So Blue New York City Entry #69
Walking into David Bouley's Austrian restaurant, Danube, is a joke. One faces an azure wall: Blue Danube.
Situated at the crossroads of Bouleywood - near Upstairs, the Bakery and Market, and the scarlet mother church - Danube is surely among the most glittering and compelling restaurant spaces in Manhattan. One has a disconcerting sense that the space sells, not the dishes. The webpage begins, "Danube restaurant, which received the number one ranking for decor in the Zagat Survey of New York City Restaurants, was created by Chef David Bouley in collaboration with Parisian designer Jacques Garcia and New York architect Kevin White." Well, first things first. Bouley's Chef de Cuisine, Mario Lohniger, is not mentioned. Lohniger is the potted plant hid by Fin de Siecle Art Nouveau wallpaper, curtains, and furniture.
Having recently had a fine meal at Kurt Gutenbrunner's Wallsé, the pair beg for comparison. Gutenbrunner expands from the core of Austrian cooking tradition. He strives for a New Austrian cuisine. On the basis of nine courses on the Danube's Seasonal Menu, an Austrian influence was only lightly felt. To be sure, Danube also offers an "Austrian menu" (two dishes of which appeared on the seasonal tasting menu), and these dishes sound more mittel European. However, in contrast to Wallsé, Danube is more subtle; its aspirations are higher (with a modestly higher price point). Danube's are busier, filled with touches and curlicues, crowded with ingredients. Perhaps the dishes are only slightly more memorable at Danube, but they were certainly intended to be. Service was more refined with more staff than strictly needed. At Danube one doesn't get to know one's waiter. Service is a team sport.
Dining with my wife, I thought that I would be clever. She ordered the Tasting Menu, and I ordered the Chef's Seasonal Degustation Menu ("available upon request"). This suggested that the chef's inspiration would be based on Greenmarket availability. I could see his mental synapses firing. Instead, the degustation was a longer version of the tasting menu with a few dishes cribbed from other menus. I should have asked, or, better yet, been told.
The Amuse Bouche started in Bouley fashion with a smash of flavor: a bit of fresh salmon, a touch of creme fraiche, a fleck of pickled cucumber, and a dab of grainy mustard. With these ingredients, I checked to see that I wasn't at Aquavit, but no, this compelling bite had the deep tastes that Chef Bouley favors.
I began with a signature dish, "Freshly Harpooned Sashimi Quality Bluefin Tuna and Hamachi with Key Lime Pickled Onion with Organic Roasted Beets and Horseradish Fromage Blanc." As beautiful as this dish appeared on the plate, it improved in the mouth. It gathered big tastes, and demonstrated that they could work in harmony. I prized the exquisite beets and horseradish baton. The composition with the tuna and hamachi was irresistible. If it was not notable Germanic, it was sublime.
Next arrived "Pan Seared Diver Sea Scallop and New England Crabmeat with a Paradeiser Coriander and Lemon Thyme Sauce." Paradeiser is Austrian, it is true, but the tastes would only be known to diners in Wien. It is not part of the imagined Austrian flavor profile. The sauce, Viennese or not, was remarkable. The scallop was ordinary, but the lush and spring-like Paradeiser worked magic. Thyme waits for no man.
"Gently Heated Wild King Salmon with Stryrian "Wruzelgemüse" (Zucchini, Yellow Squash and Chives), Apple Rosemary Purée and Horseradish-Chive Sauce" was less stirring, in part because of the aftertaste of horseradish from the first dish. Here the horseradish was combined with the mild salmon, and was overwhelming. This small dish had too many flavors in play, leaving a mush confederation.
The least satisfactory dish of the night was "Maine Day Boat Lobster with Salted Spinach, Mango, Saffron Curry Broth, Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms, and Coconut Foam. Just the ingredients suggest the problem. Chef Bouley doesn't believe in the cuisine of essences; at his most naughty, he proffers a hectic cuisine. The dish most notably failed as a textural composition. I found the both shimeji mushrooms and the foam slimy. Add an embarrassing, if excusable, bit of shell, demonstrating the authenticity of the lobster. This dish could best be admired from afar.
My fifth dish was recruited from the Austrian menu, "Carinthia ‘Schlutzkrapfen' High Altitude Austrian Cheese Ravioli with Harvest Corn Foam, Maitake Mushrooms, Spinach, and Pumpkin Seeds." Given that Schlutzkrapfen is German ravioli, this high-falutin' label explains that I was served Carinthian High Altitude Ravioli Ravioli. Had my server a stronger command of English I might have inquired about the relative advantages of high and low altitude ravioli, but that query must wait. Here Bouley's mash was a happy one. I particularly admired the addition of the meaty Maitake Mushrooms and the corn sauce, melding definitively with the cheese pasta.
The meat plate, "Roasted Rack of Colorado Lamb with Organic Barley, Glazed Asparagus, Roasted Cippolini Onion and Fresh Tarragon Lamb Sauce," was a work of art. As with the scallop, the sauce was magnificent. Chef Bouley is a budding herbalist. The tarragon jus proved to be one of the strongest accompaniments to a rack of lamb in my memory. This dish triumphed because the center and periphery belonged together, not as strangers in the night. One expected that a restaurant like Danube would serve tender Lamb, but the tender barley was an inspiration.
As a palate cleanser I was served "Elderflower Gelée with Lemon Verbena Sorbet with Blood Orange Slices." The dish was a sourpuss. If it was not striking, it effectively scrubbed one's tongue. I was unimpressed with the sorbet, which had an off-texture. Perhaps it soaked up some of the gelatinous elderflowers, but it lacked the gracious smoothness of the best sorbet.
My two desserts were represented Danube at its most and least triumphant (I find no indicator of the identity of our pastry chef). Tahitian Vanilla Parfait with Pumpkin Seed Oil, Poached Seckel Pear and Pomegranate Seeds was attractive, but not appealing. The marshmallow-like burnt caramel topping was salty and stringy, the ice cream was more heavily frozen than optimal, and - perhaps from the pumpkin seed oil - I noticed an off-bitter taste.
In contrast the Crispy Caramel Strudel with Bartlett Pears, Aged Balsamic and Moscato D'Asti Ice Cream was a pleasure. The strudel was Austrian mille-feuille to which the sweet old vinegar brought an electric jolt. This ice cream was as dreamy as the vanilla ice cream had been lumpen. I will not soon forget the combination.
Despite the frequently exceptional food, it is hard not to feel that Danube is a conceit. A strutting peacock restaurant makes diners forget that designers and architects stand behind chefs, not before them. Not every restauranteur needs a Calatrava. Certainly a stunning decor contributes to feeling repose or amazement, but one should be wowed by the plates. This night, sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Yet, when I reread my report of an earlier meal at Bouley, I realize that I now rhapsodize about that meal more than my text might suggest. Some meals rise in recall, others fade. Perhaps a sense of occasion matters more than we might imagine. We chew the scenery. Could Shoeless Joe's adage be true: Build it and we will come.
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