Throughout the course of his illustrious career, Daniel Boulud has taken an impish pleasure in breaking down tired old culinary formulas and reimagining them in all sorts of distinctive and entertaining ways. He’s reinvented many tired old haute cuisine recipes at his uptown establishments, of course, and updated the aged French-bistro formula at his midtown restaurant db Bistro Moderne. He’s tinkered famously with the American hamburger (this summer marks the tenth anniversary of the iconic db Burger) and less famously with the hot dog at his populist downtown beer hall DBGB Kitchen & Bar. Now, at Boulud Sud, which opened recently next to the other Daniel outlet across from Lincoln Center, Bar Boulud, the great chef has turned his attention to that tired old world of olive tarts and rust-colored faux-Provençal fish soups that generations of weary restaurateurs on this side of the Atlantic refer to broadly as “Mediterranean” cuisine.
The question my guests and I kept asking, as we waited for our drinks to arrive in the long, airy room, is, What in the world has taken him so long? Monsieur Boulud’s latest restaurant (he has six of them in Manhattan now) is fronted on Broadway by a glimmering new “épicerie” parlor, which sells coffees, classic (and, of course, pricey) French pastries, and freshly made sandwiches decoratively wrapped in plumes of cellophane. The dining room has a high, multi-arched ceiling, like in a small modernist museum, and the blond-paneled walls are decorated with bright sun-splashed photographs inspired by famous Provençal paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cézanne. The tables in the well-lit space are set a little too close together (the room can seat 100 clamorous guests on a crowded evening), but they’re covered with fresh white linens and set with green, Mediterranean-style water glasses and napkins the color of lemon chiffon.
“This is awfully civilized,” my mother declared as we unfolded our menus, which Boulud has broken down into a variety of sections and subsections (“From the Garden,” “From the Sea,” “From the Farm”) in accordance with the customs of the day. The first items that came to our table were a stack of artichoke hearts, perfectly crisped on their edges in the Roman style, and a helping of sweetly tangy Sicilian sardines escabèche with scattered pine nuts and white raisins. Both dishes are part of the excellent “To Share” subsection, which also includes a variety of ingenious Mediterranean tabboulehs and hummus plates (try the cauliflower tabbouleh folded with za’atar and chopped figs), little rye-bread “tartines,” and a bowl of ribbon-thin, compulsively delicious zucchini fritti, which the kitchen serves with basil pesto and a creamy aïoli dipping sauce flavored with dried lemons from Oman.
“Chefs are always talking about their ‘Mediterranean’ cooking, but this tastes like the real thing to me,” said one of my food-aristocrat friends as she primly demolished a plate of warm, perfectly tenderized octopus tentacles, which Boulud (or rather Boulud’s minions, under the capable direction of executive chef Aaron Chambers) touches with almonds, sherry vinegar, and bits of orange. The traditionalists at the table weren’t as keen on the deconstructed, finger-size version of vitello tonnato (“What a disaster,” one of them sniffed) or the garden-variety Provençal fish soup, which was as tepid as bathwater and full of bland chunks of turbot. The cool Andalusian gazpacho was properly redolent of garlic and fresh tomatoes, however, and if you’re in the mood for an elegant vegetarian dish before the theater, my mother suggests the updated version of that aged Provençal warhorse ratatouille, which is topped with crunchy garlic bread crumbs and a vividly orange baked organic egg.
Boulud’s knack for breathing new life into aged culinary formulas is also on display among the entrées, although this being Mediterranean food, his most satisfying experiments tend to involve seafood or lamb. You can enjoy lamb-shoulder “Cleopatra,” braised in a sweetly sticky, Egyptian-style mix of wine, lamb broth, apricots, and almonds (good), or slices of grilled lamb loin garnished with eggplant, crackling bits of lavash, and a spoonful of Tunisian harissa (even better). The daurade I ordered one evening (seared, with grainy, fresh-made romesco sauce) wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the grand coastal restaurants around Barcelona, and if you want to fantasize for a second or two that you’re dining farther north, in Cannes, say, or along the Amalfi Coast, I suggest the saffron linguini tossed with fava beans, bottarga, and chewy bits of razor clam, followed by the ivory-colored loup de mer for two, which is wrapped in grape leaves and baked in salt and herbs imported from Provence.
Boulud Sud is subject to the rhythms of its neighborhood, which means that the tables tend to empty out before curtain time and then slowly fill back up again, as the evening progresses, with an assortment of Euro tourists and slightly antique-looking Boulud regulars from across the park. The wine list is modestly sized by Boulud standards (“accessible and refreshingly non-encyclopedic,” said my wine-geek friend), and the desserts, by the Tunisian-born pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira, are delicious. Try the fluffy cassata made with coffee gelato, chocolate, and clouds of ricotta mousse, or the Turkish rice pudding called sutlac, which is flavored here with rhubarb and lemon verbena and stuck with an almond tuile. Best of all is a regal creation called the grapefruit givré. This icy treat is made with grapefruit sorbet, a luminously pink frozen grapefruit shell, and a topping of lace-thin halvah, and like all of the greatest Boulud-empire creations, you won’t find it anywhere but right here, in New York City.