Daniel Boulud had not initially planned to create a restaurant paying homage to his Lyon origins. The play made him do it. The tiled and mirrored space with antique floral light fixtures that previously housed Augustine inspired him to formulate the latest entry into his international empire anchored by two-star Michelin restaurant Daniel as a Lyonnais Bouchon, his first. Le Gratin opened in New York’s Financial District in May.
“It’s probably nostalgia,” he explains. “This place brought me back to Lyon and the traffic jams I loved. I always wanted to make one but I didn’t have a framework for it. They approached us, saw this place and loved it. I actually celebrated my birthday here three years ago, so I felt like I’d like to go back to my roots.
These roots go back to his upbringing on a farm where gratins, dishes with a golden crust, typically accompanied the family’s Sunday roasts. “There was always a gratin — gratin dauphinois, pumpkin, spinach…it’s a family dish that everyone loves,” he says. So it seemed like the perfect name for the restaurant. And since a signature dish is her mother Marie’s recipe for gratin dauphinois, the rich slices of potato baked in cream (plus her addition, cheese), the restaurant is also dedicated to her mother’s cooking. Grandmother Francine, the guardian of the 40 goats on the farm, is also represented on the menu with a green salad featuring her specialty Fromage Blanc.
Elsewhere on the menu are Boulud’s interpretations of the dishes that are menu mainstays in the city known as the gastronomic capital of France. The feathery quenelles are served au gratin in a béchamel sauce with Gruyère mushrooms. “It’s a dish that I learned to make when I was 14.15 years old during my apprenticeship. I haven’t made this recipe since 1970, so it was exciting to come back to it and find the authentic flavor, it’s the real soul of Lyon,” he explains. Charcuterie selections include duck confit with foie gras, Paris ham and Lyonnaise sausage, and pastry-crusted pork, foie gras and sweetbreads. The classic preparation of snails is refined by presenting the snails coated in tempura accompanied by a croquette of pig’s trotters, a fricassee of mushrooms, a garlic butter and a spinach coulis with herbs. There are two versions of steak frites: one with a Black Angus hanger steak, the other a Black Angus New York strip, as well as a very popular 30 oz. Black Angus Cote de Beauf.
Despite the town’s reputation for meat and game dishes, there are also lighter fare including seared Dover sole with lemon caper butter, Scottish salmon with a vibrant pea casserole and a herb broth and a dish that has nothing to do with Lyon but is part of Boulud’s background: tuna crudo with grilled olives, arugula and TSWT vinaigrette inspired by a grilled sardine preparation with TSWT in a bistro in Mougins in the south of France that Boulud experienced while working with the esteemed Roger Vergé at the Moulin de Mougins. There are also promotions 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 roast chicken which may seem trivial but is way above the many others around town due to the 4 pound Amish chickens which come close in flavor to the Poulet de Bresse French, the huge rotisserie left by Augustine and the roasting skills of Executive Chef Guillaume Ginther, a former student of Restaurant Daniel and former Executive Chef of roast chicken specialist Le Coq Rico Bistro in New York. It is accompanied by a garlic juice and a gratin dauphinois; everyone, he notes, brings home the leftovers.
The desserts of a cork are intended to be simple, just like the menu as a whole, and they are for the most part here: apricot tart, crème caramel, raspberry melba, a cream puff like the one Boulud would have in Lyon on Sundays but, catered to New York taste, with a plum marmalade added for extra flavor. The exception is a chocolate cake inspired by the one created by the famous Lyon pastry shop Bernachon to honor Paul Bocuse, another culinary titan with whom Boulud worked. But he and his pastry chef have added their personal touch: since Boulud likes ganache, there are three in it: dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate infused with coffee.
Even with those flourishes and others added to suit the tastes of Boulud and a New York crowd, “we’re really going to celebrate Lyon,” he says. And, he adds, Bocuse would love to be here.