Let’s bow down to Daniel Boulud’s genius. None of his New York restaurants have ever failed. Even at the flagship Daniel, which some people find stodgy, he has managed to keep it just enough up-to-date to remain popular and relevant.
More remarkably, he did this without ever abandoning his French roots, during many years when his cuisine was not exactly fashionable. Even that Italophile and Fracophobe Frank Bruni never gave him a bad review.
Boulud renovates his restaurants after a decade or so. Both Daniel and Café Boulud went under the knife at around their tenth anniversaries. This summer, it was db bistro moderne’s turn. I’m sure it was still doing decent business, but after a dozen years it was Boulud’s most off-the-radar restaurant. It was time.
My two previous meals there were in 2004 and 2006, so I don’t recall the original very well. The interior has been totally redone by Jeffrey Beers International in mirrors and dark paneling (see Eater.com for photos). They’ve added a bar, which the original db bistro lacked. Most of the tables have tablecloths. It looks a bit corporate, but very much in Boulud’s style, and appropriate for a neighborhood that sees a lot of hotel and commercial traffic. Boulud was never the sawdust and heavy metal type.
There’s a new chef (Jim Burke), and the menu now has “a stronger French identity,” according to Boulud. The tri-fold menu offers Bouchées à Partager, or “bites to share” ($9–21); “Cuisine Classique” (most items $12–29); “Cuisine du Marché,” or market cuisine ($12–34); and side dishes ($8).
In the middle two categories (classic and market), appetizers and entrées are jumbled together, though the distinction is readily apparent. Beyond that, there’s the de rigeur côte de bœuf for two ($125) and one of the holdovers from the original menu, the db burger ($32), a classic that will never go out of style.
The beverage list is always a highlight at Boulud restaurants. Cocktails, a bit pricy at $16–19, follow the menu, with classic and modern concoctions. There are two pages of wines by the glass or half-liter, with a reserve list by the coravin (a device that allows wines to be served without removing the cork). The 11-page bottle list is a bit eccentric, with categories like “joie de vivre,” and prices in a wide range. You can certainly do business here without breaking the bank. The 2009 Tellus Vinea Bordeaux we ordered (from their Vins Rouge de la Maison category) was $60.
Three kinds of bread rolls (above) come in a silver cup lined with white paper. It’s a slightly odd system, as only one of you can have the pretzel roll, unless you cut it in half. They do bring more later, if you ask, but perhaps they ought to just ask. At db bistro’s price point, they could afford a roving bread basket.
On both of my recent visits, the amuse bouche (above left) was the same, although I didn’t note the description.
On our first visit, everything we tried was from the Classique section of the menu. The Escargot Fricassée “Olivier Muller” ($14; above left) isn’t what we expected, a happy stew of chicken oysters, parsley, and hazelnuts. Wendy said: “If I ever suggest leaving New York, remind me of this dish.”
The pâté en croûte ($18; above right), with pheasant, foie gras, and huckleberry compote, was stupendous.
The Salmon Coulibiac ($56 for two; above) is new to the menu. I don’t have much to compare it with, but the pastry crust seemed a bit soggy to me. It wasn’t bad at all, but perhaps not yet perfect.
I went back a few days later for the db burger ($32; above), made with seven cuts of beef, braised short rib, and foie gras, rolled into a patty the shape of a softball, cut in half, and skewered with toothpicks labeled ‘d’ and ‘b’. It’s a messy business, but crazy good. The fries are perfect.
The burger hasn’t changed much since the last time I had it, in 2004. Back then, I didn’t think it was worth the tarriff ($29 at the time). But the expensive, bespoke burger is now commonplace, a trend that Boulud helped to inaugurate. This one has earned its place in the pantheon.
It doesn’t come cheap. The burger, a mid-priced caraffe of red wine, and coffee, came to $65 including tax, but before tip. If you go in-season, you can have a black truffle version for $120. I won’t be trying that one, but for the db classic, I’ll be back.
My first visit was on opening night. I hadn’t realized that, or I might have waited. The food was great (aside from the slightly soggy salmon crust), but the service was painfully slow, which the staff acknowledged. I don’t expect it to be a long-term problem: Boulud’s restaurants usually get their act together in short order. The night I went for the burger (at the bar), the service was just fine.
With its midtown location, db bistro moderne is for a certain type of customer, convenient to the nearby business district, local hotels, and the theater district. It’ll never be hip with downtown foodists. But in the niche it occupies, db bistro is once again essential.
db bistro moderne (55 West 44th St. between Fifth & Sixth Ave., West Midtown)
Food: Classic French with modern touches
Service: Not yet polished, but it probably soon will be
Ambiance: Modern corporate, but certainly right for the neighborhood