I've lived a full life?literally?stuffing myself with the finest foods and getting well-compensated for it. It's a sacrifice, what with my scary LDL cholesterol levels to show for it, but someone's gotta do it. I've enjoyed my share of memorable meals, but some of the very best have been at Cafe Boulud in NYC and Maison Boulud at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal. So how excited I was upon hearing that Toronto was going to get its own Cafe Boulud at the new Four Seasons hotel... that is, until I ente
r the restaurant.
Imagine my let-down when, horror of horrors, my first impression of the superstar chef's newest temple is a paean to Vegas vulgarity: too well-lit and replete with textured wall treatments that scream Rainforest Cafe, not Daniel Boulud. Didn't anyone tell designer Rosalie Wise Sharp (wife of Izzy Sharp, chairman of the Four Seasons) that even Debbie Travis abandoned sponging eons ago. And, Rosalie, the '90s called, they want their venetian plaster back.
So the room isn't exactly what I was expecting from a celebrated three star Michelin chef in a hotel partly owned by Bill Gates and a Saudi prince. Thankfully, the service is creme de la creme. Waiters are polished professionals with an arm's length friendliness, their knowledge of the incredibly complex makings of each dish expected. But I certainly didn't expect the food runners to be able to recite detailed descriptions of each plate. Now that's mighty impressive.
But apart from that it's just one colossal disappointment. For all the hype, it's just not that exclusive. I'm sorry, but at Cafe Boulud I didn't expect to be breathing the same air as the unwashed 99%. In fact the only genius on display here, aside from the Warholian influenced artwork of Brainwash, are a pair of desserts that might blow your mind: a pucker-perfect lemon chiboust with a brule top over sweet caramelized Ontario royal gala apple on a sable Breton crust foundation ($11) with a side of house-made ginger ice cream. And a coffee gelato in a cassata ($12) combined with a delicately concealed chocolate sacher beneath a ricotta-cardamom mousse is hands down the most elegant ice cream cake ever.
Now for the bad news. Chef de cuisine Tyler Shedden (former sous chef at Daniel in NYC) hails from British Columbia. So proud we are to see how a Canadian's kitchen turns out some of the most gorgeous looking plates I've ever seen. Hand turned vegetables in the classic French style may be very time consuming but it goes a long way to make each plate look like a work of art. At first glance, the menu reads like a symphony, each section a different classical movement. But the culprit here is the execution. A fluke ceviche ($17) should be toothsome in texture and vibrant in citrus tang. Instead the fillet is cut so thick you have to gnaw instead of chew. And that's a shame since a garnish of shaved radish and celery, avocado and celery leaves topped with a bread tuille, caviar and a drop of crÃ¨me fraiche, not to mention a masterful plate painting with a cucumber celery vinaigrette, will have you squeal at its sheer beauty. Posting a Twitter pic, otherwise an inexcusable crime, is perfectly permissible here.
And though a roasted red, golden and pink beet salad ($15) tossed in garlic, olive oil and thyme with monforte feta, Niagara Pingue speck, mache and a few teensy pieces of grapefruit gets an A+ for yet another spectacular presentation, it's top-tier quality doesn't hide the fact that it's still pretty l'annÃ©e derniere as far as salads go. A country duck terrine ($18) flatlines on flavour, despite its decadent foie gras centre. Here, again, the garnish is the headliner, a beautifully red-wine-poached whole black fig. A redeeming quality for sure, but misfires like this are totally preventable. A Vadouvan-spiced quail ($16) entices on paper, but upon arrival fails to excite. Despite being cooked in a curried yogurt, it is slightly tough with a skin that lacks any of that prized smokey crispiness. And for the third time it's the garnishes that leap off the plate: confit turnips, a bright and zesty avocado chutney, and thin, crisp slices of breakfast radish.
How do you screw up a flavourful meaty whitefish like Nova Scotia halibut ($34)? It's pretty hard to really, but this kitchen manages just fine. Whose ill-fated decision was it to smother this slow-cooked whitefish in a chorizo cream that makes it look like a caramel apple from a street vendor? Captain Highliner looks more appetizing. Worse, its leek puree is far too salty not to mention potatoes you can barely cut with a fork. With a fiasco of this magnitude, its moot to even acknowledge the accompanying shrimp-stuffed piquillo peppers.
Perhaps one of the better dishes is the poulet au vinaigre ($29), a roasted Chantecler breast and a leg stuffed with foie gras and served with a tomato confit, fennel and tarragon-vinegar jus. The foie does little to mask the fact that the skin is rubbery. The meat itself is certainly serviceable, but if that is a tarragon vinegar jus, then I've just had a stroke and can't feel my tongue.
A roasted veal loin ($27) should be pretty straightforward yet it also turns out to be another confusing encounter. The Cumbrae's cut is fine, if a bit toughish, but it's the veal cheeks braised in white wine and veal stock that are to die for. This is the food we were expecting. Also good is the carrot confit, oyster mushrooms and pickled pearl onions. But this dish too has drawbacks: the sweetbreads are chewy and the jus is so sour it's off-putting. Plus, pairing this with garlic-parmesan grits, though fantastic on their own, makes this a flavour competition with no winners.
Minor kinks are inevitable, even for a restaurant with the name Boulud affixed to it. But c'mon, for a hotel that purports to be a five-star, these flaws are serious enough to make me reconsider ever coming back. If the only compelling reason to return is to see the two storey red fountain out front then something isn't right. Boulud did not fare so well in Vancouver. Is T.O. next?