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Year One at Bar Boulud Boston Melds French Classics With Local Flavor

Daniel Boulud and chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers reflect on the first year of the only Boston piece of the Boulud empire, one of the most anticipated openings of late 2014.

From left to right: Tristan Crépin, Daniel Boulud, Aaron Chambers
From left to right: Tristan Crépin, Daniel Boulud, Aaron Chambers
Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

"We opened at a great time last year, the end of the summer," recalls Daniel Boulud. "Lots of parents were coming to town. It's amazing how the city jumps [at this time of year]." Boulud was once one of those parents — his daughter went to Tufts — so the Boston dining scene didn't hold too many surprises for him when he opened Bar Boulud Boston. It's a "vibrant, happy" city, he says. "I don't know if it's the right comparison, but sometimes I compare the spirit of the city of New Orleans and Boston — they're very different but very animated. [Boston is] a really fun town."

"Boston's an evolving food scene," says chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers, who is originally from England and previously worked at Boulud Sud in New York City. "I think it's good. There are so many amazing restaurants and so many great chefs. It's nice to be a part of that and bring something to the table."

A big piece of becoming part of the local community, one of the biggest challenges of opening a restaurant in a new city, is forging relationships with local suppliers. "We are very serious in what we want, and we are committed, and I think it has been great — we've really had great support," says Boulud.

"Good support from local suppliers and the ability to source as locally as we can is amazing," adds Chambers. The pair thinks a lot about how to make Bar Boulud Boston truly a Boston restaurant, featuring loads of local seafood and putting a certain spin on various dishes.

"Bar Boulud is very much a French brasserie but with an American spirit in cooking," says Boulud. "Of course the meaning of French cooking has often been seasonal and local, so we embrace that quite well. We had a dish when we started that had scallop and boudin noir because Aaron wanted to really juxtapose Lyon [where Boulud is from] and Boston together, and that was a hit." There's also been a spin on the traditional French onion soup, made with cheddar instead of gruyere. (As the weather is cooling down, that will be returning to the menu soon.) And a burger named for "The Departed," Scorsese's Boston crime drama, features Guinness-braised onions, cheddar, and Irish bacon for an Irish-Bostonian feel.

"That really was just the right balance of composition to make it feel familiar within the Boston culture," says Boulud. "But Aaron is British by heart and soul."

"10 years removed, but still British," says Chambers.

"I've been thirty years removed from France, but I'm still very French," replies Boulud, laughing. "And so we have a fish and chips. It's something very familiar here in Boston." And this one is made by a "true Brit." But again, there's that Boston spin — the fish, local haddock, is battered in Jack's Abby beers from Framingham. On the British side, there's malt vinegar powder in the batter, and it comes with mushy peas.

But above all, Bar Boulud is French. "It's a true French brasserie, a bistro," says Boulud. "I call it even a wine bar because the wine program is very important here. We do a lot of large format bottles, which we open and serve by the glass. Every day we change the bottles, and we have a lot of regulars who come for that particular opportunity, to taste the wine. Burgundy and the Rhône are at the core of what Bar Boulud is."

The charcuterie program is also a "foundation" of the restaurant, says Boulud, and it features the terrines and pâtés of French charcutier Gilles Verot. Onsite, Tristan Crépin is Bar Boulud Boston's chef charcutier; he has previously worked with Verot in Paris, with the Boulud team in New York, and beyond. Charcuterie is a "big seller," says Boulud, noting that people often sit at the bar for a drink and some bites of charcuterie.

The offerings are always changing; the pâté en croûte, for example, is made from a different blend of meats depending on the season, so while it might contain veal, pork, and duck at one point, it will be gamier at other times — venison, pheasant, and the like.

One of Boulud's favorites is the jambon de Paris. "I guarantee you we may have the best jambon de Paris in the entire New England," he says. "Close your eyes, and you don’t know if you’re in Boston or in Paris." Served fresh on its own, it can also be found in dishes like the croque monsieur and petits pois à la française.

A bit of local flair and that ever-present cheddar cheese sneak into the meat selection as well. A sausage called the New Englander is stuffed with cheddar, "so it kind of melts when you eat it," says Chambers. Look for it on the brunch menu, served with a potato rösti and fried egg.

"That is how Bar Boulud is very approachable," says Boulud. "There is a sort of urban casual kind of food and also Lyonnais, integrating the French classic with the local supply."

Asked to recall opening day and any initial challenges, Boulud and Chambers say that the early days were all about getting a feel for Boston — its bar culture, its lunch rush, its seafood. "You need to be in a place in order to start to think where you are exactly," says Boulud. "The menu has been evolving since the opening."

There weren't any particular opening day jitters — "We came out guns blazing," says Chambers. There's a strong support system in opening a restaurant that is part of an existing group and located in an established hotel.

It was the particularly harsh winter, felt all throughout Boston's restaurant industry, that served up Bar Boulud's first real challenge. "It's not so much that we're not going to have any customers," says Boulud. "It's that we're not going to have any staff because they can't get there." There were days when most places on the block were closed, crowds descended, and Bar Boulud had to keep running with a skeleton crew. "We pray for a very gentle winter this year," says Boulud. "It could have happened year five and we would be okay, but to have such a rough winter year one, we felt bad. I think the whole town felt fed up with it."

For potential diners who haven't yet visited Bar Boulud, Boulud sells it as "the experience of a French bistro but with a real local soul." You'll find some French classics, best-sellers like coq au vin and steak frites — the latter of which, as at least one other French restaurant in town will tell you, is a real crowd-pleaser. But you'll also find some "real local dishes" because the restaurant was "born here."

"We want the service, the ambiance, the food, the wine to be in harmony together," says Boulud. "And it carries a certain consistency, like when you go to Abe & Louie's, you know what to expect. When people come to Bar Boulud, they'll know what to expect."

"We don't want anyone to think that it's fancy and expensive because we're at the Mandarin," he continues. "We look carefully at Boston barometers of price, and we are really down there. For what we give, we are really affordable."

In the coming year, the team looks forward to continuing to evolve to "fit the market," says Chambers, emphasizing the desire to be as locally sourced as possible. Keep an eye out for a nose-to-tail menu this fall, as well as an increase in events like wine and beer dinners.

Bar Boulud Boston

776 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02199 (617) 535-8800 Visit Website