Bouli Bar: Inconsistent Service Mars Otherwise Excellent Offshoot of Boulette’s Larder

| September 16, 2013 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment
Bouli Bar’s Fiori pizza is topped with summer vegetable compote, capers, squash blossoms, and buffalo burrata ($18.50). Photo: Kate Williams

Bouli Bar’s Fiori pizza is topped with summer vegetable compote, capers, squash blossoms, and buffalo burrata ($18.50). Photo: Kate Williams

Walk into Bouli Bar at 11:45am on an ordinary Wednesday, and you’ll see a restaurant just waking up. It is quiet, calm, and friendly. Neutral colors, stained wood, and brass accents set a West Elm-like tone in the dining room. The cooks are chatting casually in front of the wood oven, servers are huddled around the maitre d’ stand, and the few diners already seated are deep in conversation. Snagging an empty seat sans reservation is a snap.

A short 20 minutes later, and the scene is transformed. The once serene dining room is now jam-packed with hungry business-folk. Sitting at the corner of a long communal table at first felt inclusive and casual, but it is now clear that this is the worst seat in the house. Waiters spill water, dislodge carefully placed silverware, and knock iPhones off the table without apology. The once comfortable, wide-seated chairs now feel cramped when surrounded by clusters of people; it is a task to wiggle out in order to use the restroom.

Bouli Bar is housed in the former Culinare space and opens out into the main Ferry Plaza hallway. Photo: Kate Williams

Bouli Bar is housed in the former Culinare space and opens out into the main Ferry Plaza hallway. Photo: Kate Williams

Service turns gruff, and it quickly becomes obvious that the house is trying to turn tables as fast as possible. The smart diners who have made reservations and dressed to the nines are seated at smaller, personal tables, and they seem to get better service. The other flustered faces at the communal tables indicate that they notice this discrepancy, too.

Bouli Bar is a brand-new offshoot of longtime Ferry Building restaurant Boulette’s Larder, which opened in 2004. Owners Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis specialize in preparing ingredient-driven menus with Middle Eastern accents in a warm, intimate environment. In addition to the restaurant, the two women curate a small store (or larder) of high-end pantry items used in their kitchen, making it possible for ambitious home cooks to replicate the flavors they ate at Boulette’s.

Given the constraints of the space, Boulette’s had historically just been open for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, with occasional private dinners. But last fall, Schwertner and Regis announced that they would be acquiring the Culinare space next-door in order to open Bouli Bar. They closed down the restaurant this spring to overhaul the space and build out their new restaurant, complete with a sleek wood-fired hearth situated in between the two restaurants. Bouli Bar opened its doors in July, and Boulette’s just re-opened last month for brunch service.

Not surprisingly, the menu at Bouli Bar is focused on their prized wood oven, and they’ve got the pizza list to prove it. Pizzas run the gamut from a simple za’atar topped bianca to elaborately topped creations like Turkish-spiced lamb or figs, lard, and proscuitto. On this particular Wednesday, we took advantage of late-season produce and ordered the Fiori with summer vegetable compote, capers, squash blossoms, and buffalo burrata ($18.50). (Who, pray tell, can say no to burrata, the silky queen of fresh cheeses?)

Bouli Bar’s Fiori pizza is topped with summer vegetable compote, capers, squash blossoms, and buffalo burrata ($18.50). Photo: Kate Williams

Bouli Bar’s Fiori pizza is topped with summer vegetable compote, capers, squash blossoms, and buffalo burrata ($18.50). Photo: Kate Williams

Bouli Bar’s pizza is a particular breed of California pie. It is nothing like Anthony Magieri’s obsessively authentic pizzas at Una Pizza Napoletana or even the twee thin-crusts found at Delfina. No, the pizza coming out of Bouli’s oven is a wood-fired flatbread with elaborate and carefully sourced toppings. Some, like the lola sempre, Bouli Bar’s take on a margarita, look like traditional pizza. The Fiori, on the other hand, was of a different breed.

Behind the scenes in the Bouli Bar kitchen, with the wood hearth glowing in the background. Photo: Kate Williams

Behind the scenes in the Bouli Bar kitchen, with the wood hearth glowing in the background. Photo: Kate Williams

That’s not to say that this breed is bad. In fact, the salty and sweet tapenade-esque compote was the perfect match for the voluptuous burrata, and the zucchini blossoms added a light, pretty touch. The hefty crust easily carried the weight of the heavy toppings; it was distinctly salty, but in the way that good French fries keep you coming back for more. If only the smoke from the oven was a bit more present in order to unite the blistered cornicione to with the toppings.

Even better than the pizza was the warm mushroom salad ($20)—in it, roasted pioppini, trumpet, and chanterelles were amplified by the heat and smoke of the oven to become more intense versions of themselves. A generous spritz of sherry vinegar and a shower of fresh herbs brightened the earthy fungi, and the crisp lavosh crackers add height, interest, and crunch.

The warm funghi salad is a masterful assemblage of roasted wild mushrooms, sherry vinegar, and fresh herbs served with crisp lavosh crackers. Photo: Kate Williams

The warm funghi salad is a masterful assemblage of roasted wild mushrooms, sherry vinegar, and fresh herbs served with crisp lavosh crackers. Photo: Kate Williams

Rounding out the menu are lettuce-based salads, a mezze spread, and an array of both plated desserts and pastries. Each of these items is visually stunning, plated with sensible, grounded artistry—avant-garde foams and bubbles have no place at these tables. The expansion has also included the addition of a fully stocked bar, so a small selection of cocktails are included on the drink menu alongside the fairly extensive wine list.

Bouli Bar’s dessert menu includes cookies sold at the Larder. Options include cashew sesame shortbread and chocolate dipped coconut macaroons. Photo: Kate Williams

Bouli Bar’s dessert menu includes cookies sold at the Larder. Options include cashew sesame shortbread and chocolate dipped coconut macaroons. Photo: Kate Williams

Is the food great enough to overcome the uncomfortable inconsistency in service? Of course, high-end fine-dining restaurants have a level of expected decorum to uphold, but given that Bouli Bar is an open-air semi-casual lunch spot in a high-traffic tourist area, they should expect a wide range of clientele and serve to each equally. It’s hard to fully endorse a restaurant that seems to care more for their customers with bottomless pocketbooks than those who simply want to splurge on a fancy, well-made pizza or mezze plate.

Information:

Bouli Bar
Address: Map
1 Ferry Building Marketplace
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: (415) 399-1155
Facebook: Bouli Bar
Twitter: @bouletteslarder

Related

Explore: , , ,

Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, restaurants, bars, cafes, reviews

About the Author ()

Kate Williams grew up outside of Atlanta, where twenty-pound baskets of peaches were an end-of-summer tradition. After spending time in Boston developing recipes for America's Test Kitchen and pretending to be a New Englander, she moved to sunny Berkeley. Here she works as a personal chef and food writer, covering topics ranging from taco trucks to modernist cookbooks. In addition to KQED's Bay Area Bites, Kate's work appears on Serious Eats, Berkeleyside NOSH, The Oxford American, America's Test Kitchen cookbooks, and Food52.
  • Boulange

    Kate Williams, you are such a great writer. I think you captured every thought I had about this place, it’s owners and their attitude towards only desiring to serve elitist customers. I don’t blame the servers one bit for their actions since it’s all a result of terrible service training by the Chef’s pitbull Lori. Their history with running restaurants has the same ending every time, closing down because of poor management and lack of rational judgement.