this restaurant for $90 for two people (if you skipped appetizers or desserts, or split one of both), which is a very fair price for a great meal at a lovely restaurant and tons of personal attention. The majority of entrees are priced under $20--some as low as $13--and they only sell wine by the glass, so no pressure to buy an expensive bottle. Most importantly, I can't imagine the great staff being cold or even rude based on the fact that you're eating a cheaper meal (skipping appetizers and/or dessert), and that counts for a lot.

130 West Broadway, no reservations.


mfaorbust said...

New York's restaurant scene, especially the high-ish end, is one of the reasons that I have a hard time even conceptualizing moving elsewhere.

Your entree sounds divine--some kind of lovely mixture of briny, buttery, and earthy. Mmm. Perfect trinity.

mOOm said...

Are there restaurants where the staff are rude if you only order one dish? Hard to imagine that. My problem with cheaper American restaurants is the waiters are always coming round hassling you "asking how things are" I presume because they want you to buy more so that they get a bigger tip. I find it annoying. Better places usually have more discreet service. Here (Australia) of course it is very laid back as tips are a minor part of compensation.

English Major said...

Moom, I've definitely felt uncomfortable going into a nicer place and just ordering an entree (no wine, etc.). Certainly I imagine that the tip-incentive has something to do with that—I feel like I'm stiffing the waiter by taking up the table, you know?

I'd love it if waitstaff could just get paid a decent wage by the restaurant. Whenever I'm in Europe, I revel in getting to sit in a cafe with just a coffee or tea or something for several hours reading a book without getting hustled along by the server.

mOOm said...

Well Starbucks etc. are happy for you to sit there, which is why they charge what some people think is a lot for their drinks, and the same applies in countries where sitting in cafes is encouraged, you're paying to hire space. Personally I've never felt pressure in a sitdown restaurant to order more than a main course or even just starters or whatever. Seems to me it takes a similar time to eat and the tip is 15% or whatever of the bill so that waiters in high end places get higher income.

skittlbrau said...

English Major, since you and your father like fish...

Have you considered Dressler in Williamsburg? I went with my husband for his birthday last week, and not only was it fantastic, but pretty reasonable for the kind of dining it is.

mapgirl said...

Thanks for the link. That place sounds delicious, especially those scallops. There is definitely something about fresh peas that says spring to me.

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