The Empire Strikes Back

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.

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.

The Empire Strikes Back