PB Boulangerie Bistro
Foie gras. Sear a slab of it, put it on a plate, and wait for the reaction. It can run the gambit from lusty, love-struck leers to petulant PETA picket lines and everything in between. But there are two facts about seared foie gras that are indisputable. One is that it is a classic French delicacy that dates back to about 2500 B.C. (the sexy-sounding “foie gras” actually translates to the lesser-scrumptious “fat liver”), and the other is that the more time the person in the chef’s toque has spent in France, the more delectable the fois gras experience is going to be.
On a recent visit to the kitchen of PB Boulangerie Bistro, we were privy to the evening’s foie gras preparation—although we weren’t sure what to make of it at the time. “Chef, it’s coming out of the pan again!” was the shout across the kitchen to PB Boulangerie owner and executive chef, Philippe Rispoli.
One of the cooks, Patrick Lipscomb of Hyannis, was attempting to coerce a massively puffed-up and beautifully bronzed tarte tatin, which had gloriously risen with enough force to partially extricate itself out of its cylindrical housing, back into the pan. The lavish looking tart, which boasted a diameter just two-finger grips short of a Galaxy 500 steering wheel, apparently wasn’t aware it needed another five minutes in the oven and seemed intent on delivering itself to the chopping block.
Chef Rispoli hurried over and the two men, with all four shoulders rolling, carefully and systematically kneaded the tart’s gooey apple-covered crown back down into its pan, looking from behind like a couple of party-goers trying to corral helium-filled balloons into a gift box.
After its five-minute finish in the oven, the tart arrived just as the first order of L’escalope de Foie Gras Poêlée Déglacée chattered out of the kitchen printer. Although a perfectly seared foie gras is undeniably a work in culinary finesse, this presentation is a more casual, fun celebration of the sweeter things in life, with a deglazing of sherry vinegar, a frivolous toss of candied walnuts, and a slice of that exquisite apple tarte tatin.
Back at our table, as the last drops of sauce were sopped up with freshly baked bread from the adjoining bakery, a two-tiered tower of the night’s Saumon Fumé Maison (house-smoked salmon with fresh herbs and lemon zest), and Les Huîtres Sauvages de Wellfleet (six chilled oysters on the half shell, and six hot and bubbling in spinach and parsley butter) arrived at the table.
The oysters, courtesy of well-respected shellfisherman Richard Blakely of Wellfleet, could easily have been smothered by such an ambitious prep. But thanks to a deft hand and a delicate ratio, the sweet and plump meat of the oysters rose up from beneath the crackling green coating perfectly unscathed. The raw oyster offering, paired with a mouth-puckering mignonette and thick crème fraîche, was so bright, briny and all-around oceanic, that all four fruits de mer “amoureux” dining at the table agreed they were the perfect representation of the local shoreline’s iconic offering.
As more oysters were slurped, and the occasional AWOL caper tucked back into its bed of salmon, sommelier John “J.B.” Bolduc made his rounds, refilling our flutes with a crisp, dry cava. A native of Waterville, Maine, Bolduc’s impressive resume spans from the well-loved Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket to Joël Robuchon Restaurant and Ducasse in Las Vegas, and beyond (J.B. would continue to be a well-worked and most welcomed asset throughout the festive evening).
On the heels of the seafood tower slid a plate of the incredibly colorful L’arc en Ciel de Betteraves en Salade (rainbow beet salad with endive, crunchy walnuts and fromage de chèvre), a presentation so visually perfect and well prepared it lured us back into Chef Rispoli’s kitchen to see what lay behind all the flavors, textures and colors.
Philippe Rispoli’s resume—which reads like a who’s who of culinary splendor—humbly began with his mother and grandmother instilling in young Philippe a passion for food, and how to manipulate it in the kitchen. Hailing from the village of Vilette d’Anton just outside of Lyon, France, Rispoli began his career as a kitchen apprentice at the age of fourteen at a small, local restaurant in Lyon called l’Auberge du Pont. From there, he worked in several other well-respected Lyon restaurants, including the 3-Star Michelin-rated Paul Bocuse, one of Rispoli’s early culinary heroes.
Eventually Rispoli would head to the Côte d’Azur region, absorbing its Provençal influences and Mediterranean flavors while working at the Hotel Martinez and the Carlton Hotel’s Bel Otero. At the recommendation of Pierre Orsi—a culinary household name in France—another famous chef who also hailed from Rispoli’s hometown region would light the wick of his rocketing career in the States. That chef was Daniel Boulud, and he would offer Rispoli the opportunity of a lifetime, working at his iconic New York City restaurant Daniel in 1996.
Rispoli would go on to spend three years honing his craft in every station of Daniel’s kitchen. Both Boulud and Rispoli instantly shared a consensus of tastes, style and dedication—no doubt stemming in part from their regional ties.
After Daniel, Rispoli traveled west to Las Vegas, where he became one of two Executive Chefs at the world’s most exclusive and luxurious destination for royalty, dignitaries and the highest of high rollers, the Mansion at MGM Grand. Following a successful run at the Mansion, Rispoli added another ostrich-sized feather to his chef toque as the Executive Chef at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole. Eventually he once again worked under the guiding force of his friend and mentor Daniel Boulud as Executive Chef at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn.
In time, Rispoli would work his way back east to stake a claim and open a restaurant of his own, but in a much quieter existence, replacing the blazing lights of the Vegas strip with the glimmering stars over a National Seashore, and the blaring car horns of mid-town Manhattan with the distant clang of a schooner halyard.
Chef Rispoli now stands in the center of his spacious and pristinely clean Wellfleet kitchen, which is celebrating its third successful season. He fine-tunes a bright, orange curry sauce for the evening’s Marmite du Pêcheur (fish stew), and, as a steady stream of guests fill the Bistro, he is politely giving direction to his cooks.
Rispoli’s French accent is thick. When he speaks about food, the excitement in his voice greatly speeds up his speech, showing a glimpse into his childhood kitchen, where an eager, young boy studied the ways of his mère and grand-mère. He was especially animated this evening, as brand new staff members have been arriving on visas from France.
“My new baker, Jerome Tessier, has just arrived from Normandy,” Rispoli said with a mischievous grin, looking like he’s had something wonderful up his sleeve. “Magnifique…magnifique,” was all he’d say on the subject, as he smiled slyly again.
Within 24 hours his new chef, Parisian Simon Rouget, who would be arriving as well, recently spent time at Joël Robuchon Restaurant in Vegas like J.B. the sommelier. The small dining room of PB Boulangerie was suddenly bustling with activity, so we headed back to our table for another vicarious stroll down Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
J.B. had already seen to our request for reasonably priced ($40 or so) bottles of red and white wine. A 2010 Domaine Auvigue St. Véran White Burgundy stood up beautifully to the curry in the Marmite du Pêcheur and really played well with the various components—bacon, lemon, and, surprisingly, ginger—of the Palourdes Sautées (sautéed clams).
The one thing that cannot be ignored from the heart of the bistro is the kitchen’s wall of fire: eight chickens rotating on spits. The Le Poulet Fermier Bio (spit-roasted organic chicken) was accompanied by crisp, plump green beans and sautéed mushrooms, and finished with fresh parsley and garlic. The chicken was as tender and juicy as we had fantasized as we stared at the rotisserie, with the fire-kissed skin crisp and perfect. It reminded us why we love classic French cooking. In a time when too many restaurants add too many ingredients and overwhelm the main protein, the food at PB Boulangerie Bistro, although never lacking for seasonings, sauces and sides, pushes the main event front and center.
The four members of our party had left numerous nose prints on PB Boulangerie Bakery’s display cases over the last three years, so when it came to dessert we were at a serious crossroad. After much tortured debate, we settled on a domed chocolate work of art with shimmering edible gold accents: a crispy-creamy lavender crème brûlée; a glistening, majestic fruit tart in a thick pastry shell; and a provocatively molten chocolate cake draped in silky pistachio ice cream. Each dessert looked like its own magazine cover, and with flavors to justify it. Best of all, they each are readily available at the bakery to highlight an at-home banquet.
The night was almost over. From our table we could see Chef Philippe Rispoli with eyes bright, looking fresh and composed, giving direction, stirring, tasting, smiling, stirring some more, tasting again. Above him hung a bronze plaque, an homage to an old friend and mentor, the famous Chef Paul Bocuse, that gazes over Philippe and his staff. It reminds us what a great food experience is all about.
Bocuse made a career of wowing people while stripping things down to their simplest common denominator, a commonality that he, Daniel Boulud and Phillipe Rispoli all share. Bocuse once said, “Cooking is easy, you just need good ingredients, good seasoning, and the right cook…that’s it.” As we walked out the door to head home, we couldn’t help but imagine that the great French chef in the plaque overlooking PB Boulangerie Bistro’s kitchen would definitely approve.