Daniel Boulud hadn’t originally intended to create a restaurant paying homage to his origins in Lyon. The room made him do it. The tiled, mirrored space with antique floral light fixtures that had previously housed Augustine inspired him to formulate the latest entry in his international empire anchored by the Michelin two star Restaurant Daniel as a Lyonnaise bouchon, his first. Le Gratin opened in New York’s Financial District in May.
“It’s probably nostalgia,” he explains. “This place took me back to Lyon and the bouchons that I loved. I always wanted to do one but I didn’t have a setting for it. They approached us, I saw this place and I loved it. I actually celebrated my birthday here three years ago so I felt like I would love to dig back into my roots.”
Those roots go back to his upbringing on a farm where gratins, dishes with a browned crust, were the typical accompaniments to the family’s Sunday roasts. “There was always a gratin—gratin Dauphinoise, pumpkin, spinach…it’s a homey dish that everyone loves,” he says. So that seemed the perfect name for the restaurant. And since a signature dish is his mother Marie’s recipe for Gratin Dauphinoise, the rich sliced potatoes baked in cream (plus his addition,cheese) the restaurant is a dedication to his mother’s cooking as well. Grandmother Francine, the keeper of the farm’s 40 goats, is also represented on the menu with a green salad featuring her specialty Fromage Blanc.
Elsewhere on the menu are Boulud’s interpretations of dishes that are mainstays of menus in the city known as France’s gastronomic capital. Feathery quenelles (pike dumplings) are presented au gratin in a Gruyere mushroom bechamel. “That’s a dish I learned to make when I was 14,15 during my apprenticeship. I haven’t made that recipe since 1970 so it was exciting to go back to it and find the authentic flavor-it’s the true soul of Lyon,” he explains. Selections of charcuterie include duck confit with foie gras, Parisian ham and cured Lyon-style sausage and pork, foie gras and sweetbread in a pastry crust. The classic escargot preparation is tweaked by presenting the snails in a tempura coating along with a pig trotter croquette, mushroom fricassee, garlic butter and a spinach herb coulis. There are two versions of steak frites: one with a Black Angus hanger steak, the other a Black Angus New York strip, along with a very popular 30 oz. Black Angus cote de beauf.
Despite the city’s reputation for featuring meat and game focused dishes, there are lighter dishes as well including pan seared Dover Sole with capers-lemon butter, Scottish salmon with a vibrant pea casserole and herb broth and a dish that has nothing to do with Lyon but does figure in to Boulud’s background: tuna crudo with grilled olives, arugula and mint dressing inspired by a preparation of grilled sardines with mint at a bistro in Mougins in the south of France which Boulud experienced while working with the esteemed Roger Vergé at Moulin de Mougins. There are also specials running for a month: Bouillabaise in July; Lobster Thermidor in August, Chateaubriand Rossini in December among them.
One of the most delicious offerings on the menu is the rotisserie chicken which may sound commonplace but is far above the many others around town due to the 4 pound Amish chickens that approximate the flavor of France’s Poulet de Bresse, the huge rotisserie left from Augustine and the roasting skills of Executive Chef Guillaume Ginther, an alumnus of Restaurant Daniel and the former Executive Chef of the roast chicken specialist Le Coq Rico Bistro in New York. It’s served with a garlic jus and Gratin Dauphinoise alongside; everyone, he notes, takes the leftovers home.
Desserts at a bouchon are meant to be simple, as is the menu overall, and they mostly are here: apricot tarte, crème caramel, raspberry melba, a cream puff like the one Boulud would get in Lyon on Sundays but, catering to New York taste, with a plum marmalade added for extra flavor. The exception is a chocolate cake inspired by one created by the famed Lyon patisserie Bernachon to honor Paul Bocuse, another culinary titan with whom Boulud worked. But he and his pastry chef added their own touch: since Boulud loves ganache, there are three within it- dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate infused with coffee.
Even with these and other flourishes added to suit Boulud’s and a New York crowd’s taste, though, “We’re really going to celebrate Lyon,” he says. And, he adds, Bocuse would love it here.