It’s not something one readily admits, but having spent his formative feeding years as a pimple-faced stripling tucking into Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, Mrs. Fields cookies, and Cinnabons, the Underground Gourmet considers himself something of an expert on mall food. Nothing from one’s Orange Julius–gulping past, however, can prepare one for Thomas (Per Se) Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, the long-awaited, almost egalitarian addition to the Time Warner Center—and the only piece of the TWC’s so-called Restaurant Collection puzzle that’s plopped down, somewhat ignominiously, right out in the open mall corridor, like an airport Au Bon Pain.
Conspicuously situated on the center’s third floor between Aveda and J. Crew and directly beneath a stadium-size Samsung sign so prominently positioned between the main dining area and the smashing Central Park South view it must give Keller night sweats, Bouchon Bakery encompasses a sit-down café with waiter service, a takeout counter with limited seating, and a kitchen that supplies them both. Soups, salads, and sandwiches make up the bulk of the menu, all familiar to anyone who’s visited Keller’s Bouchon branches in Yountville and Las Vegas, or thumbed through the high-gloss pages of his Bouchon cookbook, where the chef-philosopher waxes eloquent on topics as portentous as puff pastry and quiche. There’s some serious branding going on, from the house-blend coffee beans (a Viennese roast from Equator Coffees in San Rafael, California) to the beribboned bags of foie gras–enriched doggie biscuits. It’s all as precious, tastefully designed, and color-coordinated as you might imagine, which is to say, very.
It also happens to be the answer to the Underground Gourmet’s heretofore unanswered Columbus Circle prayers. By no means cheap, the place is affordable compared with its neighbors, and especially so considering the staggeringly high quality. As this isn’t exactly a secret, and the café doesn’t accept reservations, it’s best to visit early or mid-afternoon, when it’s remarkably quiet and you might even see the great chef himself, looking rather soigné in a woolly turtleneck and fancy chef clogs, holding a sotto voce staff meeting.
As befits a bakery, all the bread is made in-house, and meals begin with a lovely epi loaf and excellent sel gris–sprinkled butter. Tap water is served in elegant carafes, as the French and American wines will be, once the liquor license arrives (which, rest assured, should be soon, according to an inside source who says that an emergency call has been placed to the governor), and steel-rimmed, marble-topped tables are set with Christofle flatware and tiny jugs of Dijon mustard.
Despite the careful, attentive service and the swank accoutrements, Bouchon Bakery is still Keller at his most casual. A rack of newspapers and magazines is there for the perusing, and the napkins are paper (albeit that stiff, fancy kind). The food, though, is utterly serious—you get the sense the kitchen staff passed through some hard-core Keller boot camp in the wilds of Napa to learn how to execute architecturally sound sandwiches and flawless pastries that look ready for their Saveur close-ups.
The salads are perfectly dressed, from the simple Bibb lettuce with fresh herbs in a red-wine vinaigrette to the busier beet and mâche with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts. Three-bean soup is embellished with a drizzle of fragrant rosemary pistou, and the heady chicken soup comes with delicate herb dumplings.
Keller’s genius is in taking the commonplace—the turkey sandwich, the ham and cheese, the PB&J—and elevating it to the pinnacle of its form. It’s unlikely that a better tuna sandwich exists than Bouchon Bakery’s tuna niçoise tartine—imported canned tuna mingled with herbs and mayo, neither too wet nor dry, topped with slices of hard-cooked egg and niçoise olive, and served on aïoli-slicked pain de campagne. It comes, like the soft roasted vegetable and arugula pesto, with a mound of pristine baby greens and a stack of cornichons. At $13.25, it also costs a lot more than your average deli sandwich, and, yes, it’s worth it. All the other sandwiches except for the roast pork tonnato, which lacked that mildly pungent oomph you want from tuna sauce, were nearly as good.
Among the handful of dishes listed under the menu heading Bouchon Bakery Selections, there is no way to go astray. As it turns out, chef Keller is an unabashed quiche freak, on a mission to right the wrongs of 1970s quiche cooks, and Bouchon’s quiche du jour—one day a Lorraine, the next a leeks-and-Roquefort—is simply a different species from any you’ve ever had: tall and tremulously custardy, rich but light, with a flaky pâte brisée crust. Likewise “rillettes aux deux saumons,” tiny chunks of fresh and smoked salmon, and a bacon-wrapped pâte de campagne, pretty much render the sterile surroundings, the piped-in music, and anything else New Yorkers like to carp about—the preposterousness of someone building a mall and then having the audacity to fill it up with restaurants, say—inconsequential.