In front, find a sparsely furnished barroom, seating perhaps 40 walk-ins, with a luxurious amount of room between tables. Beyond that, a deep dining chamber with a ceiling that undulates in great waves, as if you were standing on your head and gazing seaward. The décor is spiffily European, defined by parallel rows of striped banquettes. At the end of the room, a pair of impressionist landscapes that look like Napa Valley might have been done by Cézanne—if he’d ever visited California. Apart from those oases of brilliant color, nearly everything else is beige. Most remarkably, a narrow window looking into the kitchen runs the entire length of the dining room, revealing the boogying shoulders of the 10 or so cooks and little else.
Tucked away behind Bar Boulud on a Lincoln Center side street, and communicating rather strangely with its sister establishment via subterranean bathrooms, Boulud Sud is New York’s sixth and newest restaurant from Daniel Boulud, who has been our most talented and painstaking French chef for more than 20 years. Boulud Sud takes as its domain the entire Mediterranean rim, though its sensibilities remain entirely French, whatever cuisine is attempted. Despite a few missteps, this is summer cooking par excellence, and the lightness of the food combined with the smallness of the portions means you won’t drift away bloated into the sultry summer evening.
Yes, there are some dishes drawn straight from Provence, including soupe de poisson ($18). The pink potage that might be described as the heart of bouillabaisse is here interpreted with a single fish, turbot, and a pair of croutons smeared with aioli, rather than the spicier rouille. Miniature swatches peregrinate in the murk, and baby fennel bulbs stand in for the usual shot of Pernod. The only flaw lies in the smallness of the bowl, which would lead a Marseilles fisherman to double over with laughter. Other southern Gallic commonplaces include panisse (chickpea fritters, $9) that you’ll enjoy more than french fries and a splendid warm ratatouille, which enters theatrically in a white tagine. As the waiter doffs the lid, you’ll see atop the chunks of eggplant and tomatoes a slow-cooked egg, its yolk glowing yellow like the rising sun.
Chef Aaron Chambers does Sicilian impeccably, too, in a sardine escabèche ($14)—the dark filets relax in a space strewn with pine nuts, currants, and booze-soaked white raisins. The impact on your tongue is stunning, and the dish has the combined sweetness and sourness that the Italians call agrodolce. But as the menu marches north into central Italian, the cooks lose their way as the Romans did when trying to evade Hannibal, forfeiting their lives in the swamps of Lake Trasimeno. Thus the rabbit porchetta is not wrapped in crisp skin and stuffed with garlic and fennel; rather, it’s presented as a cold French roulade, with none of the earthy zing of the Umbrian original. Though arranged nicely on the plate, the northern Italian standard veal tonnato falls flat also: It tastes too much like canned tuna for a joint this fancy.
As the chef wanders around the Mediterranean, we get an excellent version of the north African soup harira, a brilliant Andalusian gazpacho with rivulets of green herb oil on its surface, and octopus tentacles in a Spanish salad with marcona almonds and sherry vinegar. Sadly, a Greek-leaning dish of duck meatballs resembles the mystery meat found in school cafeterias. The menu traipses rather confusingly through seven sections, of which only two contain conventional entrées, and those are largely under-sided. Both the grilled short rib of no apparent provenance and the Algerian-style lamb loin ($31 and $33, respectively) represent soul-satisfying hunks of meat, while the chicken tagine is as pallid as the white vessel it floats in. The fish called rouget, which arrives in a curl of cedar bark, leaves you wondering, “What killed the flavor?”
Grazing lavishly among the apps and sides is your best bet at Boulud Sud, but make sure you save room for dessert. Pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira has come up with a series of meal terminators that threaten to upstage the regular food, proving that the principals of molecular gastronomy are better applied to sweets than savories. Her pièce de résistance is a frosty grapefruit bewigged with white spun-sesame hair dotted with black sesame seeds. Underneath, a brown mat of flexible caramel protects the topside hatchway. Just wait to see what you can dredge up from inside. You’ll spend 15 minutes doing it and won’t have so much dining fun all summer.