Mark Setlock, the one-man cast of Fully Committed, the Off Broadway send-up of the New York restaurant world, used to answer phones at Bouley, and he lived not only to tell the tale but, in doing so, to become a star. He's not the only one. There is something about being close to the exalted and exacting David Bouley that makes people crave their own spotlight. In his first restaurant's early-nineties heyday, aspiring cooks considered it a rite of passage -- or maybe a tour of duty -- to work alongside the master, even if only for a few months. And though it served as training ground for such eager apprentices-cum-celebrity chefs as Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert, La Caravelle's Cyril Renaud, and Scott Bryan of Veritas, it's the more modest spin-offs that most often lure us -- the scores of bargain bistros where ambitious young chef-owners (unfazed by their shoestring budgets) spread the Bouley gospel of high-quality, seasonal ingredients, innovative preparations, and intensely flavored vegetable extracts and emulsions. (Remember tomato water?)
Diners who can't get past the busy signal at Bouley Bakery and Danube, and who are willing to endure wobbly, knee-banging tables and brusque service, will be rewarded with artful and ambitious albeit homier and less-glamorous cooking. The maestro may never realize his much-publicized dream of world culinary domination (what ever happened to Bouley International, his TriBeCa research institute that was going to combine a nutrition center, a cooking school, a restaurant complex, a food shop, and a catalogue business?), but whether he meant to or not, he's already launched an army of "formerly of Bouley" foot soldiers who have taken his bowl of Robuchon-style mashed potatoes and run with it.
Nicolay Yerofeyev's only concession to his Ukrainian ancestry at Bouchon Bistro & Wine Bar (41 Greenwich Avenue; 212-255-5972) is salade à la Russe, his mother's recipe for a pinkish-tinged stack of diced beets and potatoes, the perimeter of the plate ringed with sliced beets dabbed with horseradish and crowned with nubbins of cornichon. That's a lot of presentation for six bucks, a hallmark of the chef's expressionist style and a remnant of his stint as garde-manger at Bouley. He paints china with vegetable purées and punctuates with pumpkin seeds. There's more artistry in his food than in the humble décor of the bistro (which, with only three wines available by the glass for now, isn't really a wine bar, though Yerofeyev promises more soon). The bread basket full of hot, crusty rolls sets the right hospitable tone. Butternut-squash soup ($5), a bistro staple, benefits from freshly ground nutmeg and allspice and a spiral of pumpkinseed oil. The hearty charcuterie plate ($12), with its tasty potato salad, pungent garlic sausage, salami, and pots of spicy mustard, could have been airlifted out of a Colmar brasserie. Yerofeyev must be genetically programmed to crank out soothing cold-weather dishes like the classic boeuf bourguignonne with prunes and crispy gratin dauphinois ($14) and the veal roulade ($10), transcendently tender veal breast rolled up and stood on its side in a puddle of rich Madeira sauce with root vegetables and fingerling potatoes. Slices of duck breast ($16) are fanned over a sweet-sour mound of red cabbage, the humble highlight of a plate that's also graced with caramelized apples and buckwheat farce (close your eyes and it's kasha). Likewise, addictively rib-sticking spaetzle steals the thunder from the fatty rib-eye ($16). We're desperate for meat and potatoes, but maybe that's just the wind-chill factor talking; the cod ($12) and salmon ($14), seasoned respectively with roasted-pepper sauce and a port-and-shallot reduction, are almost as robust. The wine list offers lots of options in the teens and twenties (at $36, a Mondavi Zin is a splurge). Desserts are classic French; until the seasons change, opt for the fruit-heavy, caramel-browned tarte Tatin ($6), warm enough to melt the vanilla ice cream.
