Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is Maison Boulud Beijing's Non-Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part II

So Part II is a little tenuous here. Let me just say that I don't really have the credentials (or wallet) required to properly review Maison Boulud. It's like the cheerleaders I knew in high school-- out of my league, but I still get to help it with its homework. Hmm…maybe that simile didn't work out so well.

Anyway, so this review was made possible by our dear friend "V" (and before you ask, no, not Hugo Weaving in a mask). V came for a visit last spring and as a token of gratitude for staying with us, offered to take us to the restaurant of our choice. On the condition that we write it up, since she's supportive (in that slightly authoritative, big sisterly kind of way :P) of our burgeoning careers as writers.

Our meal at Maison Boulud was fantastic, but had a few low notes as well. And (as I so often do) I've procrastinated writing it up. So much so that the GM who was there when we visited has since left.

Faced with the guilt of having eaten a very delicious meal and not kept up my end of the bargain, the Beijinger's reader restaurant awards this year seemed like a good enough excuse to finally sit down and tackle the review.

A word of warning: I'm going to write this review from my own perspective, which probably differs from most of the people who actually go to Maison Boulud and (hopefully) lines up more closely with you, my reader. Also, it was VERY dark in that restaurant (and we didn't have our magic Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens yet), so the photos are poor. But let's be honest, you're used to it.

Ok now after that very long introduction, I present to you: rambles on a free meal at Maison Boulud.

I should probably level with you. There are vain enough reasons why I chose Maison Boulud as the one restaurant I wanted to try at V's expense. Chef Daniel has the celebrity chef firepower and foodie high-street cred that is hard to get in Beijing. Okay, okay, if you really must know, I've seen him on Top Chef and came away with the impression that I should have a deep respect for him.

I've never been to New York City, that mecca of deliciousness, and these days it seems less and less likely that I will ever go and eat at one of Daniel's flagship restaurants. So when the opportunity to try Maison Boulud presented itself, I leapt at it like the opportunistic glutton that I am.

Chi'enmen 23 (a self-titled "integrated lifestyle project") has had a rough year since we visited, and there's a certain bourgeois guilt that hangs over your head as you wander into the compound, which positively glows with the luster of its new(ish) grey stone walls. It's a nice retreat from the wildness of Beijing, while still being centrally located (just East of Tiananmen Square).

Situated in the area that comprised , it brings with it a certain history, and a certain right to its decadence, but its restoration also runs in the same vein as the newly renovated Qianmen Pedestrian Street, which in my uninformed opinion often serves more to reflect the kind of troubled relationship we have with the past than to actually preserve it. Oh, and the mustachioed valet sauntering over to a yellow Lamborghini might have contributed to the impression.

But, for better or worse, there's a certain decadence to Chi'enmen 23 that is fun. From the outset, knowing that I was out of my league, there was that mysterious feel of playing dress-up as a child. The thrill of pretending to be sophisticated, to be bigger and better than you are.

Walking into the doors of Maison Boulud widens the distance between the diner and the establishment. The decor is, and I may be using this improperly, positively baroque. And I mean that in more of the original "gilded and prone to excess" definition, rather than the "16th to 18th century European art style" definition. Although, a more trained eye could possibly identify it as both.

It's certainly beautiful, while being garish. That's actually the secret paradox of all things baroque. And while a part of me loved the setting, part of me hated myself for loving it.

But let's move on. Service is well-trained. But I couldn't help but shake the feeling like they were trained too well. Like someone had decided to plant in them the down-your-nose snobbery that I've experienced at fine dining in the States.

For some sick reason, there are people out there who like to eat at restaurants where the wait staff think they're better than you. I am unfortunately not of that persuasion. Call me a romantic, but it's just too much ugly step-sister and pumpkin and not enough Cinderella.

Anyway, moving on. Let's talk food.

We started off with several amuse-bouches: tuna on a radish and a steak tartare. Nothing particularly shocking, but good quality and presentation.

M and I tended to order more of the traditional French dishes on the menu, rather than some of the more modernist stuff, simply because we've had so little exposure to good French cuisine. And we figured Daniel should be able to get things right (while pulling the puppet strings from New York, or wherever he happens to be at the moment).

For appetizers, we had escargot with crostini, king crab and shrimp ravioli. The escargot was fantastic; I judge my escargot my whether it can make me forget that I'm eating a snail, and this was definitely the case. It still had a bit of the wild bite that escargot does, with a rich bold flavor. The crostini was, of course, a nice textural complement.

The king crab was memorable and definitely one of the high points of the meal. It had an avocado chutney, soy gelee and seaweed all rolled into a loaf of deliciousness. Like a tasty magic brick.

For mains, the three of us ordered steak au poivre, salmon and chicken. M admitted later that maybe ordering chicken was a mistake (i mean seriously, who goes to Maison Boulud and orders chicken?), but she also holds this romantic belief that a chicken in the hands of a good French chef can become some kind of revelation, both comforting and refined. Sadly, that didn't quite pan out.

I have in my notes something about a fricassee of morels, snap peas and potato with savory cream. It was moist, but overly salted (to the point where it got hard to finish toward the end, which is really unfortunate for a place like MB) and hardly noteworthy. And the surprise bone that nearly did some gum damage was just not ok. I might let the occasional bone fragment slide when eating lazi jiding at my local Chengdu Xiaochi, but I'm also not paying $30 for it.

Luckily, chicken was not the only thing we ordered. Straight up, the steak was one of the best steaks of my life, and therefore one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. It came out radiating heat with a succulent aroma, while still maintaining a perfect medium rare in the middle. The combination of the peppercorns with the seared foie gras made for some of the most decadent and flavorful eating that I've ever had. Even so, I had a few issues with the dish.

If I recall correctly (which is not a guarantee; I'm having some trouble reading my notes. I'd like to blame the dim lighting, but my poor penmanship is the more likely culprit), the steak came served on a bed of greens, which practically made it difficult to eat. Was I supposed to lift it off the bed of greens to cut? Or just slice through as the meat wiggled on its foundation of verdure? The greens were delicious, though I tend to believe it was a high ratio of cream that made it so (not that there's anything wrong with that). The potato puff was also a tad disappointing. Maybe I'm just spoiled from the glory of the potato puff at Gregoire's in Berkeley.

V's salmon was regrettably overcooked, and she knows her stuff. The girl used to ball it up in NYC before moving to Singapore, so she ought to. The vegetables were also overcooked and under-seasoned and made for a very low note as a main. Granted, it was probably still one of the better pieces of fish in the city, but that's not really saying much.

Dessert was delightful, though only slightly memorable. Vanilla creme brulee with fruit, Paris-Brest with whipped ganache, toasted almonds and vanilla ice cream and rhubarb poached with hazelnut financier compote with yogurt sorbet.

M and I walked into Maison Boulud hoping that the meal would not be the kind of "Oh, it's good. For Beijing…" experience that had become all too familiar for us. The restaurant certainly succeeded in rising above the kind of categorical dumbing-down that we've unfortunately internalized. So, while Maison Boulud is certainly able to compete on a global level, I'm also fairly confident that several of the glitches and mistakes from our meal would not hold up well at the "Restaurant of the Year" at another major international city.

For the sake of my much wealthier compatriots, I hope that our experience was an anomaly. But, I'll be unable to pass judgment again until some other benevolent patron passes through town (slight pause here while I wait for volunteers). And to be honest, the next time one does, I'll more likely take them to Capital M, which I've found to be more deserving of the title while treating me with the kind of warm cultured respect that makes the fine dining experience an uplifting one, rather than a rude reality check.

And one more thing. As critical as I can be about food like this and these price points, I am very thankful for V for helping a mini-culinary dream to come true. Thanks for your graciousness in putting up with me and M not knowing which forks to use for what dishes and where to put them when we're done with them. And thanks for being delightful company during the meal and a splendid houseguest during your stay.

See also: Is Da Dong Beijing's Chinese 'Restaurant of the Year'? I'll Bite - Part I

In coming weeks, I'll tackle Modo as Best New Restaurant (Non-Chinese) and Little Yunnan as Best New Restaurant (Chinese)

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