I've long had difficulties placing meals at Bouley's restaurants in perspective, because I believe that he (together with Dan Barber, who once worked with him, and Mike Anthony at Blue Hill) offers the cuisine that in North America tends to resonate most with my preferences when it is in form.
Yet, I found that neither the current Bouley nor the former Bouley Bakery was as arresting as the old Duane St Bouley. And I could never extract, as an unknown diner, meals from any of Bouley's restaurants that approached those obtainable when I visited with regular diners there.
So, with some sense of anticipation after a few impressive (by North American standards) meals there in recent months, I chose to devote my X'Mas eve dinner to Danube. By the way, I've believed for numerous months now that Danube is the stronger of the two present Bouley venues (and the venue that has a more nuanced cuisine). I've also felt conflicted about the Bouley restaurant because (a) I find his tendency there to incoporate mango, pineapple, passionfruit and similar flavors into some savory dishes at Bouley is unhelpful, and (b) as much as I have liked Bouley's cuisine over time, I believe certain European restaurants are much more lyrical.
But enough by way of introduction. I arrived at Danube at 9pm, and was immediately seated at the small cramped table to the left of the entryway into the main dining room. This table must have been among the worst in the restaurant, for foot traffic was heavy to my right and small drafts (query from what source) swirled around my legs noticeably from time to time.
But more problematically, except for Chef Bouley (who was at Danube on the evening in question, given the departure of Chef Lohninger, and came by to discuss the meal) and a dining room team member called Alejandro, the dining room team's service was poor. The service level was so poor as to have had a signifciant effect on the meal, even for a diner who generally focuses on cuisine quality. As other members have noted, there were literally no dish descriptions upon the arrival of the dishes at the table. The dining room team appeared under-staffed, and not particularly polished. (Note the dining room team appeared, on other occasions I have visited Danube, gracious to regular customers)
With respect to cuisine, I do not believe I could have done much better in the United States, and had a very good meal by North American standards. There is something special about Chef Bouley's cuisine that is difficult to articulate, and I am grateful there are cuisines like his in North America. They are little points of sustenance in a culinary landscape in North America that is rather harsh for me :0
The amuse was good. A small cube of dense (appealing) house-smoked salmon with some creme fraiche and cured cucumber.
(1) Waltz of appetizers -- Wild salmon Gravlox Rosti with micro green salad, foie gras terrine with crisp porcini, Japanese yellowtail with wasabi tobiko, crisp Portuguese sardine
This was appropriate. The salmon rosti creation resembled a latkes-type meshed cake, with a salmon disc on top.
The hamachi tartare was presented in a little cup, with some crunchy green-colored tobiko on top. Wasabi tobiko seems to be increasingly utilized by this level of restaurant in the US (e.g., inclusion in the caviar staircase at Tru, see Chicago board), and I have yet to see the merits of the ingredient. Nonetheless, the hamachi tasted appropriate, and the medium-consistency, soy-based saucing for the fish was also appropriate.
The foie lodged between the porcini crips was a bit "mushy" for my tastes, but the crisps were interesting, in that they resembled certain dried ham in texture and arguably in general taste profile. Almost a small sandwich that was placed upright on the plate.
The crisp Porteguese sardine was integrated into a thin fried potato slice. The sardine was appropriate, but there should have been slightly less time between the frying of this item and its presentation to the diner.
(2) Seared wild sturgeon with Austrian crescent potato, leaf spinach, Belvedere vodka, and Oscetra caviar
This dish was very good. The sturgeon was delicious, and had a nice texture slightly reminiscent of that of monkfish (some muscularity). The cooking level was just right, and I liked the gentle approach to the cooking. The temperature of the fish was slightly above room temperature.
An evocative spinach sauce that brought to mind a thin puree. A sauce with body and expressiveness, with little, slightly acidic bits of crescent potato that just popped up here and there. I've liked many of Bouley's vegetable-based sauces, but this one was particularly good. I also liked that the oscetra was generously included in the dish, but it was not at all dominant -- whispering its characteristics into the dish.
