Daniel Boulud Dinner at the James Beard House

by Jason Roth on September 15, 2009

They bumped up the price on this dinner, but we thought it was an opportunity not to be missed. Daniel Boulud and his team of chefs from Daniel, Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas, and the soon-to-be-reopened Café Boulud, cooked a showcase meal for the James Beard Foundation last night. (That’s one of the many great things about great chefs. At an event held in their honor, they cook for you.)

Boulud at the helm leading his troops.

Daniel Boulud at the helm of an agnolotti assembly line.

Each of the five hors d’oeuvres was not only excellent, but served in plentiful quantities. Neither of these points is always the case, and if you’ve been to the James Beard House, you know that (as great as it is) the courtyard is often home to vultures ready to pounce on any last bit of foie gras the poor servers happen to bring out. Perhaps it was due partly the particular crowd of the evening, but being presented with so much food that you actually had to refuse it wasn’t a bad thing. Highlights of the cocktail hour included a perfectly spiced shot glass of gazpacho, a crispy-fried zucchini flower stuffed with olive and tomato compote (the rarest of the items served), and a tomato tart topped with burrata cheese and an onion marmalade. (I didn’t know you could make an onion marmalade, but I’ll take it over orange on my pizza any day. I mean tart.) The inclusion, in each hors d’oeuvre, of freshly harvested, end-of-summer tomatoes, was a delicious choice.

Daniel waving at some annoying photographer.

The man of honor waving graciously at some annoying photographer.

Tai snapper ceviche (trust me, it's there)

Tai snapper ceviche (trust me, it's there)

Each of Boulud’s chefs was responsible for a different course, and each stopped by our table to describe it and answer questions. The menu differed only slightly from what was planned. Instead of the planned rabbit porchetta, a tai snapper (from New Zealand, Google taught me later) ceviche started the sit-down meal. The abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, also present during cocktail hour, was a consistent theme.

The next course was pasta, and I was not expecting to be disappointed. On the contrary, the sweet corn agnolotti (a type of ravioli) was my favorite dish of the night. The presence of rillon, my new favorite word, didn’t exactly hurt this dish’s chances, either.

Sweet corn agnolotti with rillons (what us plebeian call pork belly)

Sweet corn agnolotti with rillons (what us plebeian call pork belly)

Rillons, or (in this case, rectangular) cubes of pork belly, provided the perfect, poetic, middle finger to any vegetarians in the vicinity who thought they might have a had a shot at enjoying this dish. The salty, fatty, pork, contrasted well against the sweet corn mixture inside the ravioli and the corn kernels outside. An additional presence of Thai basil leaves, chanterelle mushrooms, and julienned black truffles (served slightly thicker than usual), made this dish feel like it couldn’t possibly be missing a component.

Butter poached dover sole, stuffed with a scallop mousse the menu forgot to even mention

Butter poached dover sole, stuffed with a scallop mousse the menu forgot to even mention.

Dover sole was up next, and again the right choice of — and the right number of — ingredients conveyed another theme. These were not simple dishes, but never did they contain one flavor too many that would dull, rather than enhance, the enjoyment. In the case of the butter poached Dover sole, the menu alerted us that we would be receiving citrus braised endive, red pearl onions, a sunchoke purée, and sauce Americain (mmm… lobster bisque), but the scallop mousse inside and caraway cream on top were added bonuses.

The last savory course was a Scottish grouse and foie gras terrine. Grouse is a game bird, what Boulud later called the best fowl you could buy legally. (I can only guess what black market birds he might have enjoyed.)

The best damn Scottish grouse I ever had (from a field of 1)

The best damn Scottish grouse I ever had (from a field of 1)

I enjoyed this dish more than my wife, the gamey quality a bit too prominent for her. But I’ve never met a foie gras I didn’t like, and the tang of the Oregon huckleberries balanced it out for me.

One desert…

If a bunch of chefs are making "kumquat confit", they're probably heading in the right direction.

Intermezzo, interschmezzo. I call this dessert. Oh, and if a bunch of chefs are making "kumquat confit", they're probably heading in the right direction.

After another…

Chocolate mousse, a childhood favorite. Can't say my Three Musketeers ever had "nougat foam", though.

Chocolate mousse, a childhood favorite. Can't say my Three Musketeers ever had "nougat foam", though.

…kicked ass, fortunately only metaphorically. These tasting menus can sometimes be ridiculous in terms of quantity, but it was just right this time. (Ok, maybe a tad too much, but I’m not complaining.)

This was a dinner that would have surprised me had it not been remarkable. But the key differentiating factor amongst Boulud and his team, versus a less-than-great chef, is that they not only design an impressive menu, they follow through in ways you could never expect.

Incidentally, straight from the horse’s mouth, with champagne glass in hand, I can confirm Boulud’s signed the papers on his planned London restaurant. The empire expands.

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