Saturday, March 25, 2006

Daniel's Boon New York City Entry #80 Daniel

Three years back my wife and I had a sparkling dinner at Chef Daniel Boulud's eponymous restaurant Daniel. The meal proceeded without a hitch, but without lasting effect. I recall the room - an elegant stage setting for the drama of cuisine - and the lustrous service. Of all of the grand New York restaurants, Daniel's space is the most theatrical. Despite the elegance of the setting, Daniel never feels stuffy, and the servers, refined but not snooty, set the tone. Yet, without the aid of a blog, I cannot recall a morsel.

Recently a friend of mine and I returned to Restaurant Daniel, and the service is as smooth and sleek as ever, the flowers still bloom in profusion, the stage is set for dinner, but what of the food? Daniel Boulud is a perfectionist, and it may be a function of the fact that he was on spring break this week that I can report a few slips, and the possibility of dishes that will last in my memory. Perfectionists avoid the edges of creativity: Boulud produces dishes more silky than saucy.

Sometimes the best indicator of the quality of a restaurant is in what seems simplest: soup and bread. Here Daniel (overseen by Chef de Cuisine Jean François Bruel and "Bread Baker" Mark Fiorentino) hits .500. Daniel's soups are as satiny and intensely flavored as one could imagine. We were served small cups of Daniel's signature English pea soup "a la Française" with bits of bacon and a creamy garlic soup with watercress and morels. Although my previous culinary memories have been rinsed clean, the ethereal garlic soup will surely remain for years. The subtlety of texture and taste of the soupman is what Chef Boulud is known for. He rules!

Bread is, sadly, shabby. Although Daniel is one of the few restaurants that advertises their baker, our bread was hours from stale. We heard the clock ticking. We tried three varieties - raisin-walnut bread, olive roll, and sourdough - and none passed muster. They tasted like yesterday, and, in contrast to the beautiful bread display at Alain Ducasse, were out of character for a luxe restaurant. Two soups, three breads, a split verdict.

The trio of amuses at Daniel was were not revelatory, but welcome. The gougere was pleasant, not intense, and revealed again a "bread problem," although the crispy Parmesan wafer was appreciated. Better were smoked salmon with lemon creme fraiche and a spoonful of pureed squash with avocado that was spicy without overwhelming. Unlike the competition, amuses at Daniel are not attempts to amaze, startle, or frighten, but simple, confident curtain raisers.

I had convinced myself not to order the tasting menu, a decision that the restaurant supported by not permitting the full tasting menu on weekends and placing the most intriguing seasonal dishes on the daily menu. With Daniel's commitment to fresh ingredients, diners are well-advised to eat seasonal food. As March's lion became a lamb, we had our fill of cress, morels, fiddleheads, and, of course, spring lamb.

I started with a seasonal appetizer, Roasted Sea Scallops with Blood Orange Glaze, Cardamon Mousseline, Turnip Fondant, and Shaved Botarga (a similar dish is listed on the webpage). This is an impressive combine, and a very rewarding one. I was surprised, given the claim that blood orange would be a glaze, at how unobtrusive it was. The dish was far less fruity and more rooted than I imagined from reading the menu. The cardamon mousse complimented the scallop beautifully and, surprisingly, brought out the sweetness of the seafood. The plate was precisely fashioned, and given that it is a full-size starter, was a pleasure to explore.


My companion selected a delightful crayfish timbale also beautifully presented, and like the scallops, displayed seafood luscious in its freshness.

As entree, I selected Colorado Rack of Lamb with Meyer Lemon Crust, Glazed Radishes and Avocado-Mint Chutney. As with my appetizer, I admired Daniel's composition. The lemon crust was an astute take on lamb, not too tart, but suggestive of the season. My lamb was cooked more than I preferred (I asked that it be cooked "as the chef wished" - tonight he wished to overcook it, or perhaps concluded that I was not the rare diner but only medium well). With the crust, a more moist lamb would have been more suited. The little logs of avocado-mint chutney were subtle and mild, less savory that they might have been in the hands of other chefs.


Of the prix-fixe dishes, I was most taken by dessert, an angelic and blissful Champagne Mango Vacherin with Black Sesame Meringue "Ile Flotante" (floating island) and Lemon Thyme Anglaise. Next to the Vacherin, the parfait of "Ile Flotante" presented layers of egg white, thyme, and mango, the combination of fruit and herb was celestial. The snappy meringue was slightly sweet/slightly savory, and the mango had just hit its peak. Not ponderous or sugary, this dessert proved wise and crisp. Dessert