Toronto expected four-star French dining from Cafe Boulud in the Four Seasons. Instead, the city got another trendy two-star bistro
60 Yorkville Ave., 416-963-6000
Daniel Boulud is a very famous chef. Perhaps you know him from TV, where he’s been a frequent judge on Top Chef and appeared on Barefoot Contessa and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. You may know him from his seven cookbooks or from Letters to a Young Chef, his self-help book for aspiring chefs. If you’ve been to one of his 14 restaurants—in New York City, Miami, Palm Beach, London, Singapore, Beijing or Montreal—you might even know him from his food.
His French-American cooking is delicate, precise, extravagant and rich to a point of near-carnal luxury. He has built an empire on burgers stuffed with short ribs and foie gras (you can feel yourself inching toward the grave with every preposterous bite) and audacious twists on French classics, like wild hare stew thickened with dark chocolate and blood. Boulud grew up in France and moved to New York in the ’80s, where he became the chef at Le Cirque, the legendary white linen institution. In 1993 he opened Daniel, his own opulent New York restaurant, which has received dozens of culinary accolades over the last 20 years.
That’s where I first tasted his cooking. My mother took me to Daniel in the early ’90s for my 13th birthday. You might think a four-star dinner would be wasted on a kid, but I was smitten with the stiff tablecloths, the swirls and gelées that looked like jewels on the plate. That meal has stayed with me as a reminder of what dining, fine or otherwise, can be—a thing of beauty, complexity and wit. Since then, Boulud has diversified into casual concepts, like DBGB, a rowdy sausage house, and two Café Bouluds, which are more relaxed than Daniel, though still luxe.
This October, Boulud brought his brand to Toronto’s new Four Seasons Hotel, with dbar in the lobby and a Café Boulud, his third in the franchise, upstairs. He’s the second major New York chef to tap the Toronto market recently, joining David Chang, who opened his Momofuku complex on University Avenue last September. Toronto diners eagerly anticipated their arrivals, speculating that each one would become a culinary destination. Momofuku already has—Chang transplanted his distinct East Village hipster sensibility to instant success. At Boulud’s new restaurant, however, the chef’s sensibility is submerged in a muddle of Toronto trends.
Hotel lobby bars are notoriously bland, and dbar is true to type. Every aspect of the experience, from the droning house music to the lugubrious bartenders to the forgettable cocktails, seems to draw inspiration from the beige furnishings. The decor at Café Boulud upstairs, designed by Rosalie Wise Sharp, the wife of Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp, is worse. The rusty-brown textured walls resemble the Flintstones’ living room, and the bubbled glass tables will appeal only to diners with a nostalgic fondness for ’90s patio furniture. The space is covered in garish celebrity portraits (all of which, the menu notes, are for sale) by Mr. Brainwash, who rose to fame in the street art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. (The art world is still debating whether Mr. Brainwash is a real artist or a mockumentary joke.) Sculptures by the Canadian artists David Calles and Sue Rankin are strewn about the room—token Canadiana among the pop art Albert Einsteins.
The menu is a welcome distraction from the chaos. It’s divided into four parts: La Tradition (French classics), La Saison (seasonal dishes), Le Potager (vegetarian fare) and Le Voyage (world cuisine). Throughout, you’re reminded of the provenance-obsessed ethos of contemporary Canadian cuisine. The serviceable duo of beef comes from local butcher Cumbrae’s; the bracing yet rich poulet au vinaigre is made with Canadian heritage Chantecler chickens. Provenance isn’t a problem, but plenitude is: there are dozens of restaurants in this city right now pushing this same vision.
In a scripted spiel, the server explains that “Chef Daniel’s four muses”—referring to the four sections of the menu—“have been updated to reflect Toronto’s cosmopolitan palate.” That phrase pinged around the room, echoed by neighbouring servers.
Tyler Shedden is responsible for adapting Boulud’s cooking for Toronto. He’s a B.C. native who joined the staff at Daniel in New York in 2011. Boulud has made much of how Shedden’s Canadian background will help the restaurant connect with diners here. But he has sacrificed too much of his own hyper-luxe style to fit the nationality of his West Coast lieutenant.
Shedden’s dishes were exquisite to look at, but otherwise unremarkable. The menu’s international section brought a starter of rubbery quail with vadouvan, a French-Indian curry, on avocado chutney, which in this case was menu speak for under-seasoned guacamole. Shedden uses plenty of sustainable Canadian fish, but overwhelms the pure flavours with elaborate accompaniments. He sides Kolapore Springs trout with cauliflower and brussels sprouts, then complicates it with currants and the arid crunch of hazelnuts.
The most successful dishes come before and after the main meal. One evening I had a deeply flavourful bowl of sunchoke soup, thick from wild mushroom custard. On another, an appetizer of charred octopus was briny and sweet, with orange segments and an elegant marcona almond purée. But these are the kinds of dishes you can order at half the city’s hot spots. Toronto doesn’t need another casual bistro built on heritage chickens or its proximity to notable mushrooms. It needs a world-class French restaurant, driven by world-class experience.
The desserts at Café Boulud come closest to that ambition. Prepared by Saeko Nemoto, they are marvels of textural play and invention. For the grapefruit givré, which is drawn from Boulud Sud in New York, Nemoto fills a frozen, hollowed-out grapefruit with sorbet, fresh grapefruit and rose-flavoured Turkish delight, then encases the orb in a torched sesame tuile and tops it with fine halvah shreds. It’s the best dessert I’ve had in ages.
One of the nights I ate at Café Boulud, around 10 p.m., David Chang walked in, dressed down in jeans and Chuck Taylors, three colleagues trailing him. (Chang worked under Boulud in New York and calls him Poppa.) Considering Momofuku alongside Café Boulud, it’s clear Chang succeeds because he is unwilling to compromise his vision to better fit the market. Love it or hate it, Momofuku is undeniably a reflection of Chang’s personal style. Boulud could learn a few things from his former student.