(New York, NY) — For our first night in Manhattan, we had lined up a usual restaurant on OpenTable weeks in advance. Only days before we departed, however, an opportunity arose for a unique dining experience at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne, featuring traditional French cuisine interpreted through the flavors of the American market. We immediately canceled the previous reservation and, on a mild, warm night, walk the couple blocks from our hotel in Times Square to see what db has in store...
I am not terribly familiar with Boulud’s cooking style, but I recognize the name enough to be excited for dinner. We find the door beneath a sleek, modern-looking canopy—an unassuming and thin glass doorway—but I’ve been through enough modest New York portals to know that what lies beyond might be wondrous. Never judge a restaurant by its entrance.
Directly inside is a packed dining room, a long booth along the wall to one side and tables flanking the other. Across the room is a short staircase leading upward to another level and it is here where the hostess awaits. We stroll through the lower dining room, exchanging curious glances with the other diners. What is that on their plate? How rare can that steak be? Is that a bottle of Armand Rousseau? It is kind of like walking the catwalk, watching the watchers. And it’s sort of fun.
We check in with the hostess and are asked to wait a moment while the table is prepared. On this level, it is a larger space filled with tables. The lights are low and the talk is quiet, reverent. There are stylish, modern paintings on the wall. There is a recursive “square” theme to the decor. Everything oozes cool angularity. In no time, we are led to a four-top table set in an alcove, where we have an excellent view of the restaurant and are quite comfortable. It almost feels like a place of prominence.
Our server greets us pleasantly and inquires about our choice of water (sparkling, of course). We also immediately jump into the deep end of the pool by ordering glasses of sparkling wine—Pierre Paillard, “Cuvee Daniel”. It is sweet, without overpowering, and scintillates with notes of green pear and vanilla. About this time, we are introduced to the reason we changed our dinner plans: head Sommelier, Alexander LaPratt. As luck would have it, he is a fellow Michigander and “friend of a friend”. Throughout the evening, we deliver ourselves to his tender mercies for wine pairings.
A surprise arrives from the kitchen: the Oliviers Alsation Tarte Flambe, a square thin crust pizza of fromage blance, bacon, and onions. It is creamy, smoky, with just a little sweet from the onion. Alexander informs us that our Paillard will pair nicely, so we sip and munch happily.
I’m not going to skip any dish that has tentacles, so we get the Squid A La Plancha as our true starter. It is prettily composed calamari atop roasted fingerling potatoes, piquillo peppers, almonds(?!?), charred green onion, pimento, and chorizo sauce. The squid is perfectly cooked, with just enough firmness to suggest toothsome pasta. Of great surprise, however, is how well the almond goes with everything else. It adds a nice dry nutty flavor which offsets the spicy richness of the chorizo. The wine Alexander offers—a Croix Blanche, though my notes and memory fail me—exhibits steely characteristics that completely complement the high “sea” tones of the squid. An amazing pairing!
I have my eye on pasta for dinner, so I demur when Juliet opts to order cauliflower soup. Nothing worse than filling up too soon, when you’re looking forward to a prize dish. My abstinence is thwarted, however, when another treat arrives from the kitchen to coincide with her soup: Yellowfin Tuna Tartare. The stout tower of raw fish, sculpted with ratatouille and pickled daikon radishes, is drizzled with yellow tomato gazpacho. A toasted baguette acts as the perfect delivery system for the fish. I crunch, marveling at how the creamy tuna tastes much like raw chunks of beef.
Finally, I arrive at the main course: house-made Trofie pasta with veal ragout, tomatoes, cipollini onions, and parmesan. The pasta looks like thin rolls of gnocchi, hand crafted, sauced in moderation and slightly salty from the slivers of parmesan. A deep and brooding 2005 Brunello di Montalcino (Caparzo) is my recommendation from Alexander. The interplay between bold red wine and meaty pasta is exquisite. I bite, sip, repeat, until, sadly, it is gone.
There is no room at the Inn, so to speak, when all is cleared away. Well, nearly no room. I find an espresso will fill in the cracks adequately. To our delight, the kitchen also sends along freshly baked madeleines with just a hint of lemon. They do not last long.
