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Dining: The Bocuse Restaurant at the CIA

By Don Rosendale

Ask of my most memorable meal, and I’ll tell you of a cream of sorrel soup at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, a 10-Euro taxi fare from the Lyon, France train station. Remembering that soup, every year I optimistically sow sorrel in the garden, but give up because I can’t distinguish sorrel from weeds.

But Air France passage, dinner for two at Bocuse in the town of Collonges au Mont d’Or, a bottle of Batard Montrachet and maybe a stop-off at the Ritz in Paris would take a $20,000 bite out of my bank account, so it seemed a good time to check out the eponymous Bocuse Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

The Culinary Institute version of Chez Bocuse is a $3 million classroom, where students learn what it would be like to cook and serve in a French restaurant with aspirations to Michelin stars. As Dr. Tim Ryan, the college’s president, explains, the idea is not to clone the original (though I spotted one Bocuse classic on the menu—black truffle soup, shown right) but rather to recreate the quality and ambience. The restaurant is named after Paul Bocuse, who has held trois etoile, the highest accolade from the Michelin Guide, without pause since 1965, and in 2011 he was honored as “the chef of the century.” American stars like Daniel Boulud apprenticed there.

There’s no potage germiny (the proper appellation for a cream of sorrel soup) in Hyde Park; the Bocuse at the CIA is not a franchise like those of a Joel Robuchon where the star lends his name, the menu is supposedly that of the flagship, and the chef shows up occasionally. Nor is the fare placed on your table a slavish tribute to classic French recipes. Helped along by contemporary kitchen innovations like sous vide and dry ice machines, it’s more like Star Wars meets Escoffier.

Bocuse at the Culinary does a good job of making you feel as if you’ve been transported to Taillevent in the eighth arondissement. The entryway winds past a wall of French vintages with breathtaking prices. The waitstaff is clad in butcher’s aprons with vests and neckties. The knife and spoon are real silver and of formidable heft, and the oversized napkins are Frette. But there are no tablecloths. (An environmental consideration, says Dr. Ryan, in deference to the gallons of detergent not used). There are extravagant flower arrangements throughout, alongside the fleet of ceramic roosters, traditional icons in French restaurants. The flacon of off-white salt on your table is said to be pre-historic and mined in the Himalayas. The dishes of the main course are delivered flamboyantly under silver domes… quiet a spectacle when four diners are served at once. One dining room wall is a glass storefront displaying stainless steel stoves, copper pots, and student chefs and instructors in towering toque blanche at work.

A bow to modern technology: the leather-encased wine list is not a book, but an iPad offering a hundred or so wines; I tried a $6 glass of a Drouhin Chardonnay that drank as if it were a $20 one.

The meal preface is an amuse bouche, a tidbit to “amuse the mouth”—in this case a postage stamp-sized ravioli in truffle sauce. The main courses are tiny, displayed like origami on hubcap-sized plates.

I started with the Dungeness crab or “Dormeu” ($9) which proved to be a brick of shredded crab with flecks of avocado and orange. Different from what I expected, but as fresh as if we were not far removed from an Alaskan fishing boat. The main course choice was identified as Pintaude a l’Etue — a slow-cooked guinea hen placed on a breathtaking sauce (shown right).

While I indulged in an after-dinner Chocolate and Chocolate dessert, two chocolate pastries accompanied by Grand Marnier and delivered in a frozen thimble ($12 and worth the calories), I noticed the tabletop across from me was covered in a mist. My waitperson, shy but informative Viola, explained that this was an ice cream dessert, and that the “fog” was created when tea and cinnamon are poured over a dry ice bed.

L’addition for lunch, with 17 percent service, was $67 per person. Lunch at a posh French restaurant in Manhattan the next day had less flair and cost $122. But go see for yourself;  the experience cannot be duplicated this side of the English Channel, and we only have to go as far as the Hudson River.

The Bocuse Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive (Route 9), Hyde Park, NY
(845) 471-6608
Open: Tuesday through Saturday
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m.
Dinner: 6–8:30 p.m.
Closed on Sundays, Mondays and major holidays.

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