From the day he left his family’s farm near Lyon to work in a restaurant kitchen at age 14, through his rise at the stoves of New York’s legendarily luxurious Le Cirque at the peak of its influence, and even to now, in a time when nobody knows for sure what the words “luxury dining” quite mean any longer, the French chef Daniel Boulud has built and maintained one of the food world’s most respected luxury brands.
The chef’s flagship Manhattan restaurant, called Daniel, has neo-classical arches, a five-figure florist’s bill and four stars from The New York Times. He runs 14 restaurants in total, including a superb and casually opulent new outpost that opened in Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel last spring. As of early October, Mr. Boulud also runs a restaurant in Yorkville’s new Four Seasons Hotel, called Café Boulud.
Mr. Boulud’s gift, beyond his cooking, even, is his ability to adapt to time and place. When he moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, he developed a cuisine that tempered the decadence and stern meticulousness of high-French cooking with Mediterranean lightness and American populism. His style was Saint-Tropez meets Miami Beach, instead of the usual gilded stodge.
Later, he put a $27 hamburger stuffed with short ribs and foie gras on his menu at DB Bistro Moderne. A revolutionary move at the time, it spawned a thousand imitations and forever changed North Americans’ expectations of high-end dining.
Here in Toronto, the cooking and service in his 150-seat room are classic Daniel Boulud, but tailored to a city that hasn’t looked well of late on the pretensions of fine dining. The spirit of the place is fine, but without table linens or overt ceremony. It’s luxurious but with a nod to fun and youth (such as they are; the crowd on two recent visits skewed to gerontocrats and semi-socialites) and measured verve.
The lobster salad, to many high-end chefs a mayonnaise-sopped throwaway, speaks volumes of the approach in Café Boulud’s kitchen, which is led by the B.C.-raised chef Tyler Shedden. The lobster comes steamed, in enormous, tender hunks and whole, shelled claws, with strips of shaved fresh coconut, crisp fried shallots, emerald cilantro leaves and ruby-hued rounds of Thai bird chili. The mayonnaise appears as a few nickel-sized dots: It is homemade, thick, superlatively tangy from fresh lime. Beside it all there’s a lobster samosa, crunchy soul and warm island heat and suburban Toronto, too. “This is lobster salad. It’s not supposed to be this interesting!” a tablemate said one night last week, enthralled and wide-eyed. You could say the same of the B.C. ling cod that’s bathed in a sauce rich with fat clams, parsley, tarragon, tiny perfectly au point white beans and musky Omani lemon powder. Or of the buttery, cheesy, creamy risotto special that arrived under a squall of shaved black truffles – that was so superbly made, we picked every stray grain from the sides of the bowl.
With only a few exceptions – an overcooked piece of halibut one night, a breast of chicken gone spongy from sous vide cooking – Mr. Boulud’s team more than lives up to expectations. But the made-in-Toronto luxury brand that the chef has hitched his star to here is a drag on his name.
The restaurant interior was designed by Rosalie Wise Sharp, the wife of Isadore Sharp, the Four Seasons founder and chairman. It would not be out of place in a Rust Belt airport hotel and conference centre, circa 1997. It is tolerable by day when it looks out on Bay Street and Yorkville Avenue: when the focus of the room is outside its windows.
But at night, something about the light makes the rough-plastered, dun-toned walls are reminiscent of a survivalist’s hay-bale homestead. There are metal, palm-filled planters that look like feed troughs. The velvety brown loveseats bring to mind just two words: leisure suit.
The art on the walls is also awful. At every vantage point, there are likenesses of Kate Moss, Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Campbell’s soup cans, Madonna as Monroe. Oh, look, it’s Picasso in a cowboy hat! And what’s one of Keith Haring’s iconic flying figures doing in some other artist’s work?
The “art” is by Mr. Brainwash, a French provocateur whose idea of creativity is outright plagiarism, whose goal, one imagines, is unbridled tackiness, whose persona, many believe, was dreamed up as an art-world joke.
Maybe Ms. Wise Sharp didn’t get that memo. The art is all for sale, by the way – it says so right on the menu. Isn’t that what all great restaurants do?
Mr. Boulud’s team rises above it, with a floor staff that’s professional and very well briefed, particularly wine director Drew Walker. If you bring a decent friend or two, you might not even notice the decor.
The menu is divided into four sections: La Tradition for French classics, La Saison for seasonal plates, Le Potager for vegetable-driven dishes, and Le Voyage for international tastes. Le Voyage’s lightly charred octopus with marcona almonds is juicy, tender and smoky. The crispy duck egg from La Tradition is excellent, as are the superb vitello tonnato and the roasted veal loin with its “casserole” made from veal cheeks and sweetbreads, served alongside Parmesan-loaded grits.
Desserts are pedestrian in spots (the molten chocolate cake), magnificent in others, particularly the grapefruit givré, which is recreated from Boulud Sud, in New York. A givré is fruit sorbet served in a frozen fruit shell. Here in addition to the grapefruit sorbet there are grapefruit jam, fresh grapefruit segments, sesame cream, rose-flavoured hunks of Turkish delight, and cotton candy flavoured with halva.
It is decadent without being obvious; it is exotic and familiar, French and Middle Eastern, opulent, light as air and 100 per cent delicious. So this is luxury dining. It works.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
- Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
- Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.