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Sunday, February 07, 2016

In Memoriam: Dan Nilsson

Bad News Dept.: It was a terrible shock to learn of the death of Dan Nilsson (no relation), chef-owner of Hudson’s DA|BA. A meticulous craftsman, he raised the dining bar for that city and for the greater area. I have no idea of what the restaurant is planning for its future, and no wish to call to find out. But here’s the review I wrote for Metroland in 2012.


WHEN IT COMES TO RESTAURANTS, the most fascinating few blocks of arrayed eateries is in Hudson, where a steady boom in arts and antiques also has delivered no lack of dining choices. DABA opened six years ago in a building that has served the city at least as far back as the 1940s, when it sported a faux log cabin look, spent some time as a pizza joint, and most recently was the Paramount Grill.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now it’s a welcoming, unfussy eatery with two comfortable dining areas separated by a two-sided bar, with walls of muted earth tones and improbably elegant butcher paper laid over linen-topped tables.

To identify it as a Swedish restaurant acknowledges that it serves an astonishingly wonderful preparation of Swedish meatballs ($22), that you’ll find such characteristic items as herring and lingonberries and that the chef is surnamed Nilsson, a moniker shared only by an illustrious few.

But DABA’s Swedishness is only a jumping-off point. Chef-owner Daniel Nilsson has fashioned a dining environment that welcomes you into a meal experience where harmony and balance inform each plate.

He earned his degree from the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, which he notes has the same curriculum as the CIA without the price and pretension. During this time he worked as a private chef for a friend who ran the only antique shop in the area. “He told me in 2003 that he was buying a place in Hudson, and that got me interested in the area.”

Nilsson grew up in the Westchester-Fairfield realm of NYC commuters, but spent summers, as a child, visiting relatives in Sweden. “After high school, I was dabbling in art but didn’t have much direction, so I moved to Sweden. I was working at a sushi bar in Stockholm when I re-connected with a childhood friend who had become a professional chef. Six years later, when I told him I was a buying a building in order to open this restaurant, he came over here to help.”

Daniel’s sister spotted the for-sale building on a Craigslist entry. “I went to look at it,” says the chef, “and fell in love with Warren Street.”

The last of the elements to fall into place was the funding, with which Daniel was helped by his mother, Barbara – and there you have the clues you need to decipher the restaurant’s name.

That childhood friend, Ola Svedman, “helped me get my feet on the ground,” says Nilsson. “He set a nice tone for DABA early on.” Among those contributions was an obsessive pursuit of cleanliness, the result of which was gleamingly obvious when I looked in the kitchen following my meal. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a facility as spotless.

Svedman helped out for about two and a half years, “and when he saw that I could stand on my own feet,” says Nilsson, “he went back to Sweden.” But the menu continues to reflect his influence.

Menu whimsy can grow tiresome, but I enjoy the listing categories on this one. “Essentials” includes the aforementioned herring, served with mustard and dill ($11). The chicken liver mousse ($10) was unlike any I’ve ever seen, the mousse itself whisper-smooth and coppery. A neighbor of apple compote, excellent toasted bread – it was an elegant take on a tough-to-dress dish.

Simplicity informs the presentations here. The toast accompanying the golden whitefish roe ($16) is sautéed to order, in butter of course – I later witnessed Nilsson attentively doing so – and it practically sparkles on the plate, setting off the pale jewels of the roe itself. But textural variation also is important, which is why the snap of the fish eggs gets a smooth background of crème fraîche and the bite of bits of red onion.

We had a field day with those essentials, my friends Beth and Howard and I. She made a meal of three of them, the third a $7 bowl of pickled kirby cucumbers, carrots and quail eggs that served well both as a starter and a palate-cleaner after the entrée. Howard, meanwhile, explored the beets ($9), a serving of uniform cubes touched with honey and chevre, the rich beet flavor moderated by its own trip across the sautée pan.

Under the category of “Staples” is the $7 burger I plan to try on a future visit – never mind the temptation of the $5 BLT. But the hummus plate ($7) offers a comparatively muted chickpea purée with pita points that I used as a warm-up to the entrée I rarely order: a filet mignon.

You’ll find it leading the “Sustenance” list. It’s $27, and it’s a seven-ounce portion carefully grilled and served over a streak of puréed potatoes, with jaggedness and crunch coming from the fava beans and asparagus added sparingly. Filet mignon lacks the flavor-punch of sirloin and thus enjoys enhancements. Nilsson gives it a not-too-sweet blueberry-vodka sauce and a small cup of airy foamed pepper.

There are chicken in a cognac-thyme sauce ($22), seared scallops ($26) and dill-baked arctic char ($28) to choose from among the menu items, and a list of daily specials to make it the more difficult. But there are also Swedish meatballs ($22), and you are under strict orders to try them.

Like so much else I sampled here, they’re unexpectedly light, with a texture and flavor that Nilsson credits to (among much else, I’m sure) his use of Dijon mustard and sparkling water when he crafts them. That’s also where you’ll find Sweden’s signature lingonberries – right alongside, with puréed potatoes and pickled cukes to complete the plate.

You’re tipped off to the design considerations behind each serving from the moment you’re served an amuse-bouche, which in our case was a bite of prosciutto with sweet pea purée, served in the bowl of a spoon bent to enable its handle to act as a stand.

Guidance through the meal comes from a staff of cheerful, knowledgeable servers who are happy to offer recommendations – especially helpful when it comes to wine pairings. “We’re selling an experience, and much of it is in the exchanges customers have with  servers,” says Nilsson.

There was no need for dessert, but good food and fellowship and a few sips of wine have a way of persuading you to linger longer. Thus it was we sampled, at $8 apiece, the rich, dark chocolate brulée, redefining the classic custard as I’ve never before experienced; a pie-inspired serving of lemon cream over a crustlike cookie and topped with flaked meringue, and, my favorite, a serving a whipped, sweetened brie with a blueberry-ginger marmalade and more of that addictive toast.

We visited early on a recent Friday evening, and both restaurant and bar slowly filled during the course of our meal. From the bar chatter I picked up a sense of familiarity, and Nilsson later confirmed that it attracts a number of regular local visitors. A place that keeps destination diners happy while also serving the neighborhood is doing things right.

DA | BA, 225 Warren St., Hudson, 249-4631, Eclectic, Swedish-inspired fare in a casually elegant setting, the menu choices ranging from a BLT to a filet mignon. Serving dinner Mon-Sat 6-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 18 October 2012

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