Going Whole Hog: A Review of DBGB

By Benjamin M. Riley

You may remember my last review, or you may not. If you do not recall, let me remind you that I twice made jabs at one of New York’s most famous and prolific celebrity-chefs, Daniel Boulud.

 

DBGB’s newest offer: a whole pig for you and yours.I am here to recant. One of my last meals before heading back up to school for this fall term was at DBGB, Mr. Boulud’s newest and perhaps most casual restaurant. Though named to evoke the dearly departed seminal rock club CBGB, all DBGB shares with that cultural institution is an address on the Bowery. Unlike the gritty streets which inspired it, DBGB masters what nearly every new restaurant in New York has sought – the art of superbly polished casual food. And so I must retract those barbs. Mr. Boulud, you’ve done it. Keep doing it; New York is better for it.

From top to bottom – appetizers to dessert, Boulud’s expert staff executes a stunning grasp of what exactly New Yorkers want to eat today. That is, the kitchen turns out what can only be described as dressed up, traditional, hearty fare, whether the tradition be French, American, British, or Germanic.

You know by now that I was more than a little skeptical of what I would encounter at DBGB. After all, last time I reviewed a restaurant off the Bowery I laid witness to a brazen daylight assault. I am pleased to report that no assaults occurred before, during, or after my meal. Walking in off the hot sunny street and into the faux rustic industrial bar room I was immediately impressed by just how much must have gone into the creation of the space. The mirrored walls are inscribed with quotes from famous fictional and actual characters on the subject of food and drink, which struck me as perhaps a bit tacky but ultimately kept me briefly entertained while I entered and exited the restaurant.

My visit occurred on a summer weekday and as such my party of three had no trouble being seated immediately. Any distaste for the bar area was instantly erased upon entering the main dining room. Designer Thomas Schlesser has undoubtedly created one of the most inventive rooms in all of New York. With its melding of high and low, rustic and downtown chic, it captures the essence of DBGB as a whole. The walls are lined with provisions, a nod to the Bowery’s former status as a restaurant supply store hotbed. In these shelves are also cooking instruments from those recognized as today’s finest chefs – I specifically noticed Thomas Keller and April Bloomfield (both of whom need no introduction.)

The conceit is an interesting one and it works better than one might imagine – the copper of the pots contrasts nicely with the wooden frames of the seating and the metallic support beams which dot the room. The room essentially has three rows of seats, the outer ones being banquettes and the inner being tables and seats that flank the support columns. Hidden behind the shelves, however, are alcoved booths which add a level of privacy to the otherwise fairly casual restaurant. Most impressive perhaps is the open kitchen, where one can truly see almost everything if he looks hard enough. There is a lot to be said for an open kitchen; certainly it guarantees that no punches are being pulled.

My party was seated in one of the banquettes on the right side of the kitchen. If I have a single complaint about DBGB, it is that despite the fact that fewer than five of the tables in the room were filled it took longer than it should have to receive menus. After receiving the menus, however, service was both helpful and prompt – everything it should be and nothing it shouldn’t.

DBGB is serious about beer and this showed immediately after having received the menus. Though most restaurants of this caliber feature a thick book of wines, DBGB reverses the equation by providing diners with a varied and quality set of beers. There’s nary a Budweiser to be found on the whole menu. Curated by a beer sommelier (technically called a cicerone but I’m not trying to go there,) the list is as deep and diverse as I have ever witnessed in a restaurant devoted to fine food. Sure, beer temples exist with greater offerings but none of these places can claim to have first-rate food as well. Of course the restaurant also features enough wine options to keep those not inclined to hops satiated, including a number of alpine wines not often found in the States. Someone at my table (guess who) started off trying to order a certain Vermont microbrew. This someone was promptly informed that they were “out” of said beer. How fortuitous! The waiter suggested a special non-menu beer from the exclusive Norwegian Mikkeller label. Noticing my wariness, he offered a taste to aid in the decision. The taste came and I was sufficiently impressed. I am still unsure of exactly what that beer was, but I can say this – I must have it again. My companions also chose beer as their beverages of choice, as beer is the house focus. All were pleased with their selections and the waiter offered helpful suggestions on what would pair well with the food we ordered.

And about that food – truly marvelous. Nowhere else have I had the privilege of eating such well-prepared comfort food. Browsing the menu, I decided I had no choice but to indulge in charcuterie from the legendary Gilles Verot of the Rue Notre Dame des Champs. And since Daniel Boulud is originally Lyonnais, I decided upon the saucisson sec. Arriving a few minutes later was the most divine cold cut I had ever come upon. Sliced delicately were little red discs of dried salami, exquisitely spiced.

Light and refreshing, they were the perfect accompaniment to a hot late summer afternoon. I am quite thankful that the portion was small. Any more and I may have ruined my appetite for my main course. For what it’s worth, both my companions enjoyed their respective appetizers (matzoh ball soup and the famous chop-chop salad,) though I was far too engrossed in my charcuterie to even venture a taste.

Satiated by my appetizer but yearning for more, I eagerly awaited my main course. In the meantime however I was due for another beer and therefore ordered the Hof Ten Dormaal Amber Farmhouse Ale from Belgium. Suggested by my waiter as a more manly (read stronger) version of Saison Dupont, I took the bait and am so pleased I did. Crisp, refreshing, and a little barnyardy, it paired wonderfully with my main course. And what was my main course, you may ask? I could not resist the chance to have one of DBGB’s much-hyped sausages. And so I went with the Vermont. Being at the very least an honorary son of the north woods, it seemed like the obvious choice. Also it was a pork sausage filled with cheddar cheese, and if you know anything about me you know my love for both of these ingredients. Together? Even better.

Before I discuss the taste, let me first comment on the presentation of my meal. Though merely a humble pork link, the kitchen smartly dressed the thick sausage up with some key ingredients. First, the hash browns, which were really more a wedge of potato cake. Either way, simply delicious. But there was something else at work here. On top of the potatoes was a dollop of white cream. One bite and I knew it to be the “red onion crème fraiche” described on the menu. But this was not even the real coup. Atop the crème were shaved bits of cheddar cheese.

And then I realized – this was not a mere dish of hash browns, this was a humorous and tasty riff on the all-American concept of the baked potato. And what better to sit alongside an all-American sausage then an all-American side-dish? Needless to say I was impressed. Of course, as any gourmand will tell you, presentation is less than half the battle. The more important component, taste, was never in doubt, however. Cheesy, smoky, salty, and incredibly savory, my Vermont link was a triumph in highfalutin backyard barbeque.

Beyond my sublime sausage, both my dining companions enjoyed their main courses immensely, as well. I was able to grab a bite of one of their burgers and I now believe the hype there, too. From a single bite, I can tell that DBGB serves one of the city’s single finest burgers. It is next on my list to have there, although I do believe I could eat something else at DBGB every night for a long time without becoming bored or disappointed.

Though stuffed, I and my dining partners could not turn down dessert. So we went for something light and healthy and got an ice cream sundae. Another marvel of both presentation and taste, the raspberry and cream Sunday with anisette flavors truly refreshed the palette and was a fitting cap to an all-around excellent meal.

It is not a question of if I will return to DBGB, but merely when – I cannot wait to dive deeper into its varied menu. I know it will not disappoint; all signs point to the fact that DBGB’s kitchen has mastered the art of polished casual.