Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dinner at Bouley

What a thrill to be told that one of the great names in food is "in the kitchen tonight, cooking"! That was one of the treats my NYC foodie friends, Tom & Patricia, had for me at dinner a week ago in David Bouley's eponymous restaurant.

The "new" Bouley opened at 163 Duane St., around the corner from his former site several months ago. Tom & Pat have been Bouley fans from his start and wanted me to try his new digs. The restaurant is strikingly uptown beautiful! A big shift from the lovely, country home atmosphere of the former locale to a similarly elegant, yet more formal, high-ceilinged environment in the new.

We were greeted by George, the Maître d' whom my hosts have known for 20+ years. He apologized that he didn't have a table in the main front room available for us at the moment, but could seat us in the smaller, low-ceilinged back room: the Winter Garden. He showed us to the prime table in the center of the far wall where we would command a view of the room - and everyone would see us. We were happy with the table and settled in; we declined George's offer to move us to the main room a few minutes later.

A hospitable captain took our drink orders, but we were dismayed about 5 minutes later when instead of bringing our drinks, a second captain plunked down our amuse-bouches and blurted out something unintelligible in an affected, accented French. Pat objected that we had yet to be served our cocktails and weren't ready to start eating. This captain was oblivious to her complaints. I asked him to repeat what he had said; he again blurted out something none of us could understand. When I asked him to say it again so we could understand, he condescendingly said something that I could make out as the 3 ingredients of the little dish and he strutted away.

Our original captain came by within attention distance a minute later and Pat summoned him to ask where out drinks were, again complaining that we had been served inappropriately. He apologized and gently informed us that he had checked and that the drinks would be up shortly. George then came by and again asked if we'd like a table out front. Pat said we liked this back room, but would move if we could get more proper attention at the other table. George assured her that we'd be taken care of at either table, so we stayed. From then on, the evening was wonderful.

Tom ordered a Hendrick's gin on the rocks. I'm normally not a martini drinker, but recalling that my niece's husband recommended Hendrick's, I tried a very dry Hendrick's martini. It was quite delicious! A wonderful taste, much lighter on the juniper flavor (and now, reading about it on the Internet, I see it's scented with cucumbers and rose petals), and it didn't leave me feeling woozy, as most martinis do.

We ordered the 6 course Tasting Menu ($95), deciding the 8 course Chef's Tasting Menu ($150) was simply too much food. Four of the 6 courses had choices, and we ordered so we could sample all the offered dishes. The pleasant captain happily accommodated Pat's request to substitute the foie gras course from the Chef's Tasting Menu for the Maine Day Boat Lobster on our menu, given her shellfish allergy. When I asked if I could keep a copy of the menu, the captain readily agreed and graciously asked if I would like David Bouley to autograph it, since he was here this evening cooking. What a treat and a great souvenir!

Bouley's breads continue to be wonderful and it's tempting to fill up on them. (Pat asked for a doggie bag with their signature little apple rolls. She was given a coat check tag for the rolls, which would be waiting for her as we left - the same, discrete service of doggie bags that Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester provides.) Each course was beautifully presented and served nicely. Each lived up to the presentation, being quite delicious and stimulating for our jaded New York palates. The food went very nicely with the magnificent bottles of white and red Burgundy wines Tom had ordered. (The white was a nice Chassagne Montrachet, but I can't recall the wonderful red, which was new to me.)

George sent over a gift course of uni (sea urchin) en gelee. We each got a slice of a mini-pâté, with two layers of uni between 3 thick layers of aspic. An interesting and beautiful concept, but I thought the aspic overly muted the wonderful flavor of the sea urchin.

After the unfortunate service of the amuse-bouche, the dinner courses were well paced and nicely served. We noted that the other tables in our room had turned over three times during our dinner. When we started our 3-hour long dinner, most of the other tables in Winter Garden room (and a few in the main dining room) were filled with fairly young Japanese patrons. Tom explained that the Japanese liked to eat early, typically booking 6 p.m. reservations. Perhaps this explained the arrogant captain's initial treatment of us: He may have thought we were Japanese and wanted to rush us through our dinner.

