Having been to five of the seven US Michelin 3-starred spots in the 2009 calendar year there was little doubt that my New Years trip to New York City would lead me to the doors of Daniel Boulud’s eponymous Upper West Side establishment. Having originally planned Daniel as my NYE experience and later switching it to 01/01/10 when I noted the grossly inflated December 31st price I again changed it from the 1st to the 2nd when I landed reservations at Momofuku Ko. Noting those frequent switches I will note that the reservation office, specifically Susan Friend, was incredibly accommodating, pleasant, and helpful – on par with the experience at either of the Keller establishments or Robuchon – but still not quite on the level of Guy Savoy which is just on another plane.
Wandering Macys, Bloomingdales, and multiple Madison Avenue shops after the Rangers (typical) loss to an inferior opponent at MSG I progressively made my way north and arrived at the doors of Daniel at 6:30 exactly. Opening the doors I have to say it is the first room to really take my breath away since Joel Robuchon – the lavish bar, the clean lines and “just right” lighting, lacquered wood everywhere – and even Chef Boulud himself chatting with a couple of guests in the Salon. Checking in with the reservationist my coat was taken and I was just about to head to my table before Chef Boulud walked up, introduced himself and shook my hand telling me they were glad I’d “come over for dinner.” Seems like a very nice man and a great way to kick things off – I cannot believe I didn’t ask for a picture or a signed copy of the menu though!
Taking a seat at my two top I will first say I loved the room at Daniel, especially from the top tier where I was facing out looking at the main floor and could see every corner of the room. From the lavish drapes to the fantastic collection of paintings (many actually signed “to Daniel”) to the unique circular pattern (even on the linen napkins) flowing through the restaurant everything felt like the highest end of the dining world – the solid silver flatware and crystal glasses continued the theme. Greeted by my captain first – a man with a thick French accent named Stefan – and later by a young lady who did most of the actual serving I can say that aside from being offered wine twice after I’d declined the service was flawless throughout the meal – everything was described in detail, all questions answered, the pace somewhat quick but certainly not rushed or uncomfortable – I felt as special as anyone else in the room and given the number of white truffles being supplemented at the tables around me that was a nice feeling – even moreso than Per Se the clientele at Daniel felt very elite.
Asking first about the eight course tasting noted on the website I was told that this was simply the 6 course tasting plus an intermezzo and one extra dish at the chef’s whim – I was also told they could build a tasting of however many courses I could desire and that if I was interested there was a white truffle menu (as noted above) starting at $395 a person. Having never had white truffles I didn’t want to commit to a full menu so I instead went with the six course tasting menu once it was confirmed that I could indeed make a substitution for one of the courses. Orders placed I sat back and waited only a moment before things were under way.
The amuse of the evening, presented by the younger female server, was a tasting of Beets – Golden Beets with horseradish and walnuts, Beet Borscht with duck prosciutto, and Beet cured salmon with chives. Loving beets as I do this was a true surprise and all three tastes were wonderful in their manner of bringing forth the earthiness of the beets in various forms. While all three were tasty little bites, the Borscht with duck is something they should strongly consider as a menu item because it was wonderful and quite complicated for a “simple amuse.”
Following les amuses the bread service for the evening was presented – quality and quantity is something I like. Featuring a decent butter sourced from France the selections for the evening included Raisin Walnut, San Francisco Sourdough, Rustic Sourdough, 3-Seed, French Baguette, Olive and Rosemary, Butter Roll, and Garlic Parmesagna Forcaccia. Sampling multiple varieties during the course of my meal I was particularly impressed by their inclusion of a fruited bread – something I’d not seen since Alex – in the dinner service. While I quite liked the Rustic Sourdough, Olive and Rosemary, and the Butter Roll the Garlic was far too potent to be a table bread. While it certainly isn’t Robuchon or Savoy’s bread cart, this was a very nice variety and most were served quite warm – whether directly from the oven or a warmer, I’m not sure.
Beginning the tasting menu officially around 7:00pm the room was now full – everyone dressed beautifully and ladies laden with jewelry – almost a movieesque scene as a Japanese couple behind me sniffed white truffles from Alba before they were generously shaved over a dish of spinach pasta. My first course of the tasting was PRESSED DUCK AND FOIE GRAS TERRINE - Chimay Gelée, Chestnuts, Red Cabbage Chutney – a terrine similar in texture to the quail in a jar at Per Se this dish was served with buttery toasted country bread and similar to the Quail it really wasn’t needed as this dish wasn’t “spreadable.” Tasty and ample in portion I liked the manner in which the savory yet sweet chutney balanced the unctuous foie and succulent duck. At the top of the plate four different preparations of chestnut were presented and added some crunchiness to the plate – the chestnut with a bit of citrus atop it being the most interesting by far.
