David Bouley hails not from Paris or Provence, as his name, heritage, and repertoire of refined French cuisine might suggest. He grew up in Storrs, Connecticut. And while he trained under Michelin-starred chefs in France and Switzerland, and toiled away at landmark New York restaurants, he then served successfully as executive chef at one of that city's most esteemed French eateries (Montrachet). But this top toque's touch with seafood is likely rooted in time spent as a young man working with fishermen in Cape Cod. The fact is, Bouley's background exposed him to the best of both worlds. So when he opened his eponymous establishment in 1987, it not only earned four stars from the New York Times, and Zagat's top rating for seven straight years, but set a whole new standard for fine dining in the most serious food city in the United States. With the debut of David Bouley Evolution in the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, the Big Apple's plum gastronomic star immediately becomes the most acclaimed culinarian to ever helm a kitchen in this relatively young and still-humble dining town.
To describe Bouley's cuisine is to dish out what have become standard hors d'oeuvre in the cocktail party of food writing: Purity. Integrity. Clarity of taste. Forging relationships with local farmers, a commitment to the freshest ingredients and the natural, unencumbered essence of each heavenly comestible. Clean, clean, clean. Rah, rah, rah. It is, of course, all true, the virtuous caliber of quality proving discernible in nearly every bite beginning with baker Gustavo Adolfo Agudelo's raisin-and-apple roll, salt-sprinkled brioche, and other bodacious Old World breads baked on premises from a fifteen-year-old yeast imported from the New York establishment.
Even a starter based on something as elemental as an egg becomes unusually engaging. It is an organic, farm-fresh egg (naturally), impeccably poached with black truffle, coddled in a wrapping of Serrano ham, slapped with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, capped with a wisp of herbed Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and encircled by an effervescent foam of sweet garlic. You might expect nothing less from an $18 ovum, yet while prices here are undeniably high (starters $14 to $22, entrees $32 to $42), you always seem to get more than what you anticipate. I'm speaking not just of quality, but quantity, too; Evolution is generous with gastronomic gifts from a bracing amuse-bouchée of grapefruit three ways, to an invigorating intermezzo of strawberry soup with fromage blanc sorbet, to a postdinner plate replete with tuile, truffle, and other sweet treats.
Bouley includes the foods of his New England background in the menu (along with those of Spain, France, and Asia). Sticklers for the notion of cooking locally might squawk, but not once they taste the Chatham cod with kumquat, parsley root purée, and Tasmanian mustard sauce. Or the Cape Cod lobster bathed in beurre blanc and ginger-vanilla glaze, which is very possibly the softest, most buttery crustacean to ever alight upon a human tongue. Then again, that accolade might just as easily apply to a plush, melt-in-your-mouth "scuba-dived" scallop brimming with pristine brininess in a primal green broth of fresh herbs just one component of a signature starter that also includes Florida shrimp crusted in shredded phyllo, smoky rings of grilled Cape Cod baby squid, and luscious lumps of Maryland crabmeat.
A colorful wedge of lobster terrine fell victim to unfavorable comparisons with the aforementioned shellfish dishes. Moist clumps of the rich crustacean were tasty in tandem with mango and artichoke, the whole rimmed in Serrano ham, the plate prettied with passion fruit, coconut, and tamarind drizzles. But the slice was too well-chilled the flavors stopped cold, so to speak.
The menu here changes according to markets, seasons, and, I suppose, whims. I'm all in favor of this, though I nonetheless sulked over missing the brash Atlantic halibut cooked "in a Borscht manner," which had been previously offered. (Bouley built his reputation around using fruit and vegetable juices instead of starches and creams before it was hip to do so.) I quickly got over this sense of loss, however, when presented with a slow-roasted, diaphanous slab of black sea bass crusted in thin, crisply browned scallop cap and accompanied by "24-hour cooked tomato, coconut jasmine rice, and sauce bouillabaisse." The tomato didn't add much, regardless of how long it was left in the oven, but the rice was sumptuously creamy, and the sauce turned out to be a fluffy orange foam frothing with full bouillabaisse flavor (and a daring dash of vanilla). If you think paying $38 for a fish is crazy, or even just a tad pretentious, try this dish, and then join the rest of us snobby food nuts in howling with delight.
Another hall of fame entree arrived as ever-so-tender Cooperstown lamb chops pooled in zucchini-mint purée and chaperoned by sage-accented gnocchi with fava beans. A thick Long Island duckling breast, laced with honey, butter, and fresh lavender flowers, was just as juicy and meaty as the chops, its sweet and fragrant aromas grounded with earthy shiitake mushrooms and crunchy wheat berries.
The highly regarded Parisian designer Jacques Garcia's dashing Art Deco decor sets an apt and stylish stage for Bouley's elegant fare. The plush, curvy, 77-seat dining room, 40-seat private area, lounge, bar, and sushi bar are draped in blues and golds; gilded with brightly colored, hand-painted glass constructions; and seductively illuminated by sea-anemone chandeliers. At one point I commented that the space looked a little like Radio City Music Hall after having been shrunken and redecorated by Maxfield Parrish, but admittedly this observation was prefaced by some glasses of wine. Besides, I meant it in a positive way.
Service was suave as well, with all of our needs accommodated in seamless and exceedingly competent fashion by a stellar front-of-house team that encompasses waiters, runners, bread servers, water pourers, and an intuitive but not intrusive sommelier. This last gentleman offers adept assistance in navigating the extensive wine list that is heavy on haute vintners, but inclusive of worthwhile picks in the affordable $45-$60 range. For a true culinary tour de force, try the chef's tasting menu with wine pairing ($160).
Because our waiters were so skilled in offering detailed descriptions of every dish served, it was surprising that we were never told about the sushi menu, nor informed of the domestic and imported cheeses by Terrance Brennan Artisanal Connoisseurs. So, sans cheese plate, we segued straight into dessert, topfen palatschinken, a delicate round of crêpe plumped with a blintzlike sweet cheese and sided by a divine quenelle of huckleberry-sour cream ice cream. An "eight-minute soufflé" filled with warm Valrhona chocolate was a textbook rendition of the restaurant world's omnipresent "flourless-molten-lava-volcano" chocolate cake, presented with three scoops of vibrantly flavored ice creams on the side. Crme brùlée came three ways, too (Tahitian vanilla, green tea and banana), and was likewise executed with aplomb meaning custardy centers and crunchy crowns.
Overhyped restaurants and chefs are as common as key lime pie, so to dine here and experience such exquisitely sublime flavors elicits a sort of childish glee like what I imagine a lifelong Floridian might feel upon first encountering snow. The hullaballoo over Bouley's Evolution is justified. And then some.
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