Eight years ago, when Boston native Saul Bolton came to New York looking for work, he did what any smart aspiring chef would do: stake out an alley leading to the kitchen of the hottest restaurant in town. Sure enough, Bolton scouted a kitchen grunt getting booted out the back door of the old Bouley by a cranky canapé-maker and moved in like an apartment hunter who reads the obits. A lucky break for Bolton -- who spent the next two years studying Bouley's technique (and avoiding the canapés). Six months ago, he followed the path of lease resistance and opened Restaurant Saul (140 Smith Street; 718-935-9844) in a Brooklyn neighborhood where he could afford the real estate but still attract a crowd that craves foie gras sautéed with sweet-and-sour prunes and quince -- at $11, the priciest appetizer on his French-American menu. On a recent freezing-cold night, we'd rather watch a Republican Party debate on TV than take a train to Brooklyn, but almost instantly, a comforting, piping-hot amuse-bouche of spicy lobster and coriander purée puts us in a proper mood -- and renders the portable electric heater next to our table unnecessary. Bolton calls his style an "extremely stripped-down version" of what he learned at Bouley and later Le Bernardin. So a lonesome-looking salad ($6), just some lettuce leaves and nothing else in a tarragon vinaigrette, turns out to be the strong, silent type -- a perfect palate cleanser. An entrée-size appetizer of crispy-succulent duck confit ($8), tasty enough to stand on its own, is nevertheless a big socializer, happily paired with a poached-then-roasted pear stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts. By comparison, the entrées ($15 to $21) sound like homebodies: roast chicken, sautéed salmon, pork chop -- you know the drill. But Bolton finesses the overly familiar with flavorful purées (parsley vinaigrette with the scallops) and garnishes (spicy eggplant and char-grilled asparagus that hasn't succumbed to overcooking with the salmon) that make even a limited menu tough to choose from. If you're having the same problem committing to a bottle from the appealing wine list, a selection of half bottles -- a thoughtful and affordable touch -- saves the day.
If you venture two blocks south to Smith St. Kitchen (174 Smith Street; 718-858-5359) on a cold winter night, prepare for a chilly reception. Not from the staff, who couldn't be nicer, but from patrons unlucky enough to be seated near the double doors, on which are posted entreaties to please close firmly against intruding icy blasts. It's a futile gesture: Ever since the 32-seat restaurant opened three months ago, its doors have been in perpetual motion, as the neighborhood converges to sample the mostly seafood menu turned out by the three chef-owners (one of whom, Michael Brack, was assistant pastry chef at the original Bouley the year before it closed, though he has since deserted desserts). A fourth partner patrols the candlelit dining room, which is dark and starkly atmospheric, with chenille-upholstered banquettes lining gunmetal-gray tin walls warped with age. But despite the anonymous name and barely there décor, this team's grand aspirations are evident in the details. Baguette slices arrive in a linen-lined tin bucket. Tables are covered with cloth instead of more practical paper. When the waiter recites the specials (including a grilled whole fish of the day), he quotes the price, an almost obsolete practice. And although the appetizers range from $5 to $8, a discreet box on the bottom of the page proposes Osetra caviar with buckwheat blinis and crème fraîche for anyone with $23 to spare. Unless you stick with salad, your first course will be a sea creature -- or several, if you opt for the cured cold fish plate ($8), a smorgasbord of gravlax, smoked trout, marinated oyster, and salmon caviar. The "grilled sardines" ($6) is actually one enormous specimen, reclining on a hillock of couscous studded with black-olive bits and artichoke hearts. You can't fault the chowder ($7) for being thin -- it's called "ocean broth chowder," after all, the ocean being represented by top-neck clams and baby calamari, flying-fish roe, and Prince Edward Island mussels. Merluza ($17) is Arctic cod -- not to be confused with the Provençal-inflected Arctic char ($16) -- winterized with a helping of crispy spaetzle. The potato-crusted grouper ($18) in tomato-shellfish broth is in the spirit (if not the letter) of Daniel Boulud's signature sea bass, while grilled sea scallop and nicely charred giant shrimp ($19) rest on a rich bed of lardon-laden barley hash, almost risotto-creamy. Amid all this surf, there's precious little turf -- just chicken and the beef-cheeks pot roast ($16), a stellar cold-weather concoction of moist, deeply rich meat with butter-suffused garlic mashed potatoes. The international wine list is small (eight red, eight white, $18 to $46) but well chosen: The focus is on food-friendly selections like Pinot Noir and a delicious, crisp Austrian Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc; $30). With the check comes a gratis dish of crunchy, sugar-dusted madeleines. Once a Bouley pastry chef, always a Bouley pastry chef.