[Pigging by Wilfrid: June 29, 2009]
The Bowery. The Bowery. I won't go there no more...
Or so they used to sing in olden times; but in summer of '09, beautiful people flock to the former flop strip.
Member events at the New Museum overflow onto the sidewalk, the terrace outside the Bowery Hotel looks like a transplant from Paris, and now there's a line from the unmarked door of DBGB all the way down the long ramp to the host desk.
Fifty-four year old Daniel Boulud, Manhattan's iconic grand French chef, is nobody's idea of a punk rocker, although it's fair to say he's of the same generation as Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten, and Tom Verlaine and Debbie Harry have a few years on him. Initially it seemed cheeky that his organization proposed naming a downtown casual dining option after the revered punk club CBGB's - but with John Varvatos taking over the Ramones' legendary launch-pad and re-imagining it as a rock 'n' roll clothing store, and the passing of original CBGB's owner Hilly Krystal, the handle now seems a harmless gesture and quite in keeping with the Bowery's post-modern incarnation as luxury downtown real estate.
In fact, Boulud's sense of timing could hardly be more felicitous. One way or another, the smart condo towers springing up along and just south of Houston will eventually fill up with hungry residents, and the twin appeal of Boulud's reputation and modest prices can be expected to prove irresistible, and not just in the short-term. Short-term, the place is jam-packed of course.
I first ate there one rainy night (of many), luckily grabbing a small table in the front bar-area. This space is large enough that walk-ins for tables should often be easy; as at Gramercy Tavern, many are occupied just briefly by diners waiting for their reservation in the back. The bar offers an edited version of the menu, and so I tried the so-called Yankee burger. Essentially, this is a burger with nothing weird going on - classic lettuce, tomato and onion on a sesame roll, with a pickle speared on top. You can also get reinvented burgers, topped with Daisy May's pulled pork or crisped pork belly (presumably a close relation of Bar Boulud's superb chicharron). As with the fried egg 'n' chopped liver-topped patty at the late Mo Pitkins, the threat of richness in those selections is somewhat off-putting.
The Yankee was just a good, solid burger, and Boulud knows how to serve a cone of fries. And so I returned to scale the heights of the main menu in the dining room. This long, busy room, is composed of two lines of comfortable four-person booths, separated by a central line of versatile, moveable tables. Booths for larger parties are secluded to one side; the other side is devoted to wine holdings and a raw bar; there's an open kitchen in the rear. The pots and pans of famous chefs glower down from a high shelf.
One of the honored tocques, taking his place alongside Bocuse and Ducasse, is Gilles Verot, the Parisian charcutier responsible for the terrines and pâtés at Bar Boulud, previously the organization's most casual Manhattan noshing option. I was one few skeptics about Bar Boulud's characuterie menu. Ed Levine's reaction was fairly typical: "Simply put... the best characuterie Americans have ever seen and tasted on these shores." Maybe yes, maybe no, but it struck me as all within the competence of the average French or Spanish traiteur, and at worst relatively bland.
I mention this not to revive old gripes, but to emphasize that I am not a pushover for Chef Boulud's high reputation and evident promotional skills. When I tell you that the sausages I sampled here - a DBGB specialty - were exceptionally good, you can take it to the bank. But let's restore order. A handful of Gilles Verot's cold cuts are offered, and the raw bar was tempting, but the dinner began with choices from the head-to-foot - Tête à Pied - sectionof the menu (which is brief and worth expanding).
A diehard fan of tablier de sapeur, the Lyonnaise delicacy of braised tripe, breadcrumbed and deep-fried, I'd already eaten DBGB's version as a prelude to my Yankee burger. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen nails it - it arrives sizzling with a spiky sauce gribiche. I now turned my attention to the bone marrow.
Instead of serving short lengths of bone with one of those long prongs to dig the goodies out, DBGB conveniently splits it lengthwise. To paraphrase Liebling, this aids consumption. The marrow was plentiful, thoroughly rendered, and well-seasoned. The rye toast points were too thick and chewy, and I dipped into the breadbasket instead (a crisp white loaf, fresh cut). And there's an added attraction.
So well concealed that the server is right to point it out, a generous curl of Katz's pastrami is wrapped round some healthful salad leaves, right "in back of" the bone. Given the price of a Katz's sandwich, eleven dollars for this plate is equitable.
We can add the tongue to the list of good tongue dishes around town. Thick slices, with a texture which lets you know what it is. Sauce gribiche, and some egg yolk crumbled on top; pickles for acidity.
If anything is more popular than, well, tongue, it's a reinvented egg. This season, eggs are up there with pork belly. From the regular appetizers, soft-poached, crumbed and crisped, like a Scotch Egg without the savory meat case, this candidate splits nicely over two kinds of seasonal asparagus, and is garnished with tasty, hard-to-fork slivers of prosciutto.
Although there's a short list of meat and fish bistro favorites - less extensive than that at Bar Boulud - the obvious way to continue here is with choices from the long list of sausages. As noted above, Daniel is enthusiastic for some idiosyncratic New York purveyors - why make BBQ pork or pastrami when you can pick up a phone and call Daisy May's or Katz's? The sausages, though, are made in-house, and with great success.
If you are ordering in even numbers, might as well get the "duo" - two sausage servings with accompaniment for $21. The list is international, but I asked for two French bangers, the Toulouse and the Beaujolais.
I am not sure about the balance between sausage and starch. The pair of small, stocky Toulouse links, and the sizeable Beaujolais, would make a nice dinner for one hungry person with something on the side. With the accompanying bean gratin and warm lentils, the duo is rather too much for one. But these are small potatoes, as it were (and yes, there was an order of fries on the side).
The Beaujolais is a wonderful creation, loose and meaty and garlicky, given added flavor and texture by the incorporation of gizzards in the blend. The lentil salad was first-rate too. I would be hard put to say the Toulouse sausages were any less enjoyable - mildly smoky, tangy, with a smoother grind. The bean stew (with a few smoky pork chunks) refers to the canonical incorporation of Toulouse sausage in cassoulet. The only failing of the dish, easily adjustable, was the heavy, thick carpetting of soft, herbed breadcrumbs which interposes itself between meat and beans in an unconvincing impersonation of a cassoulet crust. These had to be scraped aside.
From the entrées, duck with a cherry glaze was neatly executed. Two tender breast slices were joined by a ball of confit just asking to be made into a sausage. With some spinach, this was nevertheless not a heaping plate of food, and sides need to be considered if you go this route.
Cheese, in fact, seems strictly measured out, and indeed it's not cheap these days. A selection of three for $9, and I could have eaten five for $15. All good, though: Brie de Meaux, Bleu d'Auvergne and Tilsiter, with a glass of Gamay. Thus far, I'd stuck with the beer menu - ambitious, experimental and challenging. I drank the refreshing Kaiser Pils from Pennsylvania, but it has much to offer the drinker who likes his brew flavored with pumpernickel or cocoa, off the IBU scale, and as strong as moonshine. The wine list deserves a mention - long and evidently well-priced.
Oh yes, there's ice cream too.
This place is a winner, well thought-out, well-designed, well-located, and sending out better food than it needs to. The professionalism of the Boulud organization deserves acknowledgement: the same excellent floor manager who opened dB Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud is in attendance, as - so far - is Boulud himself, wreathed in chef's whites and smiles. And rightly so.
If you can get past the music, there's info (but no menu yet) at the Daniel NYC website.