By all accounts, the process of making fromage de tête is lengthy, painstaking, and requires spending a lot of time with pigs’ heads. And because the average diner may not consider headcheese much of a draw, it takes a certain amount of fine-dining chutzpah to make fromage de tête the centerpiece of a menu. At Bar Boulud, the result of all that time and hubris arrives on the table in glistening little cubes, natural gelatin encasing succulent bits of meat. Pop it in your mouth and it’s gone in a dreamy instant, the gelatin melting into deep, mellow porkiness.
This wine bar and bistro is Daniel Boulud’s newest venture—and his most personal. When the place stays close to its soulful, rustic heart, the payoff is beautifully composed textures and earthy flavors, unfussy and hedonistic.
Bar Boulud sits directly across from Lincoln Center and is easily the most exciting dining in the neighborhood. In the early evening, the place bustles with pre-theater crowds. Boulud’s intention—stated on the menu—was to create a wine bar centered on the charcuterie he came to love growing up in Lyon. Although the eatery sometimes falters—erring on the side of the sleek and the trendy—just under the surface it caters to that simple desire to drink good wine and share fantastically rich, funky cured meats with your friends.
The charcuterie selection has a depth and breadth rarely seen in American restaurants. It was created by renowned Parisian charcutier Gilles Vérot (the 1997 French champion of fromage de tête, naturally) and executed by Vérot’s protégé, Sylvain Gasdon, who operates out of a custom-built charcuterie laboratoire within the restaurant’s kitchens.
Walk through Bar Boulud’s long, narrow dining room, which is meant to evoke a traditional wine cellar (but will more likely remind New Yorkers of a flatteringly lit subway tunnel), and check out the bar. Here are whole house-cured hams, hanging lengths of saucisson sec, and dozens of terrines and pâtés displayed behind glass.
Thomas Schlesser’s design contains all sorts of wine-geek insider references—a liberal use of white oak (a nod to wine barrels), a back-lit gravel wall to evoke terroir, and a round tasting table like those favored by 19th-century wine négociants. It’s a bit high-concept for a place that’s meant to be a bistro and wine bar, but the result is surprisingly inviting. The blond wood lends clean, smooth lines; burnt-orange linens and the gravel wall add warmth and texture; the arched ceiling allows conversation to roll and bubble across the room.
The waitstaff—still a bit rough around the edges but eager to please—recommends sharing charcuterie and appetizers and then ordering main courses as well. Portions are restrained enough that this is not quite the heroic undertaking it may seem.
The degustation platter, a tasting of several of the charcuterie offerings of the day, is a good way to start. Pâté grand-pére and pâté grand-mére anchor the selection, the former coarsely textured and enriched with foie gras, the latter buttery smooth with puréed chicken liver. A bacon and guinea-hen pâté is robust; the housemade ham is ribboned with snowy fat, all of it bolstered by cornichons and good mustard.
Tourte de gibiers au genièvre, a crazy quilt of meat (pheasant, duck, partridge, foie gras, and sweetbreads) layered together en croûte marries firm and creamy, mild and gamy. When it’s time for me to go, I’d like to eat myself to death on tourte de gibiers au genièvre.
A few terrines spin off France to incorporate global flavors. The tagine d’agneau, terrine of lamb with eggplant and sweet potato, is sparked with cinnamon and turmeric. The nougat de poularde “à la Indienne” isn’t so successful, reminiscent of a curried chicken and pistachio jello salad.
The wine list is built on Rhône and Burgundian varietals, with bottles from each region classified as “discoveries,” “classics,” or “legends,” a conveniently self-explanatory system. The discoveries section features some wines in the $20 to $30 range. Even better, the sommelier, unprompted, suggested three different white Burgundies that were all in different price ranges. The $45 Mâcon-Villages we settled on had a food-friendly creaminess and firm structure.
The kitchen, under executive chef Damian Sansonetti, who came up through DB Bistro Moderne and Daniel, is in the unenviable position of following a tough act. Aside from the charcuterie, the menu is a jumble of smaller dishes and main courses, and discerning which is which can be confusing. (The best way is to look at the prices.)
The best items by far are those you’d expect to see on a bistro menu: coq au vin with lardons as big as my thumb; frisée salad tossed with sautéed chicken livers and poached egg; buttery sautéed skate. Pork belly, always a welcome cheap trick, shows up as rillons—nuggets of belly roasted to a crisp and tempered with a generous sprinkle of cracked pepper. Buf aux carottes features a perfectly braised flatiron steak on a vibrant, silken carrot mousseline. Boudin blanc is pillowy, rich with cream and liver.
The aioli appetizer is a nice twist on the Provençal le grand aioli, a feast that revolves around dipping fish and vegetables into pots of the garlicky homemade mayonnaise. Here, it’s served with big flakes of chilled, olive-oil-poached cod, shrimp, hardboiled quail eggs, and several kinds of crisp-tender crudités, all finished with a judicious sprinkle of coarse sea salt. It’s a lovely, simple dish meant for sharing.
But the kitchen is hedging its bets. Having showcased all that splendid pork, it seems compelled to include some offerings that follow the “buy great ingredients and don’t do anything to them” school of cooking; unlike the others, these dishes have no sense of place.
Scottish salmon with Syrah glaze could be found in any New American spot from here to Park Slope. Likewise for a well-cooked but anemic sea bass and a plate of scallops with a wan red-cabbage marmalade. The fish in the fish and chips suffers from a heavy, fried-dough-like batter that overwhelms the grouper inside. While the charcuterie and the more classic bistro plates have an exuberance of flavor and a sense of rootedness about them, these dishes lack much to recommend them, especially at these prices.
Nevertheless, the place has considerable charm. Before ordering, each table is brought a basket of warm Gruyère gougères, with a dusting of coarse black pepper on top. The gougères are the biggest I’ve ever seen, the size of my fist. They are toasty, airy, cheesy, and tender, exactly as they should be, but super-sized. Every single table gobbles them up as soon as soon as the server sets them down. Why make the gougères so big? Because gougères are fantastic, and everyone loves them.