Restaurants: Hungary Heart

Leaning back in his just-delivered and grandly oversize couch, David Bouley studies a quartet of large murals inspired by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Facing him are eighteen-foot-high velour drapes the color of honey and, between them, glass panels painted in a blue-and-green wave pattern after a Klimt motif. Bouley looks like a small boy on this big sofa in the main dining room of Danube, with its dramatic forced perspective and fun-house angles dictated by the diagonal intersection of Hudson and Duane Streets. If Sigmund Freud had joined forces with Lewis Carroll to design a restaurant, young Alice might well have found herself in this surreal incarnation of fin de siècle Vienna in our own turn-of-the-century TriBeCa.

Kevin White, Danube’s architect, and Walter Krajnc, its restaurant director, set out two candlesticks and light the long, slim tapers. The ivory stucco di Venezia ceiling, polished to a marble sheen, is shot through with heretofore invisible veins of powdered gold that catch the flame. “It feels like it was lived in before,” says Bouley, betraying some emotion as we sit down to his first meal in this room. “Like maybe a Hapsburg prince lived here and threw wild parties and elegant dinners and then we got to move in. Hard to believe it was a funky old dry cleaner and a florist.”

From the day he opened his namesake restaurant in 1987 to the day he shuttered it in 1996, David Bouley was arguably the No. 1 chef-restaurateur in New York. Since then, he has kept the culinary flame burning in the more casual Bouley Bakery, a block from his old stove. But now, as the next step in a much-anticipated, much-delayed multi-restaurant master plan that also includes a cooking school and a retail operation, he is about to open the doors at Danube, his passionate and sensual homage to the food and culture of Mitteleuropa, whose cuisine Bouley first encountered as a rising gastronomic star at Vienna Park on East 60th Street in the early eighties.

Although French by parentage and training (he has worked in the kitchens of Roger Vergé, Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, and Fredy Girardet), Bouley was attracted by the challenge of trying to reintroduce and reinvent the cuisine of the Hapsburg Empire for his modern New York clientele. From the Tyrol to Bavaria, from the Ukraine to the border of Turkey, from the shores of the Black Sea, along the course of the Danube, through the fertile plains of Hungary, and into the cosmopolitan heartland between Vienna and Budapest, it is a region whose cultural heritage – Slavic, Germanic, Italian, Greek – is shared by millions of New Yorkers. Yet it is probably safe to say that it’s been two decades since any of them enjoyed their native cuisine in a top-flight Manhattan restaurant. From the demise of the old Yorkville oompah restaurants in the early seventies, and through the New American dining revolution of the eighties and nineties, this half of the European dining heritage has been off the local gourmet radar screen.

With its reliance on fruits – particularly berries – garden vegetables, and vinegars to brighten the taste of food (rather than wine-, cream-, and butter-based sauces), the cuisine that Bouley has been seeking out can be surprisingly light, as he discovered during the past two years of tasting and cooking. Twice, chef Norbert Niederkofler has come to New York from his Tyrolean restaurant, Rosa Alpina, to work alongside Bouley and Mario Lohninger (the 26-year-old whom Bouley accurately and generously describes as his chief “cooking chef”) as they devised a menu. A trip in early July to work with Hans Haas at Munich’s Tantris (two Michelin stars) helped crystallize Bouley and Lohninger’s approach.

“In France 250 years ago, the great houses had a cuisine based on the fresh ingredients of the countryside and prepared by huge kitchen teams with unlimited space and time to prepare food,” Bouley says. “When the French Revolution did away with the nobility, all those chefs found themselves out of work. Subsequently, pioneers like Carême opened the first modern restaurants. They didn’t have the huge staffs, the space, or the time to prepare food slowly so that it developed its fullest flavor. More and more, they began to rely on dairy fats in particular to bolster flavor in heavy sauces. Maybe because Middle Europe did not have this kind of revolution, the country-based cuisine of the upper classes never had to reconfigure itself for city restaurants with à la minute menus. And even as restaurants grew there in the last two centuries, you still found a lot of slow, long cooking – slow braising and roasting, and long smoking, all of which bring out flavor without heaviness.”

A first tasting from the work-in-progress menu just hints at the range of new flavors, textures, and combinations that Bouley fans will begin to experience: a creamy beet-horseradish terrine with an escabeche of catfish, crisped rouget fillets on top of a gazpacho of summer tomatoes, seared foie gras with salty braised red cabbage and caramelized apples, silky calf’s head with pumpkin-seed oil, eggless potato-flour ravioli filled with braised veal shank and peas, a frothy demitasse of milk-enriched wine soup alongside a light crêpe filled with smoked trout, a beef goulash that takes two days to cook and steep, Wiener schnitzel topped with a lime wedge and served with half a glass of ice-cold and perfectly bitter beer, oxtail consommé with a bone-marrow dumpling, elderflower soup and mousse with strawberries, and wild huckleberries with a bracing beer ice cream – all of it accompanied by the little-known but focused and fruit-forward wines of Austria, Hungary, and the Balkans.

Having polished off sixteen courses on a sleepy, rainy late-summer Saturday night, when stylish TriBeCa looks like the truckers’ ghost town of yore, Bouley still hasn’t tired of talking about food (he never does). “Still needs some tinkering,” he notes. “I want to try a bell-pepper jus along with the paprika in the goulash: two expressions of the same ingredient. Should be fun to play around with.” Bouley will be playing for keeps later this month, when Danube should finally open for business. (30 Hudson Street; 212-791-3771; September.)

Restaurants: Hungary Heart