Daniel Boulud Goes ‘Downtown’ at Vibrant Midtown Bistro

“Clearly, the French love Americans much more than they’ll admit,” said my Irish companion. “The evidence is on this plate.”

He was eating a wedge of cod, its skin seared to a crisp, that sat on a bed of corn kernels in a custardy sauce, encircled with a stencil of balsamic vinaigrette. “This is the best creamed corn I’ve ever had in my life,” my friend said.

And Frenchmen used to sneer at Americans for eating corn. Food for cows!

We were having lunch at DB, Daniel Boulud’s new bistro in midtown’s City Club Hotel. Like a fashion designer with different lines, Boulud now has three tiers of restaurants to his name: Daniel, with its classic haute cuisine and expensive price tag, is the couture; Café Boulud, an Upper East Side neighborhood place, is for more casual wear; DB is the hipper version, pared down and laid-back, wearing its initials like a logo.

At lunch, the restaurant’s front room is filled with sleek, well-dressed women picking their way through small crab and asparagus or Niçoise salads, their Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags tucked under the table next to their Jimmy Choos. “I think it’s great,” said my friend as he looked around the room. “It gives them an opportunity to get off Madison Avenue and into the side streets. After all, this is a safe neighborhood.”

DB is a vibrant, energetic restaurant with a friendly, attractive staff. It is divided into two dining rooms. The one near the entrance has a festive ambiance, its plaster walls rubbed with lipstick-red paint and hung with photographs of red and yellow tulips, and black-edged mirrors tilted over olive velour banquettes. Adding to the casual feel, the polished veneer tables are laid without cloths, and the gray leather chairs have short legs, like those in Harry’s Bar, so that you feel like a basketball player as you rise. The back dining room, connected by a vestibule set with a couple of high communal tables and a wall of wine bottles, is more businesslike and a little quieter, with pale gray-blue glass walls and mirrors and paper place mats set over linen cloths. Bistro or not, no attention has been spared in the restaurant’s details, from the oversize dinner napkins wrapped with twine to the Bernardaud china and Christofle silver.

But Mr. Boulud is having fun with this place. There’s even a hamburger on the menu–albeit one made with short ribs braised in red wine, taken off the bone and shaped into a thick patty and tucked inside a Parmesan roll. Instead of French fries, pommes soufflés are served in a paper-lined silver container. The mustard and ketchup don’t come in squirt bottles, but in little hand-painted porcelain jars. Not your average bistro burger in any way, it’s priced at $26 at lunch; add another buck for dinner. (Even “21″ only dares to charge $24 at lunch, adding two dollars for dinner.)

DB’s menu is short. At dinner, it’s divided by ingredient, such as “Tomate,” “Asperge” or “Volaille,” with both appetizers and main courses listed beneath. It’s a little confusing at first. Mr. Boulud takes deceptively simple bistro dishes to another level. Sometimes he puts together such seemingly incongruous ingredients that you marvel at his imagination. Salmon carpaccio is served with a mound of smoked eggplant caviar, garnished with radishes and celery and encircled by a bright green rim of lovage oil. It’s not only visually stunning (as are many of his dishes), but the tastes all complement each other. He serves tuna tartare with sweetbreads, and boeuf en gelée with foie gras and horseradish–in a martini glass. A tomato gazpacho is made with a perfect balance of diced vegetables flavored with cilantro and studded with avocado and smoked shrimp.

The argument over whether a classic salade Niçoise is made with fresh or canned fish isn’t settled at DB. Boulud makes his version ” thon cru-cuit ” with two preparations, one seared rare and sliced, the other a confit baked under olive oil. The confit is wonderful; you’ll never want canned again–even if purists insist it’s authentic. The salad is garnished with silvery fresh anchovy fillets, house-cured in vinegar, and hard-boiled eggs with beautiful deep yellow-orange yolks, making this one of the best Niçoise salads I’ve tasted.

Maryland crab and asparagus salad is exactly what it says and just what the ladies who lunch want. (It’s a shame that they wave away the bread tray–they’re missing a sensational whole-wheat peasant bread.) The pristine crabmeat is spooned onto a bed of lightly dressed greens and topped with spears of asparagus. What more could you ask for?

At dinner, an open ravioli is filled with chunks of lobster, peas and morels and served floating in a frothed sauce made with lobster broth, mushrooms and cream. “That fellow from El Bulli again,” said my companion, referring to Spanish chef Ferran Adria, the mad scientist of the kitchen who has inspired chefs all over the world to froth away with a hand-held blender. The sauce is extraordinary, with an intense mushroom flavor. Mr. Boulud serves daily bistro specials, such as pork breast with truffled lentils (Monday), frogs’ legs (Thursday) and bouillabaisse (Friday). On Tuesday, it’s confit de canard, which is moist and silken under a fine crispy exterior, served with sautéed garlic potatoes.

Desserts are also listed under ingredients–strawberries, cherries and chocolate. The tarte du jour, apricot with a cherry compote and whipped crème fraîche, is flawless. So is the cherry and blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. In place of the traditional cherries, clafoutis is made with chocolate. It’s really just a fallen chocolate cake, nicely gooey in the center, served with blueberries and vanilla ice cream. The chocolate praline cake is not memorable, but the accompanying caramel ice cream nestled in a tuile is stellar. There’s also a peach melba made with fresh peaches, not canned (as we used to get when I was growing up).

The food at DB is as stylish as the setting. If Mr. Boulud can make a hamburger taste this good, I’d like to see what he does with a hot dog, now that Nathan’s has been obliterated from nearby Times Square.

DB BISTRO MODERNE

* *

55 West 44th Street

391-2400

Dress: Business or Madison Avenue chic

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Interesting, reasonably priced, wide-ranging choices, mostly French and American

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch, $22 to $26; dinner, $23 to $29

Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor