DA|BA lights up the Hudson dining scene with a nice mix of innovative
Nordic fare and down-home comfort food
By Bryan J. Miller
Photo by Michael Nelson
DA|BA isn’t a Swedish restaurant,” declares Daniel Nilsson, the owner and co-chef of this smart and inventive two-year-old venture on Warren Street in Hudson. “It’s a restaurant with two Swedes in the kitchen, and we do everything, including some Swedish specialties.”
This is probably a wise strategy. The average American’s perception of things Swedish is largely limited to Saabs, meatballs, massages, and cheap, spindly furniture from Ikea. Images of Scandinavian cuisine may be woefully, and understandably, outdated, and with some justification. I visited Stockholm about eight years ago, and after the fourth meal it became evident that the main difference from one place to another was the design of the cutlery. I ate a lot of herring. Swedish cuisine today is as imaginative and refined as you will find in Europe — lamentably, it just hasn’t caught on here.
Nilsson, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, and his executive chef, Ola Svedman, 27, have forged an extraordinary menu that is contemporary, winsomely presented, and rife with surprises. The first time I went to DA|BA I arrived embarrassingly early on a Friday evening (unintentionally), and decided, along with my dining companion, to take a place at the long mahogany bar that separates the front and rear dining rooms. (Ask to be seated in the front; it’s more attractive and has two tall windows facing the sidewalk.) Nilsson took over a space formerly occupied by a longtime family-style restaurant called Paramount Grill. DA|BA’s design is minimalist, swathed in shades of beige and dusty rose, with modern brass sconces that cast flattering filtered light. Tables with bent-cane chairs are well spaced, and the cool piped-in jazz does not intrude.
While the restaurant’s name might suggest a Scandinavian rock band, the acronym stands for Daniel, the owner, and Barbro, his mother and a financial partner. Nilsson, who does not look particularly Swedish (it’s partly the dark hair), arrived at his mÃ©tier in a roundabout fashion. Upon completing high school in Connecticut in 1997, he moved to Sweden for a year, and then returned to attend culinary school in Florida. After a brief cooking stint in Tribeca, he was persuaded to swap the apron for a suit-and-tie job, having to do with commercial property management, in Manhattan.
“I took the job to get a better understanding of the real estate industry. I was thinking about buying a building,” he told me in a telephone interview. A year after taking the job, he came to the Valley to pursue his cooking passion, in the process purchasing the three-story, clapboard-fronted building on lower Warren Street. As the restaurant was taking shape he recruited Mr. Svedman, an acquaintance from Sweden. “My idea was to serve simple fare like steaks, fish, and chicken,” Nilsson recalled. “Ola wanted to do something more challenging — he raised the bar to where we are today.”
After 45 minutes and an excellent bottle of 2005 Hugel Gewurztraminer, I noticed that the dining room was still uncongested by paying customers. Rather than sit alone — being the only occupants in a dining room gives me the creeps — we opted to dine at the bar.
“When the weather gets warm, people dine a lot later,” remarked a pleasant young bartender named Rebecca. As we chatted it turned out that she was another dark-haired Swede, without a hint of a Fiord accent.
“Every weekday we offer a traditional Swedish dish as a special,” she explained. These might include Swedish meatballs (not a fond childhood recollection), herring samplers, Scandinavian steak tartare, or — if it’s your lucky day — a curious conflation that goes by the name of Pytt Bellman. It was later described by Nilsson as “cut-up filet of beef and potatoes that are sautÃ©ed and then finished with butter and cream.” It’s topped with half an eggshell holding a raw egg yolk. Definitely for the snowshoe crowd.
Our meal got off to a sprinting start with a creation called salt-baked duck, in which a duck breast is encased in a meringue-like composition of egg whites and salt. The lean and moist meat was pleasantly salty, garnished with a golden strip of crispy fried duck skin. My only criticism is that the duck was served over a skein of salty seaweed, which,
if you tasted them together, could make you recall the time you were hit by an ocean wave with your mouth open. On the side was a delightful cup of woodsy tasting mushroom-infused tea.
