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The Empire Strikes Back

A touch of alchemy lifts the weighty Austro-Hungarian cooking at Danube, David Bouley's velvet-swathed restaurant in TriBeCa.


David Bouley is cooking Wiener schnitzel. The grand master of the ethereal is slapping bread crumbs on small rectangles of veal and frying them. Yes, I mean Wiener schnitzel. Nostradamus was right. This is the end of the world as we passionate gourmands know it. The priest of purity, avatar of the organic, that same David Bouley famous for rutting about in pure pastures demanding boutique roots and sprouts has suddenly become an outright contrarian. We have been waiting for the new and better Bouley since he retired his vaunted restaurant on Duane Park.

Instead, he served up first the Bouley Bakery and now waltzes and Wiener schnitzel in the beautiful, boldly retro Danube, bustled in striated velvet and baubled like a Hapsburg princess. Let all the other chefs of New York -- the masters, the journeymen, the contenders and pretenders -- market their Contemporary Americana, Progressive American Cooking, New World Cuisine, Global Table. Bouley has been rolling in cobwebs, exploring dusty tomes of history, high on the fumes of paprika, fixated not just on Vienna -- whose food he came to love in the kitchen of the long-ago Vienna 79 -- but on all of Mitteleuropa, part of the empire that once skirted the Danube. Everyone else is stuffing foie gras in a peach or floating Moroccan-spiced sea bass on Peruvian seviche. But Bouley is playing with turnip and kohlrabi, pickling cabbage, whisking up airy palatschinke, the classic Hungarian pancake -- brilliantly wrestling a weighty heritage into manna for modern appetites.

As always, there's a crowd pawing the carpet of Danube's lounge at 9 p.m. one Thursday, waiting in various stages of misery for early birds to vacate their tables. It's a savvy first-nighter crowd, trying not to appear too anxious but ready to pounce should a later arrival get ushered in first. At last, we are led to the back wall of the narrow, oddly asymmetric, flatiron-shaped space. "Is this the main room?" one of my guests asks, not normally a candidate for Siberia yet not secure enough not to ask. A few minutes later, I hear the same query from a Wall Street voluptuary across the way.

Yes, this is it, inspired by Jacques Garcia's ancien régime décor of Hôtel Costes in Paris. Venetian stucco, gold-veined and polished to a lustrous sheen, glowing iron columns, painted ebony paneling, ultrasuede banquettes, bouffant velvet at the windows, dramatic faux mosaics, and huge Klimt paintings that would be worth millions if they were real. (Clearly, Bouley picked up at least one trick from his partner Warner LeRoy before their rancorous, litigious schism. LeRoy employs a genius who paints charming Chagalls and Kandinskys.) Danube is quite silly and totally wonderful. Starched tablecloths and silver bells atop the butter.

Walter, the maître d', can't stop smiling. The sommelier is so proud of his Blaufrankisch from Sudburgenland and the more powerful Zweigelt from Mittelburgenland -- both agreeable partners to this food -- that he insists on pouring a taste of Beerenauslese (Austria's cuvée of frost-sweetened grapes) with dessert. There seems to be one staff member on hand for every patron. Lyle Lovett and his nymphet companion get no more fawning than any Wall Street pup here tonight. Nothing I taste in four visits is less than good (even the bass and the wild salmon I find too cooked). And tonight's triumphs, caviar-heaped scallops and shrimp on a thin purée of leaf spinach, the barely jelled char glazed with red-wine sauce, and the meltingly rich beef cheeks with delicate chive spaetzle provoke uncontrollable sighs of pleasure at our table.

The four of us sharing à la carte (entrées $28 to $33) will spend $380, wines included, and sample nearly as many dishes as anyone investing in the $80 tasting. Even the $35 lunch begins with not one but three amuses-bouche, each on its own square plate: warm bass on pickled cabbage, tomato-water mousse on heirloom-tomato gazpacho, and a sardine with a sage-leaf coverlet belted onto a potato (like a patient on a stretcher) and deep-fried. And, bargain that it is, the meal climaxes with a goblet of elderberry sorbet in elderflower soup with bits of peach or quince as a prelude to dessert.

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