Operating a restaurant in New York City is, at heart, a frantic, even desperate enterprise, and those who prosper over the long haul are always grasping at different stratagems to survive. One favored tactic of successful chefs (these days, it’s almost a ritual) is to spin off their name into ever cheaper, more accessible, and, one hopes, more profitable venues. These second-line operations pop up all the time, and recently two of the city’s more established chefs, David Bouley and Cesare Casella, have unveiled their own eccentric, highly personalized versions of the genre. Casella, proprietor of the Tuscan restaurant Beppe, has opened Maremma, a “spaghetti western” establishment in the West Village where he indulges his dual passions for Tuscan cooking and the cowboy life. Bouley’s new venture is called Upstairs at Bouley, a quirky hodgepodge of a place where it’s possible, on any given night, to enjoy bites of first-class bluefin o-toro at the sushi bar while watching the great chef himself flipping burgers in the open kitchen amid a cloud of grease smoke.
Both of these restaurants have their pleasures and their faults, but because of his grand stature, let’s begin with Bouley. The idiosyncratic chef has been famous, during the course of his long and influential career, for hatching all kinds of grandiose schemes. Besides running his main restaurant, he has operated a bakery, dreamed of opening Asian restaurants, and dabbled with the idea of a cooking school. Upstairs at Bouley seems to be a jumble of all these notions, in miniature form. There’s a bakery on the ground floor and a meat-and-fish market in the basement. A tattered carpet leads to the small dining space upstairs, where a sushi bar is jammed into one corner of the room, the open kitchen in another. The menu is a schizophrenic mingling of sushi, salads, Japanese hors d’oeuvres, and various specialties, including a new “Bouley Burger.” The chef also conducts cooking lessons upstairs, where a flat-screen TV hangs by the kitchen so students can observe his technique. When not broadcasting Bouley’s every move, the screen projects a loop of bucolic orchards, shining fruits, and spotted cows.
Bouley was present in the kitchen on only one of my visits—a trim, almost natty figure, busily preparing his sauces with a pair of spectacles balanced on the end of his nose. The rest of the time he was absent, and all hell tended to break loose. Orders backed up, the little plancha grill emitted plumes of smoke, fashionable Tribeca couples stewed silently at their tables. When the food did appear, however, it was usually very good, especially considering the modest prices (only three entrées cost more than $20). There’s a decent selection of Continental salads—order the one made with wild mushrooms and a spritzing of truffle dressing, or the asparagus set over pieces of blue crab and a rich parsley sauce. No appetizer I tried tasted quite as inspired as a little serving of Japanese uzaku—a delicately sweet combination of grilled eel, sliced cucumber, and seaweed—or a small cup of nanzenji, a form of silky warm tofu, mingled with hon-shimeji mushrooms and truffle sauce, which you eat like coddled eggs with a tiny silver spoon.
The larger entrées at Upstairs are mostly small, restrained versions of the kind of dishes Bouley is famous for. My very fresh portion of halibut collapsed nicely, as I ate it, into an exotic stew of late summer corn, salsify, and a lemony sauce flecked, yet again, with truffles. The lobster took only three bites to consume but the sauce alone (a reduction made with porcini mushrooms, red wine, and paprika) is worth the $21 price. The Bouley Burger I sampled was tough (it’s made with non-fatty sirloin) and lacked fries or chips, but the sirloin steak (also $21) was cut in tender strips, doused with cognac, and served over a mound of warm potato salad. The pleasing combinations don’t extend to the desserts, however, which are standard French pastries, chosen seemingly at random from the display case in the bakery downstairs. Pick the lemon tart, if you must, or end your meal the way many people seem to do at this haphazardly endearing little restaurant: with a taste of palate-cleansing sushi.
There’s no sushi available at Maremma, although you can get an excellent facsimile of Rocky Mountain oysters, that great Western delicacy (bulls’ testicles, in case you didn’t know), frizzled in bread crumbs and served with a little dish of ranch dressing. Whether there’s any precedent for Rocky Mountain oysters and ranch dressing in the great canon of Tuscan cooking hardly seems to matter. Maremma (the name comes from a cowboy region of Italy located on the Tuscan coast) is the effusive Tuscan chef Casella’s highly personalized, even madcap homage to the frontier life. He wanders among the tables dressed in cowboy boots, with a trademark sprig of herbs sprouting from his pocket, and his menu is dotted with catchy-sounding dishes like “Sloppy Giuseppe,” Tuscan chili, and chicken-fried pork. There are pictures of leathery Tuscan cowboys on the walls, bulls’ horns stuffed with wildflowers in the restrooms, and as you sit down to your bowl of pasta, you can enjoy the mournful sounds of Johnny Cash playing on the house stereo.