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The Empire Strikes Back

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Daylight from Hudson Street makes the room even prettier, and there is -- so far, anyway -- no forced detention in the outer chamber. On a recent Friday at lunch, I decide I can no longer avoid tasting the Tyrolean wine soup with apple-smoked-trout crêpe -- the juxtaposition strikes me as weird if not inedible, but I'm wrong. The tang of turnip and pickled kohlrabi with the trout inside a duo of rolled-up crêpes makes a thrilling counterpoint to the creamy foam of milk and wine. (About that foam: It's not a new obsession, but lately it's been getting the kind of press reserved for pony-skin handbags or Al Gore's tie. I fear we'll soon be drowning in foam. At that first dinner, Danube's kitchen is foaming all over the place. By my fourth visit, I notice the sauces have almost stopped bubbling. Let's pray it's not a coincidence. An idle quirk quickly becomes a mania these days, like the inexplicable rage for candied cilantro, ribbons of basil, and bay-leaf syrup in desserts.)

Bouley is so caught up in his quest to resurrect and reinvent the Austrian Empire, he isn't embarrassed, or even ironic, about his fascination for the schnitzel. "We'll be doing all kinds of schnitzels," he confides. "Pork, of course. And guinea hen. Even sturgeon. We're changing the crumb mix every Thursday." He is standing near the bar looking bushed as we exit that first dinner, the green light of his cell phone flashing in his pocket. "Have you seen my room downstairs?" he asks. We trail after him into the then-unfinished private-party room, where he points out the precious wines. He caresses the corridor wall, with its many layers of scraped-on blue stucco. "In Venice, they do it with the back of spoons," he says. "Did you notice the ceiling upstairs? In daylight, you'll be able to see the gold veins." Every fiber of Bouley's being is enmeshed in the details.

A few nights later, keen for cod but wary of the accompanying "julienne of Styrian Wurzelgemüse," one of my guests relaxes when told that ominous-sounding phrase means nothing more than slivered vegetables. Though when the captain translates "Mohr im Hend" as "the man in the black shirt" rather than as chocolate-mousse cake, he does invoke an unfortunate image.

Still, Danube is Mitteleuropäisch but not suicidally so. There's goulash, and farmer-cheese dumplings, and dozens of fine wines that most of us have never encountered before. But I doubt they serve harvest corn with cheese ravioli in Corinthia, wherever that is. I also suspect the Viennese in the Empire never stacked baby greens anywhere near their Wiener schnitzel or roasted their game with the lighthearted brilliance that Bouley brings to his antelope. The marvelous ragout of foie gras and lobster with veal-shoulder ravioli in pea foam that arrives at our lunch table unbidden is pure vintage Bouley. (Of course, we eat every morsel.)

So far, none of the desserts comes even close to the luscious daring of that elderflower soup or the Concord-grape sorbet in plum nectar with Finger Lake grapes. My friend Cassandra marvels that each grape is peeled, prompting another guest to confess that in his sheltered childhood, the servants always peeled the grapes. I'm sure these farmer-cheese dumplings with wild Oregon huckleberries put everyday folk dumplings to shame. But neither dumplings nor the palatschinke can compare with Bouley's melting soufflés, powerful sorbets, and haunting ice creams. I am happy to see the chef's signature chocolate mouse with its silken tail is back on the bonbon tray.

David Bouley was going through the terrible twos last time I tried to deal with him. He was inexplicably rude, indeed sadistic. I must admit I hesitated to invade his new Danube without a lawyer in tow, or a bodyguard. Not that I could even book a table at a reasonable hour -- six or ten was all the reservationist offered. (I had to get a friend of the house to arrange a more reasonable nine o'clock seating.) So I am delighted to find that Bouley has settled into a charming Dr. Jekyll phase. His maniacal passion is quite disarming; I can now see why People magazine found him one of the world's 50 Most Beautiful. I like to imagine him out in the kitchen every afternoon with his second, Mario Lohninger, choreographing his kohlrabis and sizing up each new product the season delivers, "trying to bring it up to date in keeping with the way people want to eat today." I am fascinated by that chocolate rodent. "Does the mouse have a special meaning?" I ask. "Not at all," he says, heading me off at the couch. "Next week, we'll be doing a penguin."

Danube, 30 Hudson Street (212-791-3771). Lunch, 11:30 a.m. till 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, 5:30 till 11:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. A.E., M.C., V.


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