Even in a steamy beach town Café Boulud Palm Beach plays it cool
January 5, 2012
PALM BEACH, USA – An unassuming celeb chef–sound unbelievable? Well, the plot thickens: an unassuming celeb chef ignores the skeptical snorts of heavy-hitting restaurant critics, takes an unmistakably Manhattan concept, swishes the classic country French cuisine around with some not-yet-trendy Southern flavors, tucks it away in a quiet hotel courtyard, woos a notoriously finicky society scene, and creates one of the most popular restaurants in Palm Beach. Voilà, Café Boulud.
Ok, ok, maybe we’ve exaggerated, but just a touch. Unlike his television-magnet comrades in arms, Daniel Boulud’s celeb chef profile is comparatively so low that most of us don’t even know what the guy looks like. Despite that, he’s become a global phenomenon, with eager foodies from Beijing to Vancouver to Manhattan lining up to sample his sumptuously simple fare. When it was announced he was taking his gorgeous eats to the beach, Manhattanite snowbirds, who make for Palm Beach as soon as the going gets snowy, cooed with joy, but seasoned locals, who questioned whether he simply wanted to cash in on “The Season,” remained unconvinced.
We wouldn’t lie to you–Café Boulud opened to decidedly lukewarm reviews, and it seemed like this tale would have a tragic ending indeed. But then chef Zach Bell’s signature Southern-style twists–a subtle hint at the local culinary culture with seasonal ingredients and traditional flavors–started to catch on, in a big way. (Just scope out the trophy case of awards he’s raked in since taking on the Boulud project, including being a finalist for a prestigious Beard award in 2010.) His seasonal fixed menus are now a local must-try.
These days, the open-plan, Med-inspired space is perpetually packed with the in-crowd. At peak season, society set insiders pack in, and scoring one of the coveted terrace tables (especially at the USD 28 prix fixe lunch and 32 USD prix fixe brunch) can involve shenanigans and string pulling worthy of a juicy pulp novel.
For all that it’s now the toast of the town, Café Boulud stays true to its founder’s vibe and plays it cool. Some of the highlights of the experience are the unpretentious service and the friendly sommelier, who’s always happy to help you navigate the wine list. And although the dress code is smart, it remains a bit more relaxed than at similar restaurants around town–a chic tropical-colored dress and some sassy open-toed heels would do the trick (no need to flaunt your finest bling here), and jackets for guys are not essential (though, true to Palm Beach form, most still wear them). And we can’t forget the food: everything from the Peekytoe Crab Salad to the Sauteed Artric Char to the Chocolate Bread Pudding is excellent. And if you are hungry after 10:00pm on a Saturday night, Café Boulud offers a limited late night menu (a great find on an island with limited late night eats…you can take the restaurant out of Manhattan, but you can’t really take Manhattan out of the restaurant, right?)
Of course, even the hero of a fairy tale can have his flaws. Service falls flat on occasion–we’ve had great experiences, and we’ve had a major disappointment–and the stresses of bagging a courtyard table are as bad as other spots around town…Still, we can’t help but be spellbound by the charms of this quietly triumphant hotspot.
Read more about Café Boulud in our Palm Beach Guide.
Rebecca Salois contributed to this post.