We have a habit in this country of transforming even the simplest culinary import (Neapolitan pizza, Cantonese egg foo yong) into a bland, bulky version of its former self. It’s rare, however, to see an American dish – apple pie, say, or the corn dog – exported elsewhere and rewired in a distinctively foreign way. But that’s exactly what Daniel Boulud has done, and the effect is a little startling. You can see it on the faces of the diners at Boulud’s latest venture, DB Bistro Moderne, as the stately “DB Burger” goes floating by. The dish is served in two fragile halves with a silver cup of pommes soufflés by its side. The meat is ground prime rib, leavened with braised short ribs, truffles, foie gras, and a hint of vegetable root. The bun is freshly baked and flecked with bits of Parmesan. Instead of ketchup, there’s tomato compote on top, along with frisée and a smear of fresh mayonnaise. Take a bite, and these elements dissolve together in rich, almost confectionary layers; the taste is like no hamburger you’ve ever had.
Of course, the DB Burger, which at $27 is one of the priciest items on the menu, isn’t really a hamburger, any more than DB is really a bistro in the old-fashioned sense. Boulud’s monument to relaxed dining occupies what used to be an old salad bar, on the north side of West 44th Street, directly across from the Royalton Hotel. The façade is covered in powdery white cement, with two draped canopies outside, like the entrance to a pasha’s tent. Diners pass through a glass door into the café-style front room, which is decorated in shades of beige and vivid, tropical red. This hectic space is separated from the main dining room by a narrow bar area, where you can perch awkwardly and admire an elegant wall display of wines covered with a kind of high-tech chicken wire. Beyond that is the dining room itself, a dimly lit sanctum filled with stoic gentlemen wearing dark suits and legions of tight-faced ladies tottering to and fro in their fashionable pointy-toed shoes.
I only gained admission to the dining room once, and that was for lunch with my mother, who happened to be wearing one of her fashionable summer hats. On my other visits to DB, I hunkered down in the café, where the waiters fly around the little tables in a blur, and the leather-covered chairs are cut so low, they sometimes put your legs to sleep. Not that this mattered in the end. The menu, executed by chef de cuisine Jean François Bruel, is the same for both rooms at DB, and its contents are generally superb. My first appetizer was a sleek, New Age version of vitello tonnato containing a disc of tuna tartare (instead of the usual wet tuna sauce) and a single crisp-fried sweetbread (instead of wet veal). Next came a dense slab of duck paté, edged with parchment in the old bistro tradition, followed by a small helping of boeuf en gelée. This potentially lumpish dish was served in a parfait glass, covered in a veil of horseradish cream. The aspic was soft, and studded with cubes of short rib and foie gras, which melted with the cream when you stirred them.
Taking a page from his trendy colleagues downtown, Boulud divides his dinner menu into mini food groups like “homard,” “légumes,” and “boeuf.” The menu doesn’t feel overcrowded, however, and the portions are decorous without being too small. King of the homard (lobster) category is a salty, almost chocolate-colored bisque with a little disk of tarragon-flavored flan buried at the bottom. There’s a cold corn soup, too, made with lobster stock and decorated with dots of lobster tomalley, and a superior bowl of gazpacho (in the “tomate” group), with slivers of poached shrimp in the middle hiding a spoonful of freshly whipped avocado. This light touch extends to a series of summery salads – a delicious salade niçoise with silvery anchovies, and a beef-and-beet salad in a grainy mustard vinaigrette for lunch – and to the dinnertime “champignon” category, where my fricassee of snails and wild mushrooms arrived with a perfectly fried quail egg balanced on top.
At this early date (the restaurant opened in June), the arrival time for entrées at DB can be glacially slow, although they’re usually worth the wait. As with the DB Burger, my peppered sirloin steak had an ethereal, almost un-beeflike quality and was nearly soft enough to cut with a fork. Boulud has imported his famous recipe for pork belly and lentils as a plat du jour (on Mondays), only this version is garnished with frizzled leeks and two curled shavings of black truffle. The Thursday plat du jour is a tasty batch of canary-size frogs’ legs, and if you manage to elbow your way into the joint on a Friday night, treat yourself to the bouillabaisse, which is as condensed and aromatic as any facsimile you’ll find west of Marseille. Among other seafood entrées, the Moroccan tuna seemed a little brawny and steaklike, although my mother made polite noises about her lunchtime lemon sole (set atop a mound of crushed potatoes, in an olive vinaigrette), and I enjoyed the roasted cod garnished with asparagus and sizzling bits of bacon.
The wine list is spare by Boulud’s standards (the list at Daniel is big as the Las Vegas phone book), but adequate enough to complement all this haute bistro food. Midtown swingers can indulge in a list of fancy cocktails, like the $12 “JFK” Manhattan (with vermouth-marinated cherries) and the Hulla Boulud (tequila, Cointreau, and prickly-pear purée). If you overindulge, there are many designer teas to choose from (my mother liked something called “Drum Mountain White Cloud”), and the desserts are models of elegance and restraint. There’s a gourmet blueberry cobbler served in a little white ramekin, and a light version of peach Melba, flecked with almonds. If you have to choose one entry in the “chocolat” category, try the praline cake, which has a smooth, shiny top, like wet marble. Or try the strawberry soup (in the “cerises” category), containing a melty spoonful of verbena parfait. Or you can forgo these items altogether, like I did on my last visit to DB, and do the honorable, American thing. You can order another burger.
DB Bistro Moderne, 55 West 44th Street (212-391-2400). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11:15 p.m., Monday to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $17; entrées, $25 to $32. All major credit cards.