(3) Maine Day boat lobster with roasted sweet organic beet fettucini and baby turnips cooked in Tahitian vanilla
This supple, flavorful lobster dish is among the best Maine lobster-based dishes I have sampled in recent years (and more to my liking than, for example, certain of T Keller's butter-poached lobster dishes), although I couldn't make the same statement when Brittany lobster are taken into account. The lobster had, appropriately, a very small, but delicately-fleshed, body. There were about three curled torsoes comprising this dish. The timing of the cuisson was just right. The temperature of the lobster flesh was just slightly above room temperature.
And strangely, the beet fettucini worked with the lobster as well. Even the sprig of chervil on top seemed to be helpful.
The turnip adjacent to the lobster had been cooked until it was softened, and it delivered vanilla flavors appropriately. Since sampling Senderens' lobster with vanilla signature dish (which utilizes "Bourbon de Madagascar" vanilla and Brittany lobsters), I've been somewhat interested in lobster and vanilla combinations. At Danube, I liked that the lobster flesh itself was not inundated with vanilla -- that the vanilla was lodged more in the little button of turnip.
(4) Port wine glazed venison and brussel sprouts, braised salzburger red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms
The venison was overcooked, and might have been no more rare than medium rare, despite my request for a rare cooking level. The port wine glaze was quite noticeable (in a neutral way), and was not unduly sweet.
The accompaniments in this dish worked surprisingly well. Choucroute-like, cooked down juliennes of red cabbage conveyed a sort of pickled, cured varient of acidity that was an appropriate contrast against the slight sweetness in the glaze for the venison. I liked the jolt of golden butterscotch sensations delivered by a single soft chestnut and its saucing. Unexpected, and complementary to the venison.
The utilization of two purees resembling one another -- one celeryroot and the other potato -- was likely unnecessary. As was usual during the meal, there was no explanation of either of the purees, although the wonderful Bouley potato puree is rather recognizable :) I considered the potato puree a better choice for the venison in this dish anyhow.
The general temperature of the progression of dishes I chose was somewhat less warm than I would have anticipated in some cases, but I appreciate that, for each dish, the temperature was not inappropriate. For the venison, though, the temperature could have been slightly warmer. The uniformity in general temperature level was partly a function of the particular dishes I chose, but it could have been better taken into account by the restaurant.
(5) Pear soup with tangerine an elderflower sorbet
This was alright. I found the tangerine redundant. The elderflower was a delicate match for the pear soup, which was appropriate and refreshing. I also liked the echoing of the elderflower component in the house champagne cocktail.
(6) Pineapple sorbet with anis marshmallow, candied violets and pernod
This was an appropriately-executed dessert, although I didn't take in much of it and generally have almost been avoiding desserts in North America of late. There were several "cross-sections" of a large log-like pineapple sorbet construction. Along the outside of the sections were the marshmallow components. Nice touch that pomegranate seeds were included with the pineapple small pieces that were included in the pineapple saucing for the dessert. Perhaps a tropical, distant relative of the X'Mas log?
I began the meal with champagne that had a gentle, lingering elderflower enhancement. Nice slight frothiness to the top of the creation, although I generally prefer champagne without flavoring and without frothy additions. But I liked this Danube creation.
I ordered a bottle of Au Bon Climat '01, a glass of Austrian red for the venison (nice smokiness to the wine) and a glass of '81 Oremus Tokaji, 6 Puttonyos (spelling). The last item was, appropriately, not as dense in the mouth as some 6 Tokajis I have previously sampled; nice developed apricot, evolved flavors in the dessert wine and well-priced (for what it was) at $18. The price of the X'Mas Eve tasting menu was very reasonable for the level of cuisine, at $95.
Overall, a very good meal that could have been supported by stronger dining room team assistance.