Monday, June 27, 2016

Private Event Dining at Boulevard

Boulevard is a fairly classic San Francisco restaurant located just down the street from me.  I say classic because it has some staying power, as it has been in business since 1993.  It may not be Tadich Grill or Zuni, but, in the restaurant industry, this is still a pretty significant time.  The restaurant, and team behind it, have won many awards over the years, including James Beard Nominations and Michelin stars (although, they lost their star this past year!).

I've been to Boulevard a handful of times over the years, such as my full dinner in the main dining room, a full dinner at the Chef's Counter, and just appetizers and desserts.  I do love sitting at the Chef's Counter to watch all the action.  It is also a fantastic place for cocktails, although, the bar area is not large.  I often leave Boulevard a bit disappointed though ... because I love the atmosphere, the menu, the people, but I usually find the food a bit lackluster.  Not bad, but, just not amazing, and it is fairly pricey.

But I always want to like Boulevard more.  The chef and management team show up at events all over town (like the Meals on Wheels big gala I volunteer at).  I like them.  I want the restaurant to continue to do well.

I recently planned a multi-day event for my group at work, including members from all our other offices, about 35 people.  The majority of the time was spent in talks, meetings, discussion sessions, etc, but, the first night, we also wanted to do a group dinner.  And, as the planner, it was up to me to pick where we would go.

This was no easy feat.  We needed somewhere walking distance from the office.  And, while anywhere within about 3 miles is what I'd consider walking distance, I knew that wasn't true for all my colleagues.  We needed somewhere that could seat 35 people.  Most private rooms I found were could seat only 15-20.  Places that could accommodate a group our size tended to be too pricey.  I had a decent budget, but these places started at $150/head just for the food.  Ooph.

I nearly went with Alexander's, which you know I love.  It is walking distance.  However, even the basic private dining menu would certainly push our budget, but, it was doable.  They have a fantastic private dining room, the Wine Library, which I know as I've attended many events there (and held a big dinner for my work group before).  But the menu ... it just wasn't interesting.  A 3 course dinner with just a soup or salad to start, steak, fish, or veggie main, and a single dessert option.  I love Alexander's, but, this just wasn't very appealing.

I also really wanted to do something less formal.  I knew that we would be sitting all day long, for multiple days, and a long, formal, seated dinner just didn't sound great.  And I wanted the group to be able to mingle and socialize, after all, a big part of getting us all together in the space place was to form connection.  So, ideally, I wanted to do a cocktail reception, with heavy appetizers, wonderful cocktails, and of course, some sweet bites.  Finding somewhere that would do that was impossible.

Somewhere along the way, I remembered that Prospect (right across the street from my office, where I've also been many times) had a private dining room.  While not my favorite place, it clearly would be the most convenient (ok, actually Palomino would be, but, um, no.  Besides that killer Caramelized Cauliflower, there is no reason to go there).  Unfortunately, Prospect was booked, but thinking of Prospect reminded me of Boulevard (they are sister restaurants), so, I looked up Boulevard's private dining info.

As I read the private dining package, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Yes, the had a private room, and it could easily fit our group.  The restaurant is only two blocks away.  And the menu options?  Fantastic.  We had to do a three course dinner, but, I could choose one appetizer for the group from a decent list of choices, not just soup or salad.  For the main, I could offer two items, again, from a decent list.  And then, two dessert choices.  I've never seen a group dining menu where they offer up two desserts!  And finally, the icing on the cake for me, the group dining menu is mostly drawn from the regular menu.  The choices change weekly, just as the main restaurant dishes do.  It always makes me so sad when group dining menus are generic, designed to be crowd pleasers or dumbed down versions of dishes, and really don't accurately reflect the quality of the restaurant at all (ahem, Alexander's!)  At Boulevard, these were regular menu items, plated up just as nicely as in the main restaurant.

I immediately sent an inquiry in, fingers crossed, that my date was available.  It was.  Once I decided to go with Boulevard, everything happened easily.  The event planner was very responsive over e-mail, paperwork was handled quickly, and our space secured.  Phew.

I am very happy with my choice.  The space was beautiful, the service spot-on, and the food good.  Large group dining is never a restaurant's strongest point, but they handled it wonderfully, and I'd gladly host an event with them again.

The Space

The private dining room is located on another floor from the main restaurant, but, we had to walk through the entire dining room to reach the back where the stairs and elevator were.  It was a bit funny leading a group of 30 t-shirt and jeans clad engineers through the lovely dining room of Boulevard.

I was absolutely thrilled when I saw how nice the room looked.  Elegant yet comfortable, professional.  Perfect.  I'd host an event in this space again in an instant.
Private Dining Room and Bar.
The private dining room is really a beautiful space.  Elegant, classy, but not stuffy.  Lots of dark wood, red tones, gold accents, including long gold curtains.  Stunning light fixtures.

Near the entrance to the private room is a bar, which I choose to have fully operational.  As host, I could have chosen just to serve beer and wine, but I knew this group wouldn't be too crazy, particularly as we had an early schedule the next morning.

As we all entered, the friendly bartender welcomed us and asked if we'd like drinks as we got settled.  It was a bit of a bottleneck having 30 of us show up at once and line up at the bar, but, he handled us quickly.

I also was able to pre-select a red and white wine to offer to the group.  I somewhat randomly picked from the extensive wine list, opting for the varietals I liked at a reasonable price point.  For the white wine, I went with a sauvignon blanc, Lieu Dit, Santa Ynez 2014.  I sadly didn't like it at all, and found it way too harsh and acidic, but, my tablemate enjoyed it, and gladly took my glass off my hands.  For a red, I went with a pinot noir, Dutton-Goldfield, Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley 2014, and I loved it.  Smooth, easy to drink, very low tannin, and able to pair with seafood, which is what I was going for.

Service throughout the night was great.  Servers were attentive but never in the way.  They kept everyone's glasses full and the wine flowing, without being pushy.  They cleared plates in a timely fashion.  Impressive service, and they are clearly accustomed to handling groups of our size.  We felt well taken care of the entire night.
Private Dining Room.
The room could have easily fit more than the 5 tables I asked to have set up, but 5 felt just right, nicely spaced out, easy to move around, but still filled the room.  Along the back wall was wooden furniture and more curtains, and along the side was a large painting.

It felt very comfortable and was fully private.
Place Setting.
Tables were set with white cloth table clothes and napkins, wine glasses, water goblets, shining silverware, bread plates and knives, and hand written name cards (my request, since I was orchestrating the seating).

Savory Food

There were several themes throughout the meal.  The seafood was shockingly well prepared, particularly for group dining.  Fruits and vegetables shone, all clearly fresh, seasonal.  Quality ingredients were evident throughout.  Plating was just as elaborate, and dishes just as complex, as when served in the main dining room.  And yet we were all served quickly, and our food was all hot.  I was really impressed with how they handled our group.
Custom Menu.
Our 3 course dinner was priced at $90 per person.  Since most dishes are available on the regular restaurant menu, I can tell you it would have been about ~$72 if we weren't dining privately.  There was a markup, obviously, but that is to be expected.

Since I planned the event, I also got to pick the menu.  Picking the menu was actually incredibly hard.  Unlike most private dining menus, they gave me a lot of choice, and I really wanted many dishes.

For the starter, I could offer only one for everyone, out of 7 choices.  This was actually a bit strange to me since they let me offer two for everything else, and starters seem the easiest.  I'm curious what the reasoning is.  Anyway, I could pick from a soup of the day, salads (little gem, various greens, beets with blue cheese, or Dungeness crab salad), or, the far more exciting options of ahi tuna tartare or scallops.  Ok, this choice was easy: scallops (although, I was a bit tempted by the Dungeness crab salad, and, I did really like the ahi tuna tartare once before ...).

Next, I could pick two entrees.  This was harder.  Again, 7 options, and I could pick 2, but, there were no easy to exclude dishes like salads in this category.  I decided to offer one seafood and one non-seafood.  I ruled out the roasted chicken, even though I knew it might be the safe crowd pleaser.  I also ruled out the pork chop, and settled on the kobe bavette as my non-seafood option (filet mignon was also an option, but, it carried a $15 surcharge).  Everyone likes steak right?  The seafood was the hardest choice.  I could offer wild halibut or king salmon, both available with multiple preparations.  I do like salmon, but, I adore halibut.  So, halibut it was, even though I thought salmon might have more wide appeal to the group.  From there, I had to pick the preparation, and went for the one with the sides I liked more (asparagus, corn, etc), although I would have been perfectly happy with the option that came with peas, pea shoots, watercress, and fresh horseradish too.

And finally, dessert.  Here I could also pick two to offer, from a list of 5.  I ruled out the cheese plate, although I realize perhaps that would have been a nice offering for those who don't like sweets.  But, when I could pick only two, I really didn't want to waste one on a cheese platter!  I also ruled out the two chocolate desserts, not entirely intentionally.  One was a pretty amazing sounding chocolate pudding with peanut butter powder and chocolate pop rocks (!!) and the other was a flourless chocolate cake with ice cream.  Wow, I sound like a jerk for eliminating those.  But I was totally intrigued by the red velvet layer cake with cheesecake and ice cream listed as components and the panna cotta trifle with seasonal strawberries and apricots.  I mean, really, I wanted them all, this was a very hard choice.

Once we were seated, servers came to take our full orders, desserts included, all at the beginning of the meal.  Vegetarians also had a custom menu, made up of fresh, seasonal picks.  My table had a mix of both regular entrees and desserts, so I was able to see, and taste, most of it.
Sourdough and Salted Butter.
After our orders were taken, we were brought bread and butter.

Ojan, clearly starving, dug into the bread.  It looked like sourdough to me, and, sadly, he confirmed that it was.  You may recall that I don't like sourdough.  But everyone else at the table loved the bread.  "It is the correct amount of chewy and crispy!", exclaimed one dinner.  "The butter is really, really good", said another.

I didn't try the bread, since I knew I wouldn't like it, but I did try the butter.  And, I'll admit, it was really fantastic butter.  Slightly sweet, full of cream flavor.  Oh, and on top of the butter?  Huge salt crystals.  I wished I liked sourdough, but, alas, I had to just wait.

The appetizers actually took a while to arrive, not until 45 minutes into our dining time, so, we quickly depleted the bread.  Servers were quick to bring us more.
Appetizer: Sea Scallops.
"Salsify, Smoked Shiitake Mushrooms, Buttered Buckwheat, & Nasturtium."

Our appetizers were worth the wait.  We were each presented with 2 huge seared scallops on a bed of grains.

The scallops were well seared, not mid-rare as I'd prefer, but solidly medium, not rubbery or over cooked.  My table mates remarked at how impressive it was to get scallops cooked well, particularly in such quantity.  I love scallops, so, these were a hit for me.

The buttered buckwheat reminded me of farro, in that it was a hearty grain.  It was fine I guess, but, not really my thing.  There were also small chunks of salsify mixed in with the buckwheat, and on top.

At the very base of the plate was a smooth puree, only a very small amount, but it was very good.  I think it may have been a puree of the same salsify?  I'm not sure where the smoked shiitake was though, perhaps that was in the puree too?

Anyway, this was a good dish, and impressive that someone seared 60 scallops, and served them hot, that well.

This dish is currently on the dinner menu for $25, perhaps a bit pricey for only two scallops, but it was everyone else at my table's favorite dish of the night.  I ranked it second, and it was certainly good, but the best was yet to come.
Main Dish: Northern Halibut.
"Green Asparagus, English Peas & Sweet Corn, Carrot Top & Garlic Scale Pesto, Wild Greens."

For my main, I obviously picked the halibut, on the menu because, well, I wanted it.

It was really well prepared.  The fish had a slight sear on the outside, and inside stayed moist and tender.  It was seasoned fairly simply with just the right amount of salt and pepper.  The quality of this mild, delicate fish was allowed to shine.  Again, impressive execution of cooking the protein at such scale.

As well prepared as the fish was however, it was not the star of this plate.  Shockingly, the sauteed peas and corn totally stole the show.  It was basically a succotash (and actually, the original  menu I was provided listed favas in place of peas).  I don't have words for how good this was.  Lightly cooked, not at all "mushy peas".  Beautiful vegetables, generously coated with butter, well seasoned.  Seriously amazingly delicious.  The diner sitting next to me also ordered this dish, and I was amused when I watched him just devour the vegetables, leaving the fish on the side for after.  I tried to compose balanced bites, mixing fish with the vegetables, but wow, it was so hard not to just devour the veggies immediately.  There was a generous amount of this succotash as well, although you can't see it in the photo very well, there was a sizable mound under the fish.  Still, it took literally all my willpower to save one bite for Ojan.  I felt like I *had* to, given how much I was proclaiming the deliciousness, and how clearly superior my dish was.

The asparagus spears were less successful.  Thin spears of asparagus, slightly too crisp, not particularly seasoned or flavorful.  But honestly, nothing could have compared to that succotash.

On top of the fish was another shockingly good element: carrot top and garlic scape pesto.  The simple, well seasoned fish didn't actually need an accent, but this pesto was fantastic.  I really couldn't believe how strong the carroty taste was to it, which messed with my head, since it was green, not orange.  A lovely compliment to the fish.

Finally, a pile of herbs on top, which I think were also carrot tops?  They added to the visual quality of the dish, but weren't really necessary.

This was hands down dish of the night for me.  Well prepared halibut, tasty pesto, and just totally amazeballs succotash.  I'd gladly get this again, and was impressed with the cook on the fish for such a large group.

The halibut option on the regular dinner menu is $36, which seems correct for a quality dish of this level.
Main Dish: American Wagyu Bavette Steak.
"Crushed Olive Oil Potatoes with Soft Fennel, Leeks & Arugula, Broccoli & Kale al Limone, Sauteed Broccolini, Mushroom Relish, Beef Jus."

Most of my table, Ojan included, went for the bavette.  Before the entrees were brought out, they were provided steak knives.

The bavette eaters were ... not very happy.  One commented on how chewy it was.  Another said that the fat wasn't properly rendered out.  Chewy and fatty?  Sadness.  The kitchen executed the other proteins so well that this surprised me.

I didn't try anything on this plate, but, all of the diners who got it said it was less good than the scallops, and Ojan, who tried my dish, said it was the weakest dish of all three.

The dinner menu has a very similar dish, but it is a filet rather than bavette, but has the exact same sides.  It is $49.


And now, usually my favorite part of any meal, dessert!  The dessert options were the hardest for me to narrow down to only two choices, so I'm glad that Ojan was willing to split both with me.  And by split, I obviously mean, take a bite of each, and then just give them both to me.  #winning
Panna Cotta Trifle.
"Roasted Apricots, Dirty Girl Strawberries Sugar Cookie Crumble, White Velvet Cake."

Ok, so this was the dish I was really intrigued by.  Sure, I know what panna cotta is, it is a dish I love, and my blog has a label devoted to it.  But as a trifle?  And with "white velvet cake"?  What is white velvet cake, anyway?

This was an interesting layered creation.  I believe the panna cotta element was the firmer pudding at the base.  Above that was the sugar cookie crumble, which added a great crunchy element.  Above that, the roasted apricots and strawberries.  The fruit was really fantastic, soft, flavorful, clearly perfectly ripe and seasonal.  Above that was a generous amount of whipped cream.  And then?  A ring of cake, which I guess was the white velvet.  It tasted more like angel food cake to me.  And then, on the very top, apricot sorbet. The sorbet was wonderful, so intensely apricot flavored.

This was a pretty fascinating dish, with so many elements.  It was good, and I enjoyed creating bites out of all different combinations of the elements.  Creamy, fruity, crunchy, all in one bite?  Yes!  The cake I could have done without however.  It reminded me of all other desserts I've had at Boulevard though ... lots of thought clearly went into it, it was complex, but, just didn't blow me away, for no particular reason.

I was again impressed by the execution of the chefs, this time the pastry kitchen.  All our dessert had a frozen element (sorbet here, ice cream on the other), and they all arrived perfectly intact.  And again, I appreciated the restaurant not dumbing down the dessert selection for a large group, because assembling 30 of these to be ready all at once is too hard ...

Both Ojan and I agreed this was the better dessert of the two, but I wouldn't go running back for it.
Red Velvet Layer Cake.
"Cream Cheese Cheesecake, Malted Milk Ice Cream with English Toffee, Fudge Sauce, White Chocolate Curls."

We also went for the other option, which sounded nearly as intriguing.  Red velvet layer cake sounds boring, but, um, cheesecake was involved?  And ice cream?  I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it wouldn't be a standard red velvet cake, which I clearly wouldn't have ordered.

This one was a little more simple.  I thought that perhaps the ice cream would be a layer in the cake, but it was just a small scoop on the side.  It was fine, but, just ice cream with some bits of toffee in it.  Boulevard takes their ice cream seriously, as I believe every dessert has an ice cream component, and they also offer scoops of housemade ice cream as a more basic option.  I guess I expected more from the ice cream, as this wasn't remarkable in any way.  That said, it also wasn't store-bought, freezer burned, plain vanilla either, which far too many places serve ...

The layer cake had layers of classic red velvet cake with cheesecake in place of the standard cream cheese frosting layer.  The cheesecake layer was fantastic, rich, creamy, flavorful.  I loved it.  Why on earth would you use frosting when you could use cheesecake?  Genius idea here, and they have clearly improved upon red velvet cake.

The red velvet cake itself was just cake.  I never really like cake.  It wasn't particularly moist or flavorful.

On top was more crumbled english toffee bits and white chocolate curls.  They added a bit of crunch and sweetness, and, well, looked good.  The final element was the small line of fudge sauce on the bottom, a very rich chocolate fudge that I loved and wanted more of.

So, overall, this was ... ok.  Better than a regular red velvet cake, but, still, cake.  I enjoyed a few bites, particularly of just cheesecake with chocolate sauce and toffee from on top, but, I preferred the other dessert.

This is on the current dessert menu for $11.
Decaf Coffee.
After the desserts were served, servers came around with coffee.  I appreciated that they had both regular and decaf available, I so often need to ask for decaf and it comes much later.

That said, this decaf was horrible.  I'm sorry, but it was foul.  I really, really love having coffee with my desserts, and I tried a few sips of this, but I just couldn't handle it.  By far the worst coffee I've had in ... years, including on airplanes and in hotel breakfast buffets.  Seriously.

Coffee and tea service was included with our dining package.
Boulevard Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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