1900 Broadway, New York NY 10023 (map); 212-595-9606; danielnyc.com/epicerie
Service: Fast, solicitous, knowledgeable
Setting: A well-lit, carefully designed retail store with multiple counters, standing room only inside, with a few outdoor tables
Compare It To: Bouchon Bakery
Must-Haves: Cubano, DBLT, Banh Mi, Chili-Lime Gaufrettes, cheese plate
Cost: $15-20 for a two-course lunch and drink; $10 or less for breakfast
I've known Daniel Boulud and have been eating his food for more than twenty years now, and if there is one thing I've learned about him, it's that he doesn't take any undertaking lightly. In other words, the dude is insanely focused in his approach to anything he tackles. If he made Saltines they would have to be the best Saltines there are—or at the very least, the best Saltines he could make given his skill level and the skill level of those around him.
So we shouldn't be surprised that his little pastry, coffee, and sandwich shop, Epicerie Boulud, is no casually tossed-off affair. In fact, many of the items he serves there are downright revelatory (others are merely solid) to the point that some of the sandwiches are hall-of-fame worthy. The man has a track record. He doesn't accept pretty good as a result.
This time, with the able help of chef de cuisine Jonathan Kinsella, bread baker Mark Fiorentino, pastry chefs Dominique Ansel (Daniel) and Ghaya Oliviera (Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud), and master charcutier Gilles Verot, he shows he means business in the realm of sandwiches and pastries and ice cream. This is not his first foray into pastries. I'm old enough to remember that Daniel was Francois Payard's investor and partner at the original, now shuttered Payard on Lexington Avenue. But this place is different—it's filled with Boulud-like touches that make the food thoroughly grounded in both French technique and New York food sensibilities.
A "spicy merguez" ($6.90) sausage came on a housemade roll, with harissa, preserved tomato, cucumber, tzatziki sauce, and mint; despite the name, the sandwich wasn't particularly hot, but it was tasty. The Banh Mi ($8.90) here is not really a Banh Mi at all. Rather, it's a Thai sausage with a big dollop of country pâté, a slice of Parisian ham, radish and carrot slaw, and jalapeño mayo on a French roll. I love classic banh mi, but I appreciated the love and care and high quality ingredients that went into what can only be described as Boulud's tribute to that Vietnamese hero sandwich.
The DBGB Dog ($5.90) is Verot's tribute to a New York hot dog. It's a housemade beef wiener (the same one that's served at DBGB), and it comes with sauteed onions, mustard, and ketchup. It's a perfectly fine hot dog, but it lacks the taut snappiness of a Gray's Papaya or Papaya King dog. (I say this after tasting them side by side for dinner last week. The Gray's Papaya hot dog was better and much cheaper to boot.)
There's a trio of sandwiches inspired by classics Boulud has found in the States. His DBLT ($10.50), with grilled heritage pork belly, smoked bacon and horseradish dressing on herb focaccia, is a BLT in name only—in the same vein as Boulud's notorious DB burger, featuring foie gras and short rib. But it's good enough that we don't care. To call his Cubano ($10.50) an elevated version of the sandwich doesn't begin to describe how seriously delicious it is, and I say this as a man who's never met a Cubano he didn't like. How could it not be great when it's made with suckling pig confit, housemade Jambon de Paris, and a housemade pickle, all on one of Fiorentino's ciabatta rolls?
Boulud enters the New York lobster roll derby with his Maine Lobster Roll ($16.00). His features lobster salad with a horseradish dressing, avocado, celery, butter lettuce and tomato on a brioche roll. It's a fine lobster roll, but not a terribly interesting one. A classic French sandwich, a Jambon Beurre ($7.50) of that same housemade Parisian ham, salted butter, and Gruyere cheese on baguette, would have been splendid if it hadn't still been cold when we started eating it. It turns out that not even Boulud is immune to the inherent shortcomings of "grab and go" sandwiches.
The sides are the equal of the better sandwiches. Chips are a must at any sandwich shop, and here they up the chips ante with addictive housemade lime chili gaufrettes ($2.50)—that would be waffle chips to Americans—which though not spicy enough for some, are definitely in competition for the city's best potato chips. Regular potato chips were saltier and greasier.
And the cheeses at Epicerie Boulud have been lovingly curated by Serious Eats friend and cheesemonger supreme Anne Saxelby. One day the $16 cheese and fruit plate included a selection of five terrific, perfectly ripe cheeses we loved—some local (the creamy raw cow's milk Timberdoodle, funky raw goat's milk Slyboro), some imported (the Persille, a sheeps' milk cheese from the Pyrenees). It's carefully and thoughtfully served in-house, though inexplicably, they don't give you bread with your cheese plate if you get it to go.
Three variety of "egg tartines" are offered, a sort of open-faced breakfast sandwich, called oeuf en brioche, made with a "pain au lait" dough with a whole egg baked right into the dough. Our favorite was the smoked salmon ($6.50) with spinach-flecked mornay, red onion, and capers, a classic Boulud creation marrying what he grew up in France (the mornay sauce) with quintessentially New York smoked salmon pairings (red onion and capers). We also really loved the version with house-cured ham and gruyére ($4.50). The Florentine ($4.50), made with spinach and egg, was less interesting. All take well to a bit of toasting.
The crew at Epicerie Boulud also put out a number of grab-and-go sandwiches that put to shame anything we've ever tried at Pret a Manger or any similar operation. Yes, we know the sandwiches here are in some cases 50% more expensive than their counterparts at such places, but they are exponentially better.
I can only wish that I had eaten a club sandwich as good as Boulud's Classic Club ($9.50) at any country club I had ever been invited to. Boulud's monstrous sandwich is at least three times as tall as it is wide; it's got some awesomely juicy smoked turkey with a garlicky aioli, bacon, avocado, fried egg, lettuce and tomato on buttery brioche bread slices.
They also tackle and re-engineer the Provencal classic Pain Bagnat ($9.50). Here it consists of layers of moist confit tuna, heirloom tomato, sliced cucumbers, olives, avocado, and some more of that perfectly cooked egg on an awesome crisp bun. The only thing we could have done without is the lettuce, which was superfluous and wilted by the time we got the sandwich. (Ah, the vagaries of pre-made sandwiches.) We haven't fully explored the grab-and-go salad offerings, but even the cliched Cobb salad ($12) had moist cubes of rotisseried chicken, plenty of great blue cheese, ripe tomatoes, and lardons (though not quite enough of those).
Highlights of the dessert menu include the gelati, the chocolate caramel layer cake, and the coffee hazelnut tart—but there are so many sweets worth exploring at Epicerie Boulud that we'll get to those tomorrow.
With Epicerie Boulud, Daniel Boulud and his crew have raised the bar for sandwich-pastry shops in New York. It's a genre that was already improved by Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery, a mere long baguette's length away in the Time-Warner Building—but the sheer breadth, depth and astoundingly consistent quality of the offerings at Epicerie Boulud will make it the envy of Keller and every other world-class chef who attempts to scale the sandwich shop-bakery mountain.
The rest of us don't have to worry about that competition. We just get to enjoy the fruits of Boulud and company's labors, a sight to behold and a pleasure to taste.