June 15, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
DBGB: Daniel Does The Bowery
Spicy Basque blood sausage is my favorite but Toulouse or merguez do the trick too. Photo: Steven Richter
Gentrification has never bothered me, but I am not a struggling artist or an immigrant family crowded into a cheap loft or forgotten flat forced to give way as the city breaks out in rashes of renewal. I am an overfed sybarite. For me, the only thing annoying about Daniel Boulud’s spiffy Bowery “slumming” is the taxi meter’s strident demand as we reach DBGB Kitchen and Bar, the initials hitching onto nostalgia for CBGB, the punk music hall that used to be. And I’m sure it’s only a matter of time (or did it come and I missed it?) before someone will be complaining that pickled vagrants hiding their rotgut in brown paper bags have been pushed out by spoiled uptown pretties hiding furry bundles of rat-like dogs in $2,000 tote bags. Gentrification naysayers just can’t take a joke.
Chef Boulud at the pass of his open kitchen with sausages to spare. Photo: Steven Richter
So here we are at Boulud’s new brasserie of beer and bratwurst, a sophisticated melding of Lyonnais and American comfort food. The bar has a slightly unfinished feel with its sloping cement floors and bistro mirrors but in the dining room the careful clutter of copper pots on dark wooden shelves and supplies that normally would be stored out of sight add warmth and energy to the long narrow stretch of booths and tables crowded together alongside the bright open kitchen.
The aristocratic $16 crab cake at DBGB. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s already standing room only with the usual foodie first nighters in full swarm, the industry and media and uptowners who define themselves by the tables they can snag. I spy Roberta Morrell and her husband, Hal Rubenstein, Tony May, Wylie Dufresne, and Telepan partner Jimmy Nicholas. “The only item we’ve already run out of is Jim’s matzoh ball soup,” says our waiter. I guess that should tell us something though I’m not sure what.
But we’re happy enough with the spicy broiled crab cake, an aristocrat formed with fat crab tendrils, and the sausages the three of us are sharing: pork and duck gizzard Toulouse on cassoulet beans and spicy lamb merguez on overcooked lemony spinach with chickpeas. Watch out for what looks like half a dill pickle – it’s a lethally unseeded jalapeño. I am ready to try all fourteen links, bangers, saucisses and wieners – especially a reprise of the sensational spicy Basque blood sausage I tasted at a pre-opening party. But my companions cringe at the suggestion. One orders a second martini. I surrender to sanity. After all, starters and burgers and innards from the head to toe offerings (“Tête aux Pieds” on the menu) are calling out to me. Since I can’t get any takers for tongue or tripe, I’m delighted when the chef sends out a gift of crispy tripe triangles alongside spicy-tomato tripe salad. Our guest is seduced too.
Tapioca clots lurk in this cool cucumber soup with its splendid grissini. Photo: Steven Richter
This is clearly downtown and downscale, packed in as we are, but it’s not just a range of charcuterie, escargots, oysters Parisienne (with ham and herb crust) that makes this place feel très Daniel. You can take the boy out of the Upper East Side but you can’t take the Upper East Side out of the boy. There are haute cuisine touches like delicious smoked salmon wrapped around a thin grissini that sits on the edge of a big bowl of cool cucumber soup that I like, except for an odd clump of dill tapioca lurking in the depths. Alas, somewhere in translation from its origin in Chicago, the “DB dog” has become boringly sedate. And the 5 oz. burgers feel a bit precious at $11 to $16 for gourmands like us who are fixated on Five Napkin’s 10 oz. monsters. I guess that’s why French women don’t get fat. They eat 5 oz. burgers.
“The Piggie” with Daisy May BBQ’s pulled pork is 5 oz. of pow. Photo: Steven Richter
Though, in fact, I’m wild about "The Piggie," topped with Daisy May’s BBQ pulled pork, jalapeño mayonnaise and Boston lettuce on a cheddar-cornbread bun with mustard-vinegar slaw and am eating more than my Ms. Piggy share. "The Frenchie," with crisp pork belly, arugula and caramelized onion on a brioche-black pepper bun with cornichon is a close second (minus the $3 extra Morbier cheese). And a ten oz. rib eye with pepper butter is splendid, though the impeccably greaseless frites served in couturier parchment lining small Charlotte molds are a conundrum – some are perfect, some are stale and pale.
Irresistible coffee caramel sundae alongside a splendid Grand Marnier soufflé. Photo: Steven Richter
If you’re still brooding about thin French women, you might be tempted to skip dessert. Don’t, even if all you can find room for is pastry chef Mimi Eberhardt’s thrilling coffee ice cream. I say go for the sensuous excess of her coffee caramel sundae with small chocolate cookies, chunks of brownie, candied pecans, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The Kreik Beer sundae with cookies, meringue, cherries and sauce Anglaise is a close runner-up. And her strawberry tart is a classic beauty, very ripe berries, marscapone, pastry cream and pâte brisée. I would find my way back for a taste of the apricot-pistachio sundae alone.
Of course, we’re happy to claim a booth at this Bowery hot spot. Photo: Steven Richter
Yes, it’s still a work in progress. The manager passing by can’t hear a word I say. “We have to work on that,” he allows. Acoustics may be the reason the waiter didn’t hear us order escargots, mussels and the Piggie he delivered as another gift from the kitchen. When the lights suddenly lower from a most civilized level to Stygian at 8:20, I am curious if it’s intentional. The manager seems seriously perturbed. “We’re still working on that too.” And I admire the dedication of the young woman assigned to wipe condensation puddles from the bare wood-veneer tables – there aren’t enough cardboard coasters for all our glasses. As she approaches for her fifth spruce-up, I beg her to let me wipe up after myself.
There’s been much written about Boulud’s leap into beer – he loves it, noting that “beer goes with sausage.” Beer and food-matching dinners at Restaurant Daniel were part of the buildup to this Bowery enterprise. Sommelier Colin Alevras is a darling of the blogs with his beer program that has justly galvanized brew fans. He has personally chosen the 24 on tap that will be served in carafes and another 30 craft beers in the bottle. Though if I’m allowed a small personal quibble: surely he could find a non-alcoholic beer worthy of that lineup.
There’s no law that says Daniel Boulud downtown has to be a bargain basement. I am sure affluent regulars of Daniel and Café Boulud will find starters, sausages and burgers from $7 to $16 and entrees from $16 to $29 (for steak frites) quite reasonable. Who can argue with $3 for a scoop of that exquisite ice cream, or $9 for a sundae? But I suspect that the neighbors camped out below Houston will find prices a bit high, especially for such tiny rations of sausage.
Last week the butcher paper on the windows came down to make way for a wry collection of quotes in French and English lettered on the glass in yet another clever detail of Thomas Schlesser’s smart design. Boulud’s whim to reference the neighborhood’s restaurant supply emporiums inspired the fabulous pots-and-pans catalogue wallpaper and menu covers as well as the museum of copper pots and molds collected from a who’s who of chef friends, identified by tags citing their owners: Paul Bocuse, Alice Waters. Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria.
A stylish late crowd is hanging out at the bar waiting for us to free our table. Given the fickle town we live in I can’t guess how often they’ll trek down here, but it will surely be a while before mere mortals can score tables without calling far ahead. A floor manager seeing us out picks up a giant sauce pan donated by Andre Soltner, pointing to the scorched worn underside. “That one was really used,” he says admiringly.
I hope that after the critics ring in and Boulud goes off to whip up the next outpost of his empire, the intense focus on making DBGB perfect does not sputter out. If the gifted dessert queen is pulled away to seduce the critics at the next new place, her stand-in may need a lesson in coffee ice cream.
299 Bowery between Houston and East lst Street. 212 933 53000. Dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm, Saturday and Sunday till midnight; opens Tuesday June 23 for lunch Monday through Friday from 12-3 pm and brunch Saturday and Sunday 11-3 pm.