Right up until the moment he actually opened one, nobody appeared more qualified to run a Lyon-style bouchon in New York City than Daniel Boulud. Then along came Le Gratin, and it became clear that he wasn’t the right person for the job at all.
Le Gratin, just south of City Hall in the space formerly occupied by Keith McNally’s Augustine, bills itself as a “bouchon Lyonnais” on its website, its menu and its enormous curtained windows. But a visitor from Lyon who walked through the door on Beekman Street might have trouble seeing the connection.
Like bodegas in New York, bouchons are central to the identity of Lyon but are seldom replicated, or even understood, outside it. In “Dirt,” his book about eating and cooking in Lyon, Bill Buford defines a bouchon as “a place you enter to drink and eat, get sweaty, and stand on the table and sing midway through your meal.” Roughly speaking, if restaurants began as stages where French aristocrats could display their refinement, and bistros as places where the bourgeoisie could show off their respectability, the bouchons of Lyons were places for weavers and other silk workers to put their elbows on the table, drink too much cheap wine and stuff themselves with organs and off cuts until it was hard to stand up again.
Le Gratin inherited the dining room’s vintage tiles and mirrors from the last tenant, Augustine.Credit…Daniel Krieger for The New York Times
The open-collared, pleasure-seeking spirit of a bouchon is probably impossible to import unless you also find a way to import a roomful of Lyonnais. Food, though, is easier to reproduce, and few American chefs know the food of Lyon more intimately than Mr. Boulud. He grew up on a farm outside the city, received his early kitchen training in what was one of its leading restaurants and became famous for painstaking, harmonious elaborations on the food of his childhood.
He and Guillaume Ginther, his executive chef at Le Gratin, could have reproduced and elaborated on the mainstays of bouchon menus: the eggs in red-wine sauce, the kidneys, the pig snouts, the sweetbreads, the Croix-Rousse caviar (stewed lentils named after one of Lyon’s neighborhoods, in a self-mocking reference to the city’s low-budget appetites), maybe even the pan-fried andouillette, an intestine sausage which, thanks to its insistent pig-farm reek, is more polarizing than foie gras.
This is not what they have done. Instead they have produced a raft of French and French-lite dishes that can be found all over Manhattan, although they won’t necessarily be as good as they are at Le Gratin.
Here is your crab salad with avocado and pink grapefruit; your steak tartare “à la Parisienne”; your spaghetti with pesto in the style of Nice; your salmon poached in olive oil with sweet peas; your grilled branzino with caramelized fennel and sauce vierge.
After the intricate, devil-in-the-details fanciness of Le Pavillon, Mr. Boulud’s last restaurant, it is a pleasure to see what he can do with food that is on the whole simpler and more straightforward. Apart from its habit of overcooking fish, the kitchen has a solid grip on technique. The terrines, pâtés and rillettes could form the curriculum of a course in charcuterie. Most of the flavor combinations have been around for ages, but Le Gratin still manages to sharpen and fine-tune them, one of the hallmarks of Mr. Boulud’s work. Saffron perfumes the cream at the bottom of a bowl of fat mussels; the sauce on slabs of duck breast, juicy and rose-red, buzzes with green peppercorns.
But you really have to hunt to find the bouchon dishes. Cervelle de canut — herbs and shallots beaten into fromage blanc to make one of the world’s great cheese spreads — is hiding in the beet salad. More obviously, there is a salade Lyonnaise with slabs of braised bacon and big hunks of vinegar-glazed chicken livers, a glorious bit of meaty overkill that any bouchon would be proud of.
Best of them all, though, is the quenelle de brochet. This is fantastic, not just an uncanny conjuring of the spirit of Lyon but a summation of the entire Boulud approach. It is worth a trip to Le Gratin all by itself.
In Manhattan, quenelles de brochet are usually tidy football-shaped pike dumplings broiled under a coral-colored robe of Nantua sauce, the form they take at La Grenouille, Le Coucou and Benoit. Canonically, Nantua sauce calls for crayfish. Lobster is almost always used in New York; it’s easier to find, but it gives the dish a glimmer of luxury that it didn’t originally have.
Working from a Boulud family recipe, Mr. Boulud and Mr. Ginther produce a quenelle in a completely different style, one that is still seen around Lyon though not as often as it used to be. Each serving is a single quenelle shaped like a long, flat pillow, almost as light as a soufflé, but not so light that it falls apart on your tongue. It is broiled in a bath of béchamel that tastes not of lobster but of mushrooms, fish and Gruyère. I’m not sure that this enhanced béchamel is more delicious than Nantua sauce, but it is a better, more considerate match for pike quenelles, and a definitive counterargument to the idea that fish and cheese don’t belong together.
The other indisputably great dish, the potato gratin, comes from Mr. Boulud’s mother, Marie, who still lives in France. (When your restaurant is called Le Gratin, you’d better have a gratin, and it had better be a good one.) Once you taste either of these, you wish that Le Gratin had a whole menu full of modern interpretations of Lyonnais cooking, the way Le Bouchon des Filles in Lyon does. At the very least, you might wish Mr. Boulud had called his mother more often.
There are so few bouchon classics on the menu that you start to wonder whether Mr. Boulud doesn’t trust New Yorkers to warm up to actual Lyonnais food — the whole bucket of guts. If so, he is out of step with many younger chefs who are excavating their parents’ and grandparents’ cookbooks in search of recipes that might have frightened an earlier generation of American diners but are now avidly embraced. From the blood and intestines in CheLi’s stunning Shanghainese mao xue wang to the Vietnamese duck necks at Falansai to the testicle stew at Dhamaka, the approach is unapologetic, a word that Dhamaka’s owners adopted for the name of their restaurant group.
I’m relieved to say that Augustine’s chipped terrazzo floor, wall tiles decorated with big, voluptuous flowers, and the rest of the interior details were left virtually untouched. Kristyn Onasch’s desserts, like the cream puff surrounded by roasted cherries, are sophisticated and seasonal. The front-of-the-house crew is deeply professional but also personable, a combination that makes you want to return.
There is, in fact, a lot to enjoy at Le Gratin, but it probably isn’t going to make you stand on the table and sing.
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