On April 6, just 3½ weeks after the incomparable Daniel Boulud beat a long-anticipated retreat from Vancouver, his team in New York was putting the finishing touches on the contract that would enable his return to Canada. His fresh assault is to be launched through the far more sensibly considered bridgehead of Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton, whose general manager Andrew Torriani had been courting Boulud for six months. The hotel is in the midst of a massive renovation that will ultimately see it shed 99 rooms and gain a floor, along with 46 condominiums and a rooftop swimming pool—and when it reopens in January 2012, in place of the venerable Cafe de Paris you will find something entirely new: Maison Boulud.
“It’s a rebirth—a new life for this hotel,” chef Boulud said to me, late that morning at his flagship three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel, on 65th Street in Manhattan, where his windowed office sits dramatically perched a half-level above the rest of his kitchen, to provide a better view of the work stations below. “It will be something new for Montreal, something unique.”
Boulud’s unique qualities as a chef and restaurateur have given rise to an empire that includes five restaurants in New York alone (Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, DBGB Kitchen), as well as outposts in Miami (DB Bistro Moderne), Palm Beach (Café Boulud), London (Bar Boulud), Beijing (Maison Boulud) and Singapore (DB Bistro Moderne). Aside from the Boulud Brasserie, which he closed last summer after a five-year run at the Wynn in Las Vegas, he has experienced but one major setback—Vancouver—where he stepped in to replace the ousted Rob Feenie at Lumière and Feenie’s, relaunched the latter as DB Bistro Moderne, and failed at both, closing their adjacent doors on March 13. “It’s a passage in life,” Boulud says, his disappointment obvious. “Fortunately, financially it made no difference. Emotionally, I would have loved to have been there longer.”
With my memories of the previous evening’s meal at Restaurant Daniel still vivid, I would venture that if I were a Vancouverite, I would—emotionally—have loved for him to be there longer, too. But the quality of the food that the Boulud restaurants consistently deliver everywhere was never really the issue in Vancouver. Nor was the service, or the aesthetic. The story is more complicated than that.
Some have written that the problem was the location—that obscure West Broadway, across from a KFC, was too down-market for even hometown-favourite Iron Chef Feenie to sustain. Others posited that the HST and B.C.’s increasingly intolerant drunk-driving laws combined for a collective blow too great for Vancouver’s over-serviced post-Olympic restaurant industry. It has been noted, too, that this small city is not so big on French food.
All these things are true. But the most pertinent theory may be that Boulud inadvertently stepped into a maelstrom when he cut a deal with Feenie’s one-time business saviour, who had then become the architect of his ouster, businessman David Sidoo. Feenie’s dismissal was so public that it struck many as a deliberate humiliation. Many loyal Lumière customers of the Feenie era did not like it—and in a market the size of Vancouver, such customers are not easy to replace.
So, yes, delivering Boulud as successor was definitely a coup. But as I understand it, even if Sidoo had cloned the DNA of Auguste Escoffier and brought the Emperor of Chefs back from the dead to cook at the rejigged Lumière, local interest would have proved mild. “The real backstory is that there was a subterranean boycott because of the way Feenie was treated,” a top Vancouver restaurateur explained to me on condition of anonymity. “Sidoo gave people who ordinarily would have welcomed Daniel Boulud an excellent reason not to go.”
Meanwhile, Boulud has very ably turned the page. The episode has hardly hurt his reputation. When I asked one of the Europe-based Ritz-Carlton principals whether Vancouver had ever influenced their pursuit of Boulud, they had no idea what I was talking about. For the Ritz’s GM Torriani, it all simply came down to the fact that at Daniel, he had been served “one of the two best meals he had ever had.” (The other was by Joël Robuchon.) As Daniel concludes with a dismissive shrug, “Everybody knows it was more that David Sidoo needed support from Daniel Boulud than it was Daniel who needed Sidoo.”
Quite. As the great chef finishes his espresso with one cube of sugar, I survey the office walls, laden with awards and signed, framed photographs of admiring regular customers. The famous are too numerous to list, but it occurs to me that even in New York, it must be a rarity to have Mick Jones of the Clash sharing wall space with Jean Todt, the former Ferrari Formula 1 boss who steered the venerable team back to World Championship form after 20 years in the wilderness.
Boulud has been charged with performing the exact same trick for the culinary reputation of the Ritz-Carlton. There is every reason to expect him to succeed. Even though nearly a decade has passed since I first ate at DB Bistro Moderne in New York, I can still vividly recall the delicate tarte flambée with which that meal commenced, and the impeccable roast monkfish with zucchini flowers that followed (that meal was cooked by the Alsatian chef Olivier Muller—now one of three corporate chefs who rotate on relentless tours of quality inspection through the Boulud empire). The previous evening’s North Atlantic turbot baked on the bone with pine needles, caramelized porcini and sake jus was the best fish dish I had eaten in months. And later that day, at Café Boulud, I enjoyed a perfect spring lunch of hazelnut-crusted hake with couscous, young favas, and foamed zucchini. Afterwards, nibbling warm thumbnail-sized madeleines so aerated they all but melted on the tongue, extreme contentedness gave rise to the idea to celebrate the opening of Boulud’s next New York restaurant, the Provençal-themed Boulud Sud, by returning to New York to eat back-to-back exclusively at Boulud restaurants for three days straight.
Technically, though, that may soon not be necessary, for Maison Boulud at the Ritz will comprise something of the entire Boulud oeuvre. “There will be a bit of Daniel, and a bit of Café Boulud,” Boulud told me. “It will definitely not be a bistro, and it will not be haute gastronomique. There will be some small plates, like tapas. There will be plates to share. It will be a fine restaurant in a fine hotel in a fine city. If I was local, I would make all the decisions for the menu, but as it is, I will develop it all with my chef.”
Who that may be is something Boulud has yet to decide—or to reveal. But whatever its ultimate local content, their menu will reflect the Boulud style of unpretentious, contemporary interpretations of French tradition that should fit perfectly with Montreal, a market with which—unlike Vancouver—Boulud is familiar and at ease. He respects the chefs (Normand Laprise and Martin Picard earn special mention), he visits (especially for the Grand Prix), and like many other top U.S. chefs, he uses many Quebec products (cheese, pork, foie gras, etc.).
“It is a comfort that I know their suppliers, and some of our New York suppliers deliver there. They also have one thing in Quebec we don’t have in New York—a culture agricole—because of the French, I think,” says Boulud, who grew up on a farm near Lyon.
Boulud is also contemplating opening a Bistro Moderne in the new Four Seasons Toronto. Meanwhile, back at the Ritz, where some of the old lobby, along with the Oval Room and Palm Court, remains, the rest of the hotel has been gutted, stripped right down to its hand-hammered iron support beams, set down in 1910. The new hotel rooms are far larger; their new bathrooms easily double the size of the old. Maison Boulud, designed by Super Potato of Tokyo (who did Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, and Roka in London, amongst innumerable other projects), will include a reconfigured Ritz-Garden glassed in around the periphery so that the tables there can be enjoyed all year. All told, there will be some 100 seats in winter, and 50 more in summer, some of them on a patio at the front of the hotel on Sherbrooke Street, because today, unlike in 1910, a posh hotel is meant to attract rather than intimidate the passersby.
“I have no crystal ball,” Boulud says. “But I hope to be in Montreal for the next 20 years.” He should be welcome there—without reservations, this time.