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Fine Dining as Theater

by B.A. Nilsson on June 26, 2013 · 1 comment


The Bocuse Restaurant, Culinary Institute of America, 1946 Campus Dr., Hyde Park, 845-471-6608, ciarestaurants.com. Serving lunch 11:30–1 Tue-Sat (when classes are in session), dinner 6–8:30 Tue-Sat (ditto). AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: contemporary French-inspired

Entrée price range: $20 (farro and bulgar salad) to $29 (roasted strip loin of beef)

Ambiance: very fancy bistro

When you’re dining in what’s essentially a food-service village, housing hundreds of white-jacketed students, sporting kitchen after kitchen where the students learn all aspects of the trade, featuring a handful of restaurants offering real-world experience in serving the public—when you’re amid all that, it should be no surprise that every aspect of the meal comes together in a grand totality of dining.

As a society, we created the idea of fine dining to celebrate what’s best about food preparation and service as it is enjoyed in the company of others. The Culinary Institute of America, headquartered downriver in Hyde Park, has become the Eastern epicenter of the training needed to make fine dining (or any institutionalized dining) work with efficiency and grace. Which is why I wish I could persuade many of our area restaurants to partake of the experience of dining there. We seem to have narrowed our sights so keenly to only the kitchen that the greater context of how food should be presented remains ignored.

It’s significant that the fanciest of the school’s five restaurants recently changed its name from Escoffier to Bocuse. Escoffier, who flourished late in the 19th century, gave us a rich culinary foundation, but it has proven to be too rich in these more health-conscious times. Paul Bocuse, born 80 years after Escoffier (and still with us at 87) slimmed down the cuisine while exploring more creative use of ingredients.

The restaurant is a collaboration between students and faculty, an excellent illustration of which was watching chef-instructor Robert Mullooly guiding his apprentice assistants through the construction of an entrée special—a reimagining, he later explained, of a mussel-saffron soup, turning it into a small bounty of seafood, seared scallops prominent, combined with rice, pea shoots, a mussel-saffron sauce and Pernod foam.

Foam has threatened, in recent years, to become another laughable aspect of the worst excesses of molecular cuisine. It isn’t attractive, and the flavor note it provides works only when used with care. But Pernod paired well with the mussel sauce, so adding it alongside as foam rather than incorporating it into the brew itself invited an extra kineticism in the flavor release.

Mullooly, himself a 1993 graduate of the school, patiently and efficiently demonstrated the necessary balance between art, which invites fussiness, and efficiency, which pays the bills. The resultant plate displayed an attractive arrangement of ingredients that promised an even more satisfying reward as the visual component is fork-destroyed.

The process of serving the entreés, most of which emerge on dome-shrouded plates, is almost comical in its antiquity: Each plate is carried by its own server; all are table-placed and un-lidded with simultaneous flourishes. Yet it’s a reminder that fine dining is theater—or should be.

The youthful servers share a nervous enthusiasm. They’re new at it, and they’re working for grades, not tips. But they’re under the aegis of maître d’ instructor John Fischer (class of ‘88), who also is a professor in hospitality and service management. He displays an ease of communication and secure sense of control to which all servers should aspire. The last time I enjoyed service this fancy was during a decades-ago visit to the Algonquin Hotel, where servers seemed to shimmer out of the woodwork. So I associated it with an old, dark dining room, a notion that’s blown away by the bright pastels and large windows of the Bocuse Restaurant. And I suppose it’s just as well that the dress code has been abolished, although I used to find horrible joy at turning away the jacketless from the Westchester County inn where I once worked.

The menu is brief and eclectic. We visited for lunch, so the prices quoted are a little less than you’ll find at dinner. Appetizers range from classics like frog’s legs with watercress remoulade ($10) and seared foie gras ($12) to chilled pea soup ($9) and a (startlingly small) arugula-strawberry salad ($8).

Entrées include a roasted strip steak ($24), but warm farro and quinoa salad—dressed with baby vegetables and a carrot-lemongrass purée ($18) also is on the menu. And even so pedestrian-seeming a dish as chicken fricasée ($19) gets complicated flavors of leeks and morels worked in.

For dessert, you’ll be tempted by the homemade ice cream, which is made tableside using liquid nitrogen and a hand-cranked Kitchen Aid mixer, and includes a cornucopia of other treats ($18 for two)—but the gâteau exotic ($8), a variation of pineapple upside-down cake, delivers its own, dry ice-enhanced show.

The CIA’s other reservations-only eateries are the American Bounty Restaurant (11:30-1 and 6-8:30, Tue-Sat), celebrating, as it’s been doing for 30 years, the diversity of native ingredients, and Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici (11:30-1 and 6-8:30, Mon-Fri) concentrates on the seasonal ingredients and unique flavors of Italian cuisine.

More casual dining is offered at the Apple Pie Bakery Café (7:30-5, Mon-Fri), where you’ll sample the work of the baking and pastry students, along with other light fare, and at St. Andrew’s Café (11:30-1, Mon-Fri), showcasing the increasingly popular food of the farm-to-table phenomenon.

There’s a justifiable cachet to having “CIA graduate” on your resume, and the Capital Region enjoys the fruit (and meat and vegetables and more) of many an alumnus. But it’s fascinating to look at the place where it’s all starting, getting a literal taste of what’s to come.