When you sit down at the new Bocuse Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, you’ll probably notice a few things right off the bat. You may appreciate the Hudson River view or the sleek new decor (courtesy of famed restaurant designer Adam Tihany), or your gaze may be drawn to the oversized window through which you can view almost every inch of the brand spanking new stainless steel kitchen. Then, you’ll probably notice the little box of cards on your table. One question is printed on each card. “What would you choose as your last meal on earth?” “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you in a restaurant?” “Are you smarter than a CIA student?”
“The guests are really diving into the cards,” says CIA spokesperson Virginia Mure. “They’re a great conversation starter; they provide some levity and lightness.” For those of you who don’t know, Bocuse, which opened with a celebrity chef-studded dinner in February, replaces the Escoffier — the culinary college’s flagship teaching restaurant for almost 40 years. At the “E Room,” as it was affectionately dubbed by insiders, a generation of top chefs learned to prepare and serve French food in the most formal fashion. But the dining culture has changed dramatically, and the days of white glove service have given way to a more relaxed era of creativity and collaboration. Named after pioneering French chef Paul Bocuse, 87 — the CIA named him the “chef of the century” in 2011 — the eatery reflects the current focus on nouvelle cuisine, which Bocuse has championed throughout his career.
Chef Sergio Remolina (far left), executive chef of Bocuse, consults with star chef Paul Bocuse at the master’s restaurant in Lyon, France last fall; Bocuse’s signature black truffle soup (above right) is served in a dome of puff pastry
Overall, this is still a high-end dining experience, just a more modern one. Diners now peruse the extensive wine list on table-side iPads and dine on uncovered tables. Whimsical touches — our amuse-bouche arrived on a ceramic “pillow” — add to the fun. Still, some old-fashioned flourishes remain, most notably that the food is transported to your table under silver domed covers, which are all removed simultaneously to great dramatic effect. “The table-side service is a signature part of this restaurant experience,” says Mure. “But now we’ve enhanced it and modernized it.” Gone is the old tradition of having meat carved, or fish de-boned, at your table, but it’s been replaced with the wildly popular dessert and ice cream cart. (The cart also delivers up specialty cocktails, too.) There, a student-waiter need only hand-crank the Kitchen Aid ice cream churn for a few minutes to create a super smooth treat, thanks to the magic cooling powers of liquid nitrogen. “It’s the most amazing ice cream in the world,” says Mure. “Because there are no ice crystals, it’s unbelievably smooth.” Currently, vanilla is the only flavor available, “but we’re experimenting with flavors and some toppings,” says Mure.
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World class: Filet mignon is prepared with marrow custard, potatoes, celery root, and red wine
Of course, this is still a French restaurant. Gallic-inspired food remains front and center, and French selections dominate the wine list. The caçao-cured foie torchon, a combination of cocoa and foie gras, is the most popular appetizer on a menu that also features frog legs and vineyard style snails for starters. Then, there’s the famous Black Truffle Soup V.G.E. Elysée, served in a cloud of puff pastry. Chef Bocuse first created it in 1975 when it was served at the Elysée Palace to then-French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. It remains one of his signature dishes — which is why he formally opened his namesake restaurant not by cutting a ribbon, but by cracking into an oversized puff pastry. The dish costs $12, and I can personally assure you that it is worth every penny.
Main dishes include potato-crusted lemon sole, breast of duck with blood orange, filet mignon of beef with marrow, and an always popular lobster and vermouth ragoût. If you still crave some excitement come dessert time — but you don’t fancy ice cream — you should opt for the Mont Blanc. This classic French dessert, made with chestnuts and rum-soaked pound cake, literally smokes in très dramatic fashion, this time thanks to dry ice.
Mure notes that the restaurant is “generating that young kind of hip vibe. Younger people from New York City are coming in.” And why not? With this modern take on the tried-and-true classics, diners of all ages will enjoy a visit to Bocuse.
Lunch & dinner Tues.-Sat. when classes are in session
Appetizers $5-$13; entrées $17-$32; desserts $5-$12