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Dinner as improvisation at Bouley’s Secession

30 Hudson St., near Duane St., (212) 791-3771

Mon.-Thur., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Cuisine: Franco-Italian

Vibe: Gilded Tribeca affair

Occasion: Downtown date, family dinner.

Don’t-Miss Dish: Boudin blanc, Princess crab & avocado salad, chocolate banana with prune Armagnac ice cream.

Average Price: Appetizers, $12; entrees, $23; dessert, $9.

Reservations: Recommended

Let’s start with the numbers. On the menu at Secession, there are
eight charcuteries, a dozen salads, seven types of oysters and clams,
four soups, three risottos and three kinds of fries. And that is only
half the items. I haven’t mentioned the classics or the sides or, for
that matter, what’s been roasted, fried, grilled or cooked a la
plancha. You might be tempted to hand the menu back to your server and
say simply, “Bring me food.”

Order a glass of wine instead and put on your reading glasses. It’s
worth it. “Secession” may sound like a Southern restaurant, but it’s
actually a union of Italian and French kitchens – from Cesare Casella
and David Bouley. What’s interesting isn’t the content or the size of
the menu, it’s the philosophy behind it. This isn’t dinner in two acts
with a brief intermission and a curtain call for dessert. Or a tasting
of 20 bites. This is dinner as a mosaic.

Bouley – this is really his restaurant – allows the diner to
improvise. A meal might look like tomato, mozzarella, basil and a New
York sirloin with Tuscan fries. Or, it might look like a foie gras
terrine and iceberg hearts with Langres cheese, mint, tomato coulis and
grapefruit powder. Or how about a pâté, boudin blanc, French fries, and
call it a night? Dinner can be as formal or as informal as you want,
traditional or nontraditional, or all of the above.

One thing’s certain – it’s almost impossible to go completely
astray. Not that there aren’t a few flubs on the menu – spaghetti with
Manila clams, the roasted lobster and a wildly overcooked Oregon wild
salmon. (I love almost anything confit, but now I know that gizzards
are the exception.)

Think of this menu as a map. Plan on spending a little time in
charcuterie country. The boudin blanc – a pistachio-studded pork
sausage – defies its peasant origins. It has a wonderful depth of
flavor and lightness of texture. So does the terrine de volaille
“grand-mère,” made with chicken liver, Cognac, mushrooms and milk. My
favorite was the pâté de campagne aux noix – a coarse pork pâté with
walnuts, parsley and garlic. Just east of the charcuterie lies a land
of salads. It is ruled by the Princess crab salad, which was wearing a
wonderful tarragon dressing – all of it couched on two avocado halves.
This doesn’t sound like a $16 salad, but it is. And that’s one of the
pleasant surprises at Secession – its affordability. One of the most
expensive items on the menu is the $32 grilled New York sirloin, but
it’s excellent. The $9 Tuscan fries might make you blink, but they’re
just as good.

Save room for some swooning strawberry-white chocolate parfait and a banana-chocolate brioche with prune Armagnac ice cream.

You also get a lot of room at Secession – a lot of Klimt, a lot of
gilding, a lot of atmosphere. Perhaps a little too formal for the
spirit of this food.

Secession is pure Bouley. It’s Tribeca, it’s a revision of the
classics, and it’s a revision of his Danube – the only thing left is
the Wiener schnitzel and the Klimt. Who knows what this space will be
in five years? All the more reason to live in the present.

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