SLICE OF LIFE: The sushi bar at David Bouley Evolution.
DREAM TEAM: European design legend Jacques Garcia (l.) created sumptuous digs for David Bouley's new Evolution in Miami Beach.
PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ: Architectural details like those of this entrance door set the stage for the snazzy food at David Bouley Evolution.
David Bouley has made all the stops on the road to celebrity chef superstardom, having now arrived at the most lucrative one: being handsomely paid to lend his name to a resort restaurant where someone else will do the actual cooking. In his case, it's the much-anticipated David Bouley Evolution, which opened in mid-December at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach.
But Bouley didn't make his stops in the usual order.
First came his unrivaled dominance of the New York City restaurant world in the early 1990s. He had it all—four stars from the New York Times, James Beard Foundation awards for best restaurant and best chef, number one rankings in the Zagat Guide for food and popularity, posting food scores (29 out of a possible 30 from Zagat three years in a row) like no one has reached before or since. The current crop of superstar chefs—Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller—are close in age as Bouley, who's 53. But they were still up-and-comers while Bouley's eponymous restaurant in TriBeCa sat atop the pinnacle of the U.S. culinary scene. For a kid who grew up in Storrs, CT, and never went to culinary school, David Bouley came very far, very fast.
The sky's the limit today for someone who achieves this kind of stature. As quickly as top-tier chefs can dream up new concepts, developers in the casino and hotel industries can find a place to open them, paying top dollar when they do. When the likes of French living legends Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy endure jet lag to open places in Las Vegas, you know how lucrative this game has become.
That wasn't the game Bouley chose to play when he closed his original namesake restaurant in 1996. His notion of building a culinary empire involved broadening his reach while staying close to home. He dialed down expectations by opening Bouley Bakery, which combined a wholesale and retail bakery, a cafe and restaurant (the restaurant itself earning four stars from the Times anyway, reduced expectations or not). 1999 saw the opening of his Viennese-inspired Danube just around the corner from Bouley Bakery. It earned three stars from the Times.
This was his dream setup, but history intervened. Both operations were located near the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, and both had to close for a period in the aftermath of 9/11. During this time, Bouley oversaw the preparation of more than one million meals in the Bouley Bakery space that were fed to Ground Zero relief workers. Danube reopened first, Bouley Bakery was reborn as Bouley Restaurant in February, 2002. It was reminiscent of his old place to a degree, and that's where the chef has spent his time until now. Contentedly, it seemed. But he was hatching a grand plan all along.
Fast forward to David Bouley Evolution, which took two years to come to fruition. It's a 7,000 sq. ft. complex with a 2,500-sq.-ft. kitchen; a main dining room that holds 77 guests; a 40-seat private dining room; a nine-seat bar; a 30-seat lounge; the Rotunda Room, which accommodates 35; and a nine-seat sushi bar. That's 200 seats, all of them indoors, even though this is Miami. The restaurant's handsome design, from European superstar Jacques Garcia, is billed as "lavish, not pretentious," although we're glad we're not paying the decorating bill for a restaurant in which all furnishings, fabrics, carpets and drapes were custom-designed and custom-manufactured.
Bouley's food more than stands up to this stunning setting. He describes it as treating "the French and Japanese cultures behind our cuisine with integrity, not with the confusion of fusion. Every ingredient and recipe is of the highest quality and purest caliber." What's interesting about his approach in Miami Beach—land of the Mango Gang, various Cuisines of the Sun and assorted Floribbean fare—is that Bouley is using many of the same artisan purveyors as he does in New York. Dotting his menu are ingredients such as "Scuba-dived Sea Scallops," "New England Cod," "Maine Lobster and Sweet Baby Shrimp," "Striped Bass," "Monkfish," "Skate," "Maine Wild Arctic Char," "Nantucket Calamari" and "Haddock." Great stuff if you're running a fish house in Boston. But is this what Floridians want? Bouley says he's building a local network of suppliers to accommodate them if that's what the market wishes.
Other ingredients also come from small regional farms in the Northeast: Randall Farm milk-fed veal from Connecticut, Pennsylvania organic free range chickens, organic lamb from upstate New York and plenty of unique cultivated and even foraged vegetables from Connecticut-born Bouley's home base.
Many chefs have been careful to build up a strong network of artisan purveyors and producers; Bouley may be the first to attempt to supply a restaurant 1,300 miles away with one. The airfreight charges alone must be mind-boggling.
Then again, there should be plenty of margin to pay them. The opening menu had appetizers such as "Tuna Sashimi with a Julienne of Asian Pear, Garlic Chips, Kaffir Lime, Rocket Salad with a Miso Dressing" ($19); and "Organic Connecticut Farm Egg Steamed with Black Truffle, Serrano Ham Parmesan Reggiano and 25-Year-Old Balsamic Vinegar and a Light Sweet Garlic Broth" ($18). Entrees included "Black Sea Bass in a Sea Scallop Crust, 24-Hour Cooked Tomato with Coconut Jasmine Rice, Sauce Bouillabaisse" ($38); and "Rack of Cooperstown Lamb, Homemade Gnocchi with Fresh Sage, Fava Beans and Zucchini-Mint Puree" ($41).
The cheese course is $21and desserts fall in the $14-$16 range. At $90 for four courses, the tasting menu looks like a bargain. Those who order wine will note that almost all the offerings on the 250-bottle wine list have three-digit prices.
As chef de cuisine, Pierre-Philippe Saussy (his last job was at Michelin 2-star Auberge du Pecheur in Sint-Martens, Belgium) oversees most of the cooking. Japanese-influenced dishes and sushi are prepared separately by a team of Japanese chefs. They turn out a traditional Kaiseki Japanese tasting menu, with cooked items being prepared over special Japanese imported charcoal.
Bouley certainly got the operating hours right. The restaurant's last seating during the week starts at 10 p.m.; on weekends it's 11. Miami Beach's throbbing night action should help create an extra table turn. At a point in the evening when most restaurants with this much culinary ambition are closing up shop for the night (particularly those located at a Ritz-Carlton), David Bouley Evolution will just be getting warmed up.
So will this downtown New York legend's new place wow the South Beach party crowd? We're hoping it's a huge hit, if only because we're eager to see how the next two projects in Bouley's pipeline turn out. They are Balzac, a French bistro, and an as-yet-unnamed Japanese restaurant. He's got a sizable test kitchen at his three-story bakery/market/restaurant complex in TriBeCa where he and his crew are working on continuing his culinary evolution.