If you are a fan of liver, you’ll go for the rich and moist wild boar pÃ¢tÃ© escorted by an apple and bacon compote (which was so good I considered bribing a waitress to pilfer a container of it for me). Ringing the plate were shimmering droplets of “gin and tonic glaze.” Strange — but hey, why not? Two soups were standouts. Lobster bisque, built on a bracing lobster stock, was lighter than the traditional version because cream was added to the stock at the end of cooking rather than at the beginning, so it does not reduce and thicken. Mired on the surface were curls of deep-fried carrots. Along with the soup came a little plate holding a New Zealand mussel so large it could scare children out of the water. It had been smoked and briefly cooked in chamomile and mint tea, which I didn’t taste. Equally alluring was a cream-based sunchoke soup (it’s a nutty and sweet vegetable reminiscent of an artichoke) decorated with cucumber and dill, and drizzled with asparagus-and-squash oil.
The compact and fairly priced wine list is thoughtfully chosen to complement the cuisine, a rarity in the age of show-off cellars. Good values among whites are the bright and citric 2006 Brancott Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($26) and the fresh and flowery ChÃ¢teau Ste-Michelle Riesling ($23). Among reds, you can’t go wrong with the light and fruity 2005 La Ferme Saint-Pierre from the CÃ´tes-du-Ventoux ($32), in the far southern RhÃ´ne Valley, and the vibrant 2006 Dolcetto d’ Alba, La Spinona ($34), from Italy’s Piedmont region.
Main courses are certainly eclectic, and if I had to recommend one it would be the sublime dill-baked Arctic char. The filet is brined and seasoned with fresh dill, then enclosed in plastic wrap and slowly poached, leaving it perfectly cooked and incredibly buttery. The supporting cast was stellar — a warm sweet pear-and-horseradish broth, a silken parsley root purÃ©e (also worth a small bribe), shiitake mushrooms, and asparagus.
On the meat side you would do well with the elk filet, an underappreciated delicacy that tastes like beef with a hint of venison, and is not at all gamey. A black currant port sauce, not too sweet, made for a happy pairing. I was startled to see on the plate pommes Anna, a classic French dish that, by coincidence, I had been toiling to master that very week, with unspectacular results. It is nothing more than thinly sliced potatoes, each brushed with butter, that are layered to create a cake of sorts. Chef Svedman’s version — golden on top, firm and evenly layered, with just enough butter to infuse each layer of potatoes — was superb, so much so that I have decided to quit trying; it would just be too demoralizing. Perfectly cooked lamb chops arrived with a lovely white wine and dried cherries sauce, along with sautÃ©ed nectarines and dried cherries.
Desserts pack enough calories to fuel a Norseman for a day of marauding. Chocolate brÃ»lÃ©e, dense and bittersweet, is served in a stout cocktail glass and has a brittle sugar glaze; “chocolate indulgence” begins with a crispy chocolate base topped with white and dark chocolate mousse with raspberries, and is crowned with a raspberry wine gel, a slice of baked orange, and an edible pansy (I didn’t eat the flower; I’m watching my weight). Caramel mousse strikes the right chord, smooth and not too sweet, and silken vanilla ice cream is absolutely ethereal. A revolving selection of excellent cheeses is offered nightly.
Clearly, DA|BA is on a par with the best restaurants in the Valley. This prompted me to ask Rebecca if the metropolis of Hudson, especially the longtime residents, is ready for gin-and-tonic glaze and edible pansies.
“Flip the menu,” she replied.
Burgers. BLT. Hummus. French fries with blue cheese dressing. All $7 or less.
“We want everybody to feel comfortable here, and they can have different experiences.”
It was 8 p.m. Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted six patrons in the dining room. Okay, maybe they do dine late in Hudson. All the same, I had an urge to go outside and hang out in front of the building, sucking on a toothpick and entreating all passersby to come in. If only for the pommes Anna. u