In the end, we are more than satisfied having changed our dinner plans. Both db Bistro Moderne and Alexander LaPlatt illuminate what French-American cuisine can aspire to, particularly when matched with the most suitable glass of vino. Yet again, we add another “must go” to our list of New York eateries.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention a designer friend highly recommended the restaurant and is a close family friend of the Sommelier, Alexander LaPratt. While she does not know we write these reviews, she did let him know we were coming and put in a good word for us. When we arrive, we are greeted warmly and given a corner table with an excellent view of the restaurant.
I've decided in advance I'll be ordering the Oliviers Alsatian Tarte with fromage blanc, bacon, and onions. Jeremy opts for the squid a la plancha with roasted potatoes, piquillo peppers, almonds, and chorizo sauce. LaPratt recommends the Cuvee Daniel, a sparkling wine made exclusively for db Bistro Moderne to accompany and we happily oblige. Upon arrival, both appetizers are picture perfect, just beautifully composed. The paper thin tarte is studded with crispy tidbits of bacon, sauteed onions, and a mild white cheese. The ingredients are simple, but the flavor profile is complex and rich. The crunchy crust and salty bacon contrast with sweet creamy onions and gooey cheese. I tell Jeremy he's got to make a pizza with these toppings at home some time soon. It's just divine.
The squid is equally gorgeous and delicious. Tentacles and very small whole bodies mingle with halved fingerlings, charred green onions, piquillo (which means "little beak" in Spanish—I love that) peppers, and whole almonds. The squid is slightly chewy but tender, not the jaw workout you get with some. The potatoes are crispy and slightly sweet from roasting, while the peppers add tang and the almonds add crunch. There's a lovely smoked paprika flavor throughout. Both appetizers are complimented by the dry and almost yeasty bubbly.
Our server explains the soups of the day, one a chilled gazpacho and the other a chilled cauliflower soup with truffle oil. I'm a sucker for cauliflower (Jeremy despises it so I indulge whenever I can) and order the soup. Jeremy decides to sit this course out, but when my soup is delivered we discover the kitchen has sent a treat for him: the yellowfin tuna tartare with yellow tomato gazpacho. The soup is a velvety grey color, highlighted by swirls of olive oil and caramelized bits of fennel. I've never had chilled cauliflower soup and it's luscious...cool but earthy. It's almost slightly green tasting, which is deepened by the rich fruity olive oil and bright fennel bits. The Austrian Gruner Veltliner recommended by LaPratt is spot on. Gruners are becoming one of my favorite whites because they pair wonderfully with so many foods. This one is both verdant and minerally, mirroring the soup.
I had every intention of ordering fish tonight and am debating between the roasted monkfish or the wild striped bass. I nix those options as our server details tonight's special: guinea hen leg ballottine with foie gras. Sold! I've seen chefs ballottine chicken legs and thighs, but have never tried it myself at home. Essentially, you remove the bone from the chicken leg and stuff it with something else, usually sausage. The ballottine is then typically poached or sauteed.
The chicken arrives surrounded by small roasted potatoes and tomatoes, topped with micro greens. The skin is crispy (so I'm thinking it wasn't poached), the dark chicken meat is luxuriant and the foie gras just takes it over the top. The greens and potatoes add a nice clean contrast to the decadence of the dish. And the French burgandy pairing is deep and complex, tight at first but opens up beautifully with an earthy finish.
We are both stuffed and as tempting as dessert sounds, there's just no room. We order espresso—a single for me and a double for Jeremy—and plan to just sip and digest for a few minutes. Another surprise from the kitchen, a basket of tiny fresh baked Madeleines, arrives. I love, love, love Madeleines and know that I have to eat at least one, no matter how full I am. Still warm from the oven, they're just slightly sweet, fragrantly perfumed with citrus and heavenly when dunked in espresso. These are probably the best Madeleines I've ever had (including many in Paris) and we devour the entire basket in minutes. It's almost like a scene from the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox and I'm hoping we didn't horrify other diners.
Our experience at db Bistro Moderne has been absolutely amazing. Sommelier LaPratt expertly paired wines (in a very approachable friendly manner) with each course, making for a very memorable night out. Each time we come to Manhattan we find a new favorite restaurant and I'm already trying to find a reason to get back to the city to visit this Midtown eatery.