One of the saddest closings of a New York City restaurant throughout my culinary journey was Bouley, one of the classiest establishments representing the combination of sophisticated French dishes, one of the most iconic dining rooms in the city and a model of professionalism when it comes to hospitality industry. Chef David Bouley has since taken his vision to his new dining space called Bouley at Home, while continuing to run his Test Kitchen that has actually been around for a while alongside his former TriBeCa flagship. I’ve had a very satisfying meal at Bouley on my last visit with my then-girlfriend Jun (now wife!) (https://kenscale.com/2016/08/30/bouley/), so when our mutual friend invited us for her birthday lunch at the Test Kitchen, I was excited. Upon arrival at the dining space, though, I (and as well as Jun and everyone else in our party who had been to Bouley before) became utterly confused. Past the entrance with the iconic shelves of apples probably carried over from Bouley, I was wondering whether chef Bouley initially tried to have a Brooklyn-style industrial space with exposed bricks, only to change his mind later and decided he wants the place to be as classy and upscale as the beautiful dining space of his former flagship restaurant after all, with a number of classical paintings hung awkwardly on the aforementioned brick walls. The total thematic dissonance of the dining space was not the only issue. If the Test Kitchen intended to bring a top-class fine-dining style service and experience to the table, it didn’t show other than the full suits that they wore. No one bothered to refill empty water glasses, and in one instance, when the dessert utensils were handed to the table, our server just laid out the spoon and fork on one side of our birthday friend (instead of on both sides). I understand that she was sitting on the inner center of the table so there was some distance for the server to reach her, but based on our experience at Bouley, we would have expected that the server would politely say “Pardon my reach.” and place the utensils on both sides of her or at least ask her if it’s OK to put both utensils on her left side due to the distance. All these shortcomings made me a bit sad because the food at the Test Kitchen still more or less delivers at the level you can expect based on your experience at Bouley.
One of the greatest lunch bargains in the city for a long time has been Bouley’s five-course menu ($55 per person in my memory), and the Test Kitchen has a similar option at $59 per person. I didn’t see a lot of departures from the Test Kitchen’s food from Bouley’s, but still enjoyed the first course of Malibu sea urchin, green apple cloud, bergamot and caviar that delivered a complexity of flavor and texture that was excellent for a starter. On the other hand, Jun ordered three Massachusetts oysters with meyer lemon cloud, and she observed (and I agreed after stealing one from her plate) that the oyster got too overwhelmed by the lemon that made her think she was eating a lemon tart instead of an oyster.
Last time Jun and I were at Bouley, we thoroughly enjoyed the porcini flan with Alaskan dungeness crab and black truffle dashi, and the same dish was back again on the menu this time as a second course. It was still a very delicious dish (Jun ordered it and I stole a few scoops), as was the combination of farm egg, serrano ham, steamed polenta, artichoke and sunchoke in coconut garlic broth that I ordered instead of the porcini flan. Last time at Bouley, I had an excellent duck and for a change I instead ordered the prime dry aged New York strip loin that was very nicely cooked medium rare. After a refreshing palate cleanser of pineapple granite, Jun and I also shared desserts of chocolate frivolous with Colombian coffee gelato (her order) and salt poached and candy lemon, yogurt mousse and lemon cream (my order). I was fond of the contrast between the not-too-sweet yet delightful lemon-based dessert and the powerful chocolate dish.
Our birthday friend made the reservation so I’m not sure how difficult it is to secure a table at the Test Kitchen, but the dining space was almost full when we arrived for a late lunch at 3 p.m. None of us was interested in a glass of wine or other types of alcohol, but I’m guessing the Test Kitchen doesn’t probably have the same vault of wine selections that Bouley had been known for. My KenScale reviews have been first and foremost about the quality of food above all else, although in my bad reviews, dining experiences due to terrible food can become exacerbated by other shortcomings of a restaurant such as services. In the Test Kitchen’s case, the food still retains the comparable level of elegance and thoughtfulness that made Bouley one of the best dining destinations in the city. I just wish that chef Bouley had given more thoughts on the identity of the Test Kitchen; either make it Bouley 2.0 and bring it up to the level of experience that the former TriBeCa restaurant has been so well-known for or turn it into a more casual supper-club type of place that is more approachable as an everyday-type restaurant.
KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 7.0/10
Address: 31 West 21st Street, New York, NY 10010
Telephone: (917) 237-3205