Restaurant Review: Ondine, Danbury

 
Ondine’s sybaritic Billi-bi en Cappuccino.

Ondine’s sybaritic Billi-bi en Cappuccino.

Julie Bidwell

★★★½ [Superior-Extraordinary]

Tooling along Route 7 on a late Sunday afternoon, my friends and I began citing landmarks we remembered from way back when. Some (like King Neptune, where a mile-high pile of Alaskan crab legs cost $12, and the Indian Trading Post, where you could buy Indian head pennies or a beaded headband) are gone now, but others, like the driving range that used to be a lawn with a golf-ball-gobbling stream running through it, and is now aggrandized with netting and a double-decker driving platform, are still right where they used to be.   

Ondine, our destination, is firmly in the latter category. Same steep driveway lined with tall, ornate lampposts. Same stone-and-stucco house, with window boxes lining the porch. Inside, the tiered dining room and romantic clubroom where chef-owner Dieter Thiel’s collection of fine art, mostly oil paintings beautifully framed and lighted, is on display.

Old-fashioned? Bien sûr. Ondine devotees wouldn’t have it any other way: Antique sideboard, leather-bound menus, a huge bouquet of tea roses, mirrors, silverware and glasses so clean they sparkle. Update it? No way.

The fabulous five-course chef’s tasting menu still draws gourmets from afar, and the à la carte menu is still intriguing. What’s new is the Sunday Afternoon Dinner, as Ondine calls it, a three-course prix fixe meal, a bargain at $39 because it includes eight or more of the most popular and opulent appetizers, entrées and desserts: frog’s legs, escargot, duck confit, filet mignon, ris de veau—the works.

Yes, my love, Ondine’s cuisine is French—suavely assured, whimsically worldly French as it might be in the Marais or Martinique. Joie de vivre on a plate.  

This is food that looks and tastes good without gimmickry. Ondine’s Billi-bi en Cappuccino, for example, arrives in the form of four plump little mussels out of their shells nestled in the bottom of a shallow soup bowl. At the table they get a pour of saffron-scented cream of mussel soup topped with frothy foam. Billi-bi is a favorite of mine and this version is probably the most sybaritic iteration of it I’ve ever enjoyed. A show-off chef might have served it in an oversized coffee cup, à la Starbucks. Dieter Thiel lets the food speak for itself.

At Ondine, dishes are attractively presented but not decorated with lots of edible doodads. Foie gras is a case in point. Connoisseurs who order this pricey delicacy love it for itself—the rich flavor, the velvety texture, the pleasure of savoring each bite for a few moments in the mouth. Knowing when to leave well enough alone, Ondine serves us duck foie gras sauté, a lusciously ample portion, virtually alone on the plate with just a dab of rhubarb-fig compote alongside to balance the richness.

For small-plate fans, heartier appetizers are also available, among them veal sweetbreads crisped in panko crumbs and served with caponata and a sweet-and-sour sauce. This unexpectedly delectable combination might seem random, but this is a chef with years of experience. He knows what works—and what is worth taking the time and trouble to create. Ebony Duck, for example, is as mysterious as it is beautiful, with moist meat under a glossy almost-black skin. Judy, a wonderful home cook, wants to know the secret. Chef Thiel expains that he marinates the duck with Chinese spices overnight and paints the skin with honey before roasting it and serving it with sticky black rice and dark red Bing cherries.  

Ed orders kidneys sauté, with champignons, cognac, Dijon mustard and red-wine sauce with cream, because he loved this dish in Paris years ago and could never find or forget the sauce. Ondine’s sauce lives up to his expectations—and mine. It’s a matter of taste but if you like this classic bistro dish, you’ll love it here.

Veal Oscar, often slapdash “fancy” elsewhere, is meticulously prepared here, with veal tenderloin medallions, crabmeat, asparagus, creamed mushrooms and a heady Madeira sauce. Simply presented, the lure is the richness of the sauce and the excellence of each ingredient. Monkfish, too, achieved gourmet status when braised in pinot noir and served with wild mushrooms, bacon, tomato, salsify and French lentils.

With three lengthy menus, each of which changes frequently, it’s easy to imagine that Ondine has a pantry the size of a warehouse. Not so. We’re talking about a classically trained chef with a repertoire of cooking techniques and a storehouse of ideas. He says he improvises to keep from getting bored. Ebony duck one day, duck confit the next. Fun for him, fun for us.

But for dessert, I want the golden oldies I swooned over way back when—the perfect tarte tatin, the chocolate torte with cherries and marzipan, the intoxicatingly luxe chocolate mousse and, grandest of all, Grand Marnier soufflé. Can history repeat itself? Mais oui, deliciously. I have an old menu to prove it. Saved from the first time I dined at Ondine, handwritten in elegant calligraphy, it’s dated Feb. 14, 1996.
 

Ondine
69 Pembroke Rd., Danbury, 203/746-4900; ondinerestaurant.com
Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 9:30, Sunday 12 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $19, entrées $24 to $42, desserts $9 to $11.
 

Restaurant Review: Ondine, Danbury

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