Dish two of the tasting was OLIVE OIL POACHED COD EN SALADE - Artichoke Purée, Tarragon Dressing, Lemon Zest – and to be fair, I really didn’t realize Cod could actually be that moist without being raw. Asking my server how this is achieved the Cod is apparently flown in directly and cleaned in house at which point it is packed in Olive Oil until it is cooked – often less than 24 hours but sometimes up to 48. Beautiful texture and literally melt-in-the-mouth. Featuring crispy leaves from a plant which I forgot to detail along with some mixed greens atop melting artichokes (not quite a puree, but as close as you could get without losing the shape) and a very mild dressing the most unfortunate aspect of this dish was the manner in which the lemon overwhelmed the artichoke and mushroom flavor but at the same time complimented the fish. Good but not great in sum – but the fish was outstanding.
It was at this point that a family sat down at the table on the main floor in front of me and I realized just how close my seat (although elevated 2 feet above them) was to their table – while I really couldn’t hear the conversation at their table I certainly could hear the server assisting them and while this certainly didn’t disturb anything it is just something to note if someone goes to Daniel wanting a very quiet meal. An additional story involving the family at this table provided a lot of amusement for the evening and speaks very highly, again, of Daniel’s servers and service but that story is best saved for friends and family. My following dish on the menu was KATAIFI CRUSTED ROCK LOBSTER - Broccoli Mousseline, Ricotta Salata, Lemon-Pine Nut Gremolata, Harissa Coulis. Just recently added to the menu my server announced this as a “new” creation from Chef Boulud and presented the dish with great description. A terrine of lobster topped with shredded phyllo and resting atop a crisp potato cake and puree of Broccoli with the ricotta, gremolata, and harissa forming a spicy-nutty-creamy accent the problem with this dish was the protein – the lobster was simply overcooked and dry. While certainly edible and a very unique compellation of tastes and textures, a butter poached (or olive oil like the cod) preparation would have likely tempered the dry-by-nature crustacean. When my server asked how this dish was and I explained to him that it was rather dry but not bad it was almost as though I’d broken his heart – he actually went back to the kitchen and told the chef who offered to remake the dish (a kind gesture that I declined.) Swearing that he “had” to make it up to me the kitchen next offered me a complimentary course of Chef Boulud’s famous short-ribs which I again declined as I do not eat beef. Apologizing yet again we moved along – really, it was just a little dry, I didn’t say I hated it – it was still better than a good restaurant here at home.
The followup dish, another sea-item was a vast improvement – actually, the menu just got better and better from here on. BLACK SEA BASS WITH SYRAH SAUCE - Leek Royale, Pommes Lyonnaise – was interestingly just as straightforward as the title and all the more wonderful for it. Featuring a barely cooked filet of bass with skin still on that was topped with a spicy sauce that resembled a sweetened wine alongside a creamy square of pureed leeks and cream and a cylinder of oniony potatoes wrapped in a thin caramelized onion – no tricks, no finagling, just a straight forward and delicious preparation of some classic dishes on a single plate. Great ingredients, expert preparation, attractive presentation – sometimes that is all a great dish needs.
My final savory of the evening – the main course – was a choice between the shortribs I’d previously declined and Lamb – but at my request from the beginning of the meal a substitution was easily made. On a trip that contained myriad great plates I would definitely rank this one in the top 5 and in terms of presentation it is rivaled only by the Wood Pigeon at Picholine - PAN SEARED MILLBROOK VENISON LOIN - Barley Ragoût, Okinawan Sweet Potato, Roasted Foie Gras, Pickled Quince. Featuring a wonderfully lean slice of venison that likely topped 5oz (interesting that many critique Daniel’s portion sizes) cooked rare and topped with a ragout of Barley, Sesame Seeds, and Pomagranate – this is as close as I’ve gotten to eating Beef texture in ages. Slicing almost like a lean ham with no gamey or bloody flavor to be found the Barley crust added a sweet and toothy component to the dish that was only furthered in the accoutrements - two squares of sweeter-than-sweet sweet potatoes topped with slices of carrot and a cube of pan seared foie gras topped with quince.
Very content with the meal so far Stefan next stopped by to inquire whether there as anything else I’d like before moving on to dessert – “perhaps the lamb or duck – or maybe you’d like to see the cheese cart?” Realizing my minor complaint about the lobster was not going to be swept under the table I consented to seeing the cheeses – a beautiful cart featuring mostly selections from various parts of France. Telling Stefan I really did not know most of the options on the cart but that I like mild cheeses in general he offered to make the selections for me – “That sounds great” I said.
