There is something both attractive and repellant about the longer running fine restaurants of New York. On the one hand if they have had a run longer than five years in this fickle town they must be doing or have done something right. On the other hand things that sell well around here are often assimilated so quickly into the mainstream that the luster of a new and creative idea can be dulled prior to sampling the original, robbing it of the special-ness that sets it as desirable in the first place. But from experience at places like Gotham, Chanterelle, and Jean-Georges, those that are truly special settle into a confidence, even after their techniques and ideas have diluted in the pools of American dining, that makes for enjoyable meal.
With all this in mind Bodhi, Zaphod, Pharyngula, Normal, Gastrula and I dropped by Danube to finally try David Bouley’s now classic (seven or so years since the Times review) modern Austrian restaurant.
For the couple of years before Danube opened a lot was made in the press of Chef Bouley’s vision for the restaurant and its cost. I’ve heard it described with words from funky to posh. Having seen it for the first time ten years after first reading tales of its intended splendor, I can say it definitely walks just on the safe side of the line between beautiful and ridiculous but all in all is truly impressive, amazing actually.
You enter the narrow end of a graduated space into a room that contains the entrance door, another door and the coat closet. Through the door on the left is a room that is opulent, shimmering, dark, rich and luxurious with inlaid polished stone swirling around a bar with maroon crushed velvet seats with dangling satin tassels. Next is the obligatory blue space (which I guess I would describe as azure) a place called Danube would have. This area moves into a dining room with glinting gold Klimt reproductions under ever- widening vaulted ceilings. As I describe it the place sounds as tacky as some of Michael Jackson’s wardrobe choices, but as experienced it is as regal in ornamentation as the more tasteful of the dress military uniforms he apes.
Once seated we were offered a menu divided into four parts: Austrian (appetizers and entrées), Modern Eclectic (appetizers and entrées), Market (appetizers, entrées, and a dessert), and a tasting menu consisting of about 75% of the menu grouped into courses with multiple selections.
We decided to go à la carte, and it went a little something like this.
Modern Eclectic: Diver Sea Scallop and New England Crabmeat with Paradeiser, Coriander and Fresh Lemon Thyme Sauce. The sauce was zippy with acidity lightening strong pungent flavors of paprika, pimento, and coriander. While quite nice, it overpowered the scallop and completely obliterated the crabmeat and may have been better suited to an oily fish (I imagine it could stand up well to the likes of an Atlantic Blue). The scallops were hard seared on the outside, leaving the moist translucent bite of rare flesh on the inside; a solid execution.
Austrian: Wild Striped Bass, with Parsley Puree, White Onions and a Lambrusco Foam. Pan roasted slices of a bass fillet resting on a pile of sweated shaved onion in a pool of thick green puree with cleansing chlorophyll flavors and a lemon aspect are topped with fried parsley leaves, large gauge red caviar, and dried cherry tomato slices awash in a lightly acidic Lambrusco foam which I had expected to be red when I ordered. Everything well prepared again, the dish was most pleasing for the play between extremes of the briny pop of the caviar and the lightness of the foam, with the rich fish, sweet onions and astringent parsley accenting them from the middle of this flavor spectrum.
Pre-Dessert: Elderflower sorbet on grapefruit gelée with grapefruit sections. Strangely it tasted o f pear, although the server assured me it was just the two flavors, the elderflower lingering on the palate extending the aromas as if they had been an atomized aromatherapy exercise.
I loved the wine list. An Austrian focus rounded out with popular offerings from elsewhere, I went with a pleasantly tart Chard/Pinot sparkler called Klimt as aperitif. With the first course foie was served others while I got my scallops and I don’t suspect many wines would have been as accommodating to such divergent flavor profiles as the ’05 Rudy Pichler Smargd Gruner-Veltliner, crisply acidic with aromas of orchard fruit. Although I did not expect the new oak and deep extraction of in the ’03 Paul Achs Pinot Noir, it was still light enough to pair with my fish while having enough round red fruit on the palate to go with my companions’ duck and lamb.
The general experience at Danube was one of competence at a fine level. The room, the service, the wine and the food all operated on a very good to excellent plane, adding to a pleasant evening mostly by never interjecting themselves and distracting from our enjoyment of the room, the food, the wine, and the conversation.
The group I dined with was all people I know from business. We comfortably lingered over dinner for about four hours and Danube did an exceptional job of being slightly lavish, slightly fine, slightly unique but above all unobtrusive and comfortable. All aspects were commendable and could easily have become the focus of our evening but never intruded on our space at their table.
In the long run I suspect I will definitely return to Danube, but I also suspect it will be on a date with Wife. Places as good as it is at encouraging long languid enjoyment of time spent with others are few and far between these days so it would seem best suited to enjoying dining with a comfortable companion.