The cocktails list at the newly redesigned and reopened Café Boulud, in the Four Seasons Hotel, offers exactly the drinks you’d expect in a comfortable, spare-no-expense French spot in the Age of Mixology. There’s a vodka-and-soda-based watermelon smash and an elderflower fizz for the dewy-eyed lushes, booze-forward Mai Tais, Tanqueray martinis and Vieux Carrés for the historically inclined, and for the most on-trend of the restaurant’s patrons, a winking twist on the it-drink of 2015, the Paper Plane, which they call the Led Zeppelin (get it?) and spike with tequila and lime.
But if you’re a student of restaurants and dining, and particularly of Café Boulud’s troubled past, it’s the gin and tonic variation called the Martin Brudnizki (gin, Jack Rudy special batch tonic, lemon) that all but leaps off the page. You wonder why Mr. Brudnizki, the bankable Britain-based interior architect and celebrity restaurant designer, got only a cocktail in his name when what Daniel Boulud’s restaurant company, and especially Four Seasons Hotels, really owe him is a triumphant, two-storey bronze and a ticker-tape parade.
The trouble in Café Boulud’s inglorious past was never the cooking or the service, although the cooking, incredibly, has vastly improved in the restaurant’s reincarnation. The trouble was the design of the room, which Mr. Boulud’s team had no hand in. That sprawling, second-storey space, sheathed behind glass on one of the most desirable corners of the city and helmed by one of France’s most widely admired chefs, always felt like an IHOP gone tragically up-market, decorated by Krusty the Clown.
Mr. Brudnizki’s remake is elegant and classic but with a seam of youthful energy sewn through: The banquettes are done in rich, two-tone greens and lollipop corals and the lighting now is soft and warm, particularly around the room’s long, busy bar, where the happy clatter of half-pickled conversation and cocktail shakers provides the soundtrack many nights. The acoustics are perfect: Behold the driving, dance-floor rhythms and the easy conversations. The natural leather dining chairs are cushy-soft enough that you may never want to get up.
And that room, once a hard sell, is crammed now at breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Boulud is off the hook this a.m. It’s like an Order of Canada convention,” Shinan Govani wrote on Twitter last month. The first time I ate there, near the end of October, Michael Budman had just announced the deal to sell Roots Canada to Searchlight Capital Partners, and a procession of Bay Street and society types shook his hand and patted his shoulders as they passed his table. The crowd for Café Boulud’s pre-opening friends and family dinner, meantime – at most new restaurants these are bedizened with hungry-looking line cooks and freeloading second cousins – included real-estate philanthropists Lynda and Jonas Prince, Richard and Rana Florida, arts guru Jorn Weisbrodt and Hilary Weston.
Café Boulud has also refined and refocused its menu, with an emphasis on brasserie classics both well and less known, many of them executed with knee-weakening finesse. Mr. Boulud’s kitchen, run by the Montpellier-raised chef de cuisine Sylvain Assié, has transformed the typically heavy, hoary blanquette de veau, for instance, into a sublimely verdant stew shot through with fresh green herbs, crisp snap peas and baby Japanese turnips. The veal itself is the expected slab of sweet, milky jiggliness; the ivory skim of sauce velouté overtop it all roots the dish just enough in traditions past.
Thanks to a new rotisserie brought in from France, the restaurant’s homard aux choux – that’s lobster with cabbage and ginger beurre blanc – takes on a beguiling smoky, roasty aspect; it’s basted with butter-dipped rosemary as it cooks. The grilled, Provençal-style Ontario lamb comes pink and supple and wondrously crisp at its edges, as if it just spent hours lolling around a wood-fired spa.
And this being a proper French restaurant, on every plate there is stuff under the stuff – creamy-centred white coco beans and smoke-and-garlic-imbued eggplant under the lamb; a nutty black rice, bok choi and lobster knuckle hash under that rotisserie lobster – and the under-stuff is almost always as pleasantly decadent and delicious as what’s on top.
The steaks, from Cumbrae, are beautifully aged and reasonably priced; the $49 10-ounce strip loin is nearly worth the money just for the frites it comes with and its cup of sauce béarnaise. The rotisserie chicken, also excellent, does not come with béarnaise, and this, if you’ve tried Café Boulud’s béarnaise, is a travesty. Ask for it. You’ve earned it. You’ll thank me when you do.
Yet my favourite by far of the classic dishes here is the quenelle de brochet, a Lyonnais brasserie standard that almost nobody orders at Café Boulud, because almost nobody at Café Boulud has heard of it before. Brochet is pike, a viciously toothy, duck-billed fish that happens to be abundant not just around Lyon but also around central and eastern Canada. I’ve seen pike only once on a Toronto restaurant menu, last year at Actinolite. (Joe Beef, in Montreal, also serves quenelles de brochet and Jamie Kennedy used to do a whitefish-based take.)
Quenelles de brochet are super light pike and whipping cream dumplings, and they’re typically served in a shellfish sauce. Or as I put it to the inquiring woman at the table next to us one evening (I’ll have what he’s having!), “This is pike, it’s a white lake fish, but it’s got the texture of soufflé and it comes with king oyster mushrooms in a brandied lobster sauce.”
Not long after I started in on the dish, the restaurant’s floor captain appeared at our table. “Parlez-vous Français?” he asked. “Avec quenelles, normalement vous parlez Français un peu.” Only French people order quenelles, he meant. This needs to change. I expect that it will. When the woman at the table next to us set into her order, her face flushed and I could swear her eyes went a little hazy. “Oh, this is good!” she exclaimed.
And every meal here should begin with a plate of charcuterie, or at very least with a tranche of the pâté en croûte Canadien, which is mixed meats, foie gras and cognac-soaked cranberries wrapped in pastry, roughly. It is also a bona fide masterpiece.
The less traditional of Café Boulud’s plates have had to earn their way onto the menu, and they do with extraordinary grace. The restaurant’s bouillon pho is a nod to the city – it’s Vietnamese noodle soup but built on a majestically deep-flavoured beef consommé and served with cheeky plastic chopsticks. The kale and romaine salad – this is Yorkville, let’s not forget – gets the full French treatment, complete with the briney pop of black olives, cumin and a deep-savoury yogurt dressing. What it’s not is the sort of kale salad you’d find at Freshii, but French people don’t ever get fat, right?
And the beignets de calamar – tempura squid fritters – are similarly fresh and bright-tasting, tossed with lime, coriander and bird-eye chili slivers and with roasted red pepper aioli on the side. There are a few weaknesses still: The seasoning wasn’t quite on point one night, when the escargots needed salt and acidity and that blanquette au vert could also have used a touch of acid and a finishing saline hit.
The rotisserie chicken isn’t entirely consistent, either; while a friend who knows these things tells me it was superlative at lunch one day, it was merely very good and not quite moist enough, when I brought him for dinner another evening.
Service, though across-the-board prescient and professional (wine director Drew Walker merits a special shout-out; he is one of the best in town), was weirdly over-the-top one evening – our waiter all but read the entire menu to us, so that by the end we were reading along and finishing his descriptions for him. All the same, it’s nothing a touch of training can’t fix.
Desserts, which were good before, with a couple of standouts (to wit: Boulud executive pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira’s iconic grapefruit givré), are now among the best in the city.
The profiteroles are superb, but I can’t tell you any more without spoiling a crucial plot point; the baked Alaska is as intricately piped and plated as any engraving in your average Age of Enlightenment text.
Or if you’d like something slightly simpler, go for the rotisserie-roasted pineapple served with coconut ice cream. It’s not a brasserie classic, exactly, but it’s ridiculously nice.Report Typo/Error