Wait! Where’s the letter grade?
From the outside, it looks like a hotel, with potted plants on either side of the door. But once inside the solemnity of the place overwhelms you, as you traipse past a bar on one side, small flock of cocktail tables on the other, then up to a reservations desk that might be the control tower for a small airport, except for the formal dress of the male and female reservationists. Finally, you emerge into the large, square dining room.
“This looks like a mausoleum,” my guest noted as we were led to a table on the porticoed balcony — only a few feet above the main dining floor — that runs around the room. The room was dark for the most part, lit by huge descending light fixtures glowing yellow, which looked like space stations from the planet Dim.
Daniel is, of course, the flagship restaurant of Daniel Boulud, the city’s most respected French chef. It is one of a handful of four-star (New York Times) restaurants, and has received a near-perfect 28-28-28 score in Zagat. It is one of NYC’s few remaining temples of French haute cuisine gastronomy.
I hadn’t been to Daniel in 10 years, when I’d accompanied a magazine editor and her entourage to a privileged meal. We’d sat in a tented enclosure on the other side of the circumferential balcony we now sat on, feeling as if we were eating in the backyard of a mansion.
I mentioned the tent to our Parisian waiter. Like all of the waiters he was dressed in a black, perfectly tailored suit. “They renovated three years ago. You remember when it was all red velvet? Quite a different feel now. I hope you like it.”
Picking the course of our meal was something of a challenge. The entire menu is prix fixe, but at three levels of expenditure. We’d arrived at 5:30 p.m. — the only reservation available a week in advance in the earlier part of the evening — and thus we could get the pre-theater option, served only until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday: three full courses plus wine pairings for $125, which is really one heck of a deal. The wine pairings included a white from California, a red from France, and a dessert wine from northern Italy. There were, as I recall, four choices for each of the three courses, most of which also occurred on the regular prix-fixe menu. It had twice as many listings per course (but no wine pairings) at $108 per person. There was also a six-course menu at about twice the price. I decided to go with the regular three-course menu. I avoided those dishes that had supplementary charges of $10 to $20.
But to go the regular prix-fixe route, I had to consult the wine list. Calling it a list gives no impression of the number of bottles it contained — let’s just say the thing was the size of a medium-size city’s phone book, pages upon pages of Burgundies, Bordeauxs, and Rhônes, with some Italian and American stuff thrown in, and all sorts of sweet wines and fizzy wines, too.
There were virtually no bottles less than $55, but a bit of action in the $55-to-$80 range, which is, of course, what my date and I focused on. There was a Côtes du Luberon from the southeast Rhône region that looked interesting at $65, so I ordered it. What an amazing red! Dark and saturated, it had a long lingering finish, and suggested that, even at the lower end of the list, the wines were amazing.
We had only a few minutes to savor the wine before the amuse arrived on three minuscule plates — stick-like, blobby, and geometrical sculpted substances that had been mainly generated from sunchokes. (How random, I thought.) It seemed more intended to cleanse the mind than the palate. The bread sommelier showed up next, with his pincers and selection of six breads, including a couple of rolls, one featuring garlic, bread studded with nuts, and small torpedo-shaped French rolls so sharp at each end you could actually stab yourself.
Ten minutes later, the apps entered with a flourish. Don’t depend on me for an exact description, because, like all dishes at Daniel, they represented complex assortments of elements, with no dish presenting fewer than eight or nine items on the plate (many in multiples), interspersed as if generated on some landscape-producing computer software. Even assaying a plate of food like that requires the formulation of a strategy.
I had a frog-leg velouté, which the waiter hastened to tell me, leaning over confidentially, was a soup. But soup doesn’t quite describe it. Certainly, it came in a soup bowl, but perched on the side as if about to jump in for a swim were the most delicate little amphibian kickers you’ve ever seen, the protruding bone no bigger than a toothpick. The flesh had no fishy savor as frog legs usually do, and no stringiness, either. A gravel of other elements, including herbs and porcini mushrooms, sat at the bottom of the bowl as the waiter poured a thick green fluid over them from a silver pitcher. (Indeed, tableside touches such as this one are part of what makes a meal at Daniel memorable.) The thick soup, almost a sauce, was creamy and herby, and altogether delectable. But I would kill for a dozen more of those frog legs, which the menu whimsically calls “lollipops.”
My date had a squab terrine — carved into perfect little boxcars — with pickled radishes and an artichoke salad. “I want to learn to make terrines,” she exclaimed. I had by this time begun to really enjoy the meal, despite the formal nature of the room, the fussiness of the platings, and the funereal dress of the staff. I made the mistake of removing my coat and hanging it over the back of the chair at one point. In a trice, a gorgeous woman came dashing out and gently reminded me that gentlemen must wear their jackets in the dining room at all times. She was nice about it, but I was mortified.
Meanwhile, despite the early hour, the room was filling up, and conventioneers were sliding in, their name tags dangling around their necks, the women mainly wearing atrocious print dresses, reminding me this sort of restaurant appeals to tourists and expense-account wonks as much as to gourmands. You could presumably come in a chartreuse zoot suit with your fly unbuttoned and still qualify as a gentleman with a coat.
My main-course selection (as the menu calls them — not “entrées,” because that means appetizer in French) was the irresistibly named Quebec suckling pig. It presented as a single pork chop about the length of my index finger propped at a 45-degree angle by an underlying rectangle of crisp-skinned pork belly. There were potato and mushroom elements on the plate, too, every bit as tiny as the other elements. Best of all were a couple of ribbons of cracklin’ — and this, let me hasten to add, was nothing like the bags of fried pork rinds found in bodegas, though genetically identical, I guess.
My date enjoyed a skin-on rod of sea bass with Sarawak peppers, stuffed leeks, and syrah sauce. The long-braised fish was succulent, but the skin wasn’t crisp, due to cooking method.
While the quantity of food hadn’t seemed so much, volume-wise, we were panting from having eaten so much by the time we’d mopped up the mains. If we had any criticism of the food — which was perfectly prepared and plated — it would have been the dearth of actual vegetable matter. In fact, what we wished for more than anything at that point was a plain green-leaf salad in a light vinaigrette.
Instead, an onslaught of desserts festooned with spun sugar and dangling little sheets of gold leaf appeared. Both of our desserts containing quenelle-shaped lumps of ice cream, thick fruit purees, sheets of thin pastry, and trickly smears of syrup. After that, a selection of petit fours, and after that, a choice of tiny chocolates with four different fillings. The three-course dessert left both of us glazed and slumped in our seats.
Oh, and my postprandial cup of coffee came in at $6.
Eating at Daniel is certainly something every foodie should experience, but as much for its antique and supremely fussy approach to food as for the excellence of the cuisine.
Executive chef: Jean-François Bruel
Chef de cuisine: Eddy Leroux
All-in cost of a meal for two: $380
60 East 65th Street
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