Presented along with country bread and the same raisin-walnut as during the bread service I must say Stefan did an excellent job with his selection – three of which I’d already experienced and two which were totally novel (and that he wrote down on Daniel Stationary at my request.) Presented with fruits and nuts I received a triple cream Brie, a medium-hard compte, some of the most mild Morbier I’ve ever tasted and Valencay Goat cheese plus Caruchon Sheep cheese. While it would be difficult for anything outside of Humboldt Fog to top a good Brie in my book, the Caruchon was a truly stunning taste and creamy texture – strong but refined with a salty and pungent rind and a nutty undertone.
Warned that they “love to fill the table with desserts” I was next asked if I would like coffee – absolutely. While I still fully believe that coffee service should be included in the bill, for $5.50 with 4 refills I can without a doubt say that this is the best house-blended coffee I’ve had in a fine dining restaurant – as a matter of fact, aside from the estate blends being served at Gramercy Tavern and Craftsteak ($14 and $15 respectively for a 20oz French Press) this is the best coffee I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Deep and almost “oily” with notes of cinnamon, chocolate, and even ginger or cardamom – if they serve this same blend at DB or Café Boulud I’d strongly recommend everyone swing by for a cup.
Beginning the parade of desserts – well, the dessert I didn’t select from the tasting menu – with the assurance that the other would be coming as well. COCONUT LEMONGRASS SOUP - Mango-Thai Basil Gelée, Poached Pineapple, Coconut Rum Sorbet. Noting that I’m not a big coconut dessert eater and I don’t really like Mangos – this was really good – the second mango based dessert in New York that really impressed (the baba at The Modern being the other.) With a creamy soup that tasted a nice blend of rum, coconut, and lemongrass housing whole pineapples and a perfect large ball of mango plus mini “pearls” of mango the part that pulled this all together was a spicy yet satisfying basil gel at the bottom of the bowl. With small pieces of cake sopping up the soup this actually was much like the Baba at The Modern and the addition of a sorbet that tasted almost identical to a creamy coconut rum certainly didn’t hurt.
Following a short break and more coffee I received my main dessert, WARM GUANAJA CHOCOLATE COULANT - Liquid Caramel, Fleur de Sel, Milk Sorbet. First of all, the milk sorbet is unreal – it tastes like slightly less sweet than cereal milk from Frosted Flakes and when combined with the caramel and salt had a distinctly similar taste to the “Secret Breakfast” ice cream at Humprhy Slocombe in San Francisco – the best ice cream ever. Onward to the Coulant – essentially a warmer and more dense version of the chocolate bouchons at Keller’s bistro, but filled with liquid caramel and vastly superior. Sort of a brownie, sort of a lava cake – entirely delicious and rich.
Arriving with a couple bites left of the Coulant was the younger female server stating “I told you we like to fill the table with desserts” – and she subsequently delivered a basket of 10 fresh, warm, lemony madelines – as good as everyone says but, in my opinion, not quite as great as the versions at Ducasse’s Mix (probably because they come with liquid Nutella.)
Following the Madelines shortly and brought by Stefan were a collection of Mignardises - Chocolate Raspberry, Chocolate Orange, Lemon Macaron, Matcha Marshmallow, Apricot Pate de Fuit, Pistachio gateaux – and four chocolates including Chocolate Ganache, Chocolate Caramel, Hazelnut, Rum. While the Macaron was a little dry for my liking – the shell simply cracked without much sponge or cookie within – everything else was quite tasty with the Pistachio cake and Hazelnut Chocolate being particularly impressive.
Sipping my coffee Steffan stopped by again with a copy of the menu nicely rolled up and tied with a bow, the two cheeses hand written on stationary, and the check. No take home item was given at Daniel unlike many other restaurants of its caliber, a bit of a disappointment but certainly not something they “have” to do. Standing up after paying the bill I walked to the front and collected my belongings while browsing the salon – completely full, just like the restaurant. Making my way to the street Stefan stepped out to bid me “au revoir” and I was soon back in the cold New York Streets headed for Penn Station and the end of my vacation.
When it was all said and done I truly enjoyed my experience at Daniel. While I’ve heard that regulars tend to get better treatment, I was greeted by the chef like a regular (admittedly he just happened to be walking through the salon, but he didn’t have to stop and say hi,) had flawless service throughout, and when I noted the most small of problems the team was instantly bending over backwards to make amends (free cheese course, free second dessert after I rejected a re-do on the lobster and the short ribs.) Daniel is definitely fine dining done right – from the room to the scene to the service to the quality of the foods. That said, it is the “little things” in my opinion that separate a place like Per Se, Savoy, Robuchon, or TFL from Daniel – offering a tour of the kitchen, servers who ask a little bit about you and seem to want to know you as a diner, a parting gift, etc. Surely these are not required from a restaurant, but they are the “touches” that make an amazing meal more of a “once in a lifetime experience.” For now Daniel will settle for the sooner, but I’d certainly not hesitate to come back.