Danube is one of the best new restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. When I heard several years ago, at the time the buzz began, that David Bouley was going to open an Austrian restaurant in TriBeCa, my interest was piqued. Twenty years ago, when he cooked uptown at Vienna 79, I had thought the food there was great. Since then, although I’ve always admired his cooking, I have found his restaurants a bit forbidding and certainly not particularly romantic, neither in terms of the cuisine nor the atmosphere. The other night, however, I was bowled over. I arrived for dinner after a screening in Brooklyn of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula , and still I was totally unprepared for Mr. Bouley’s take on the turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian Empire. Danube is set inside an old industrial building on a dark corner downtown, but it has the cozy sumptuousness of Café des Artistes. You immediately warm to the place when you sit down.
Except, on that first night I ate there, for the music. In Brooklyn, Dracula had been shown on a big screen with a pulsing live score from Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet. Now we were treated to a hectic stream of piped-in Viennese waltzes, and this pushed my companion, who was hungry and irascible and has highly evolved musical taste, over the edge. He summoned the maître d’. “This music is a little tacky, don’t you think?”
It was the one off note in an otherwise perfect setting. They turned it down, and the next time I ate there I was pleased to see that it had been turned off altogether.
You enter Danube through a small glowing bar with a shiny, curved pink ceiling. The triangle-shaped dining room beyond is also small and intimate, done up in gold and ebony, with painted ebony paneling, violet ultrasuede banquettes, fringed lampshades, glittering mosaics and paintings in the style of Klimt, shaped like triangles. Created in collaboration with Parisian designer Jacques Garcia and New York architect Kevin White, it is voluptuous and fittingly fin de siècle in what is, after all, an 1890′s building.
“I’ve never been so lost in a wine list,” said my husband. We came with a couple who were drinking glasses of a delicious Austrian house wine, a gruner veltspieler from Prager. The sommelier, Alexander Adlgasser, is from Salzburg and has put together a vast list of over 135 Austrian wines. If you thought Austrian wine was just white and slighty pétillant , go to Danube and think again. In recent years, there has been a revolution in Austrian winemaking, with many new small winemakers producing wines of exceptional quality, and you will find them on this list. One of my friends is half-Austrian, and a lengthy conversation in German with Mr. Adlgasser ensued. We put ourselves in the sommelier’s hands, and the wines we selected–including new reds–were impressive.
The waiter set down a plate of amuse-bouches : warm striped bass on pickled cabbage, tomato water mousse on heirloom tomato gazpacho, and sardine with sage in a little potato chip. The bread was as superior as you would expect from the proprietor of Bouley Bakery next door, and the selection included particularly good braided poppyseed rolls and chewy pretzels.
The food at Danube isn’t what most people think of as Austrian, although Bouley developed the menu with Salzburg native and executive chef Mario Lohninger and spent time with Hans Haas in his two-Michelin-star restaurant Tantris in Munich. It’s lighter, while embracing the tastes and textures of Austrian cooking–the slow braised meats, the dumplings, pancakes, red cabbage and seasonings such as horseradish, pumpkin-seed oil, elderflower and paprika–and taking them to another level. It’s brilliant in its conceit, and daring, too.
A terrine of sweet roasted beets is inlaid with a pink stripe of fromage blanc sharpened with horseradish and served with a toasted pumpkin-seed dressing and looks as though it’s made from semiprecious stones. A “waltz” of salads is a heady combination of seared foie gras with apple and rosemary, arugula with wild mushrooms, and crisp shrimp rolled in sesame seeds. “Schlutzkrapfen,” high-altitude Austrian cheese ravioli, delicate and buttery, are sublime, served with corn and smoked chanterelles. Authentic Austrian cooking? Who cares?
Not the people tucking into the “Gröstl” of pristine fresh Maine lobster brilliantly matched with a red wine sauce and roasted foie gras, the richness cut by Yukon gold potato. Or the people cleaning plates of rare venison with red cabbage and butternut squash ravioli.
Who are these people? Not downtowners, unless Wall Street is downtown. “Bonus babies,” said one companion, taking in the dark suits doffed about the room.
He was eating as good a piece of boiled beef, “Kavalierspitz,” as I’ve ever tasted. It’s not a rustic dish as Bouley interprets it: It’s an elegant square of silken meat, served with quince and apple horseradish sauce. The braised beef cheeks with spätzle are equally extraordinary, and the dumplings with it taste as light as gossamer. Even the Wiener schnitzel is a knockout, greaseless triangles with potato purée, a spicy wine sauce and pistachio oil.
Mr. Bouley loves horseradish, and it successfully transformed a rather mushy piece of cod served with a julienne of turnips.
“It isn’t the sort of Austrian food we had when I was growing up,” commented the half-Austrian friend who had finished every morsel of boiled beef on his plate. “But it’s more Austrian than Tabla is Indian.”
With dessert, Mr. Adlgasser brought us glasses of beerenauslese made from late-harvest grapes. The wine was deliciously sweet, cool and decadent. You couldn’t improve on it with the sensational desserts, which included elderflower soup with elderflower sorbet, and “Topfenpalatschinken,” Hungarian pancakes, filled with warm wild huckleberries, which were part of a “waltz of quark desserts” with farmer’s cheese dumplings and sauerrahm ice with poached quince. Poppyseed cake comes with vanilla and lemon thyme crème brûlée and a deep, bitter chocolate tart with crunchy caramelized banana. The Austrian chocolate nut soufflé doesn’t disappoint, either, with pears and an intriguing white coffee ice cream.
Service at Danube is friendly and knowledgeable. The waiters seem to care about the food and want you to love it, too. Dinner will cost around $100 a head, with wines from the lower end of the impressive, but expensive, list. At $35 for three courses, lunch is the deal at Danube.
* * * *
30 Hudson Street, at Duane Street
Noise level: Low
Wine list: Excellent, with a fine
Selection of Austrian wines
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Complete lunch $35, dinner main courses $28 to $35
Lunch: Monday to Saturday 11:30 A.M. to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Sunday 5:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M.
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor