Bonkers for Bouchon (aka The Samsung Cafeteria)

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I seriously wonder how many people who walk past the newly opened Bouchon Bakery at the Time Warner Center think it’s a restaurant owned by Samsung. As you can see in the picture above, a giant Samsung sign hangs over the large and strangely situated seating area. If you arrive on the third floor from the central escalators, you might not immediately connect this free-standing ambiguous restaurant with the bakery stand a tiny distance away. That bakery stand is the stand of The Bouchon Bakery, the civilian-friendly populist enterprise engineered by that titan of the food world, Thomas Keller.

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One walk past that beautiful display of pastries, tarts and breads is a cause for celebration. And as you can tell by the line of people in that picture, New Yorkers are quickly catching wind of the wonders that await them in the giant glass aquarium on Columbus Circle.

Craig, my lunch companion, and I considered our options. “We can get a sandwich to go from this counter and eat it in the park,” I offered. “Or we can eat at the restaurant.”

“Let’s eat at the restaurant,” Craig answered.

We moved away from the pastry stand towards the floating island restaurant in the middle of the floor. “That Samsung sign is really awful,” said Craig.

“Ya,” I said. “I’m sure it drives Thomas Keller crazy.”

We told the hostess we were two and she said, “It’ll be 25 minutes.” We spent those 25 minutes at Borders, one floor below, and then returned to find there were still a few parties ahead of us. “But most people are on dessert,” said the hostess, “so it shouldn’t be very long.”

Sure enough, five minutes later we were seated.

The menu at Bouchon Bakery is really user friendly and offers a range of options that would gladden even the most hesitant consumer of fancy food.

“There’s PB&J,” I pointed out. “Oooh, and a tuna nicoisse sandwich.”

“I’m having the roast beef,” declared Craig as he quickly closed his menu.

“And I’m having the tuna nicoisse,” I declared and closed mine.

We told this to our waitress who jotted it down, whisked away to the kitchen, and returned not too long after with our sandwiches.

Here’s my tuna nicoisse sandwich or, rather, tartine:

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I took one bite and made a very bold statement. “This is the best tuna I’ve had in my life,” I said. “Seriously it’s the best.”

Craig, incredulous, took a bite. “Oh my God,” he said. “I have to say, I think I agree, that is the best tuna I’ve ever had in my life.”

The balance of tuna–which was creamy and luscious and the furthest thing from diner-prepared tuna you can imagine–with the bread and the aioli on it and the eggs and radishes was divine.

Craig’s roast beef, on the other hand, was just ok.

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“This is just ok,” he said. “I’m not crazy about it.”

Being the kind person that I am, I cut my tartine in half and traded one half for half the roast beef. And I concurred with him: it was just ok. The flavors were quite muted, though I was very impressed at how tender the beef was: it was a pleasure to sink my teeth through it. In fact, when I look back on it now, that sandwich was perfectly composed: every layer was in perfect proportion to the other layers and the bread held the whole thing together brilliantly. So even when it’s not bam-wam-pow delicious, it’s still perfectly executed.

Craig and I passed on dessert—I know, I know, this is the Bouchon Bakery, you have to try dessert, but we wanted to go to this place on 74th for the city’s best chocolate chip cookie (post to follow soon!) so we said no. And yet our kind waitress came to our table, after we paid our check, and announced that a friend of the restaurant had turned away a free dessert of lemon macaroon with vanilla bean ice cream. Would we like it? We would!

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Shocker! The macaroon was incredible. Having sampled severely accomplished macaroons in Paris, this more then held up: it could do battle in any competition. And the vanilla bean ice cream was pure extravagance: so rich, so naughty, so wonderful.

This inaugural trip, then, to the Bouchon Bakery is certainly the precursor to many many more. The 1/9 train, very close to my apartment, goes right there. So I imagine, if I wanted, I could hop on the train, say, tomorrow morning for a Bouchon croissant, come home, do work, hop on again for a Bouchon sandwich and pastry and…well, maybe I’ll just linger until dinner time. And then stay there and live there and start a Bouchon society with little Bouchon children who say “oui oui” when they have to go to the bathroom. Or, rather, I’ll go once in a while so it stays special.

Welcome to New York, Bouchon. We’re happy to have you.

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