Since its opening in spring of 2006, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery has been the subject of near-deafening hype – at least if you’re a reader of foodie mags and newspaper dining sections, as I enthusiastically am. As such, I wanted to see how it stacked up. Fortunately, Bouchon is located in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, serendipitously situated on the same block as the offices of the American Symphony Orchestra League, where I have an internship. So when Winston rang me for a lunch date during my one-day stint in NYC last week, I knew just the place.
We rendezvoused at Borders on the second floor and ascended the escalator to the third, where we found the full-service section of the bakery immediately beneath the glowing SAMSUNG sign, cordoned off by elegant silver-and-frosted-glass barriers. (Down the hall to the left, there is a walk-up counter for take-out and some high tables for diners on the run.) Nearly every table was occupied, from single diners, to lunching friends, to businesspeople, to shopping families with small children. Keller’s menu offered something to suit them all – as long as you’re OK with paying $12 for a bowl of soup.
Keller runs some of the country’s swankiest, most expensive restaurants, among them the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se, also in New York’s Time Warner Center. This bakery is actually Keller’s second (the original Bouchon is located in Las Vegas), and it brings his artful fine dining to the general public in (relatively) affordable style, with salads, soups and sandwiches.
Our waiter, outfitted in a brown, pocketed polo shirt with a buttonless, open placket, welcomed us to the bakery – an exceptionally heartfelt greeting, it seemed to me. Later, he brought us a carafe of water and a breadbasket, filled with bread outwardly resembling ginger root more than rolls or baguettes. The rolls’ outer crust tasted curiously – deliciously – of cornflakes. The soft, air-pocked inside was similarly appealing, especially with the rich butter that came alongside the bread in its own miniature pot.
Winston, ever in pursuit of elusive omega-3 fatty acids to supplement his diet, ordered the tuna salad sandwich, a.k.a. “Tartine of Tuna Nicoise on Pain de Campagne,” served with “nicoise olives, bibb lettuce and garlic aioli with sliced eggs and radishes.” The “sandwich” came open-faced, a long hunk of tuna with olives embedded in its sides, resting atop crusty, light brown bread (and all of those other things) – unquestionably a fork and knife affair.
Having done my research and previously reviewed the menu, I had anticipated I would get the chicken soup with herb dumplings. For $11.75 a bowl, surely the soup might possess some manner of mystical properties – or at the very least, it would be delicious. But the menu at the bakery was slightly different than the one I’d seen online, which must have been from the fall. Now they had, also in the soup section of the menu, a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich: “san marzano roma tomato soup with grilled fontina and gruyere cheese sandwich.” Sold.
The tomato soup, served in a small cup, was a smooth puree with a rich vermillion hue and a subtly spiced heat. While delicious in its own right, the soup lost out next to the uniformly golden grilled cheese, cut into two triangles. (Though I’m not sure it’s fair to compare tomatoes to warm, melty cheeses; clearly the tomatoes will lose every time.) Cheese oozed artfully from between perfectly crisped, buttery breadslices, not precisely put together but slightly askew; a presentation of studied messiness. Biting into the sandwich, it became nearly impossible to distinguish the elements from one another; the bread seemed to have absorbed the molten cheese, creating a small-scale warm, cheesy bread-pudding interior.
I once again cleaned my plate; but Bouchon Bakery is one of those rare paragons of perfect portioning where that’s alright to do. The bill for both of us came out around $25 – a bargain for such speedy, courteous service and high-quality food.
Of course I couldn’t leave Bouchon without stopping by the walk-up pastry case. I purchased one of the homemade, oft-written-up Nutter Butters to take back to Syracuse. I don’t like peanut butter (I know, I’m weird), so I didn’t try it myself – but my sources tell me that this is one NYC dessert that definitely deserves its hype.
Bouchon Bakery ranked no. 6 on New York Magazine’s 2006 list of 101 Best Cheap Eats.