We were presented dessert menus and given free choice, instead of being restricted to the 3 dessert choices on our Tasting Menu. Tom wisely signaled that we would leave the choice up to the chef and would like to be surprised. Out came 3 luscious desserts, including the Chocolate Frivolous dessert from the Chef's Tasting Menu, plus another gift, a 4th dessert that was the most notable dish of the evening: the best crème brûlée any of us have ever had! Its texture was absolutely silky and the flavor was delicate yet sublimely delicious. Even the burnt sugar crust was perfectly crunchy yet ethereally thin. Although all the other dishes were intriguing and yummy, the simple crème brûlée was utterly perfect.

Despite our initial treatment, Pat seemed to be happier with our evening than the one she had a couple of weeks before with other friends, when they almost starved, with long waits between each of the 3 courses in their meal.

Tom & Pat insisted that I inspect the restroom, and I happily obliged. They are downstairs off a magnificently vaulted hall that Tom said had been imported from Europe. The hall also leads to the large private dining room (at which a few individual tables were still being served, at 11 p.m.). I loved the vessel sinks, and even the red-flocked wallpaper wasn't kitchy, as it usually is.

With the unevenness of the service, I can understand why the NY Times gave them only 3 stars, down from the 4 earned by the original Bouley. The wonderful cocktails and wines plus the tips tripled the $95 per person food cost - about normal for high-end NYC restaurants.

It was a wonderfully memorable evening out with good - and very generous - friends.

Here are some of the photos I took of the restaurant, menu, food, and friends. Alas, I had my camera on the wrong focus setting, so many of the pictures aren't as clear as they should be. But they'll give you an idea of our delightful experience.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Study History?

In this time of concern for getting a good job after graduation, can there be any less useful college major than history? (Alas, "this time" has been around for generations.) My exposure to history majors at Cornell profoundly disavowed me of this opinion decades ago.

One of my good friends in my Cornell MBA program, Bill, had been a history major at Cornell College ("the other Cornell," as he was proud to say.) We had very good times together in our two years in Ithaca and I wasn't surprised that Bill did well after graduation, ending up working for a Chicago bank. He moved into managing bonds, and has been responsible for investing bond funds worth billions of dollars. "What did history have to do with the bond market?" I wondered. At reunions, I discussed this question with Bill and learned that in studying history, Bill had developed the ability and skill of reading voraciously, analyzing masses of data, and projecting likely outcomes, given past experiences. Bill's success in business demonstrates the wisdom of the George Santayana aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Indeed, in this troubling time of dealing with the excesses of the sub-prime mortgage debacle, some of us ask how this is any different from the past debacles of derivatives, savings and loan deregulation, and junk bonds. Perhaps those who studied history concluded they could repeat the financial killings some had made in those markets by just changing the details of the type of investment, hoping that government regulators hadn't studied enough history to see parallels and the inevitable consequences.

Another revelation on what the study of history really is about came during the inauguration activities for Cornell University's then-new president, Hunter Rawlings, who is a classicist. One of the inaugural sessions I attended was entitled "What is a Classicist?" In that session classicists were described as scholars specializing in ancient Greek and Roman history. But contrary to my impression that historians merely memorized dates and facts about past eras, I learned that the study of history is about discovering what actually happened in the past. The session painted a picture for me of historians being Sherlock Holmes-type characters, piecing together disparate hints and clues to form hypotheses to fill in the blanks. As a Sherlock Holmes fan - and today, loving the TV series House, MD for his ability to do the same in the medical field - had I been taught history beyond the boring rote memorization of dates and facts, I may have become fascinated by history and pursued its study. [On making this observation at the Rawlings inaugural, someone recommended a little novel to me: Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. It's a wonderful history mystery!]

Of course, history courses in our school curriculum are there to develop memorization abilities in students. But just as the purpose of math courses go beyond enabling students merely to "do math" (see my blog "Why Study Algebra"), history courses go further to teach students about relationships and consequences - what happened because a combination of events, decisions, or circumstances occurred. Ultimately, history teaches its students about beliefs of people in their age and environment.

Having been such a poor student of history, I can now relate to the importance that we all develop the skills related to the higher order study of history. There are other ways to develop these skills. But it's important that we recognize that because of our own lack of success in studying certain subjects in our typical education curricula, we may keep setting ourselves up for the recurrence of major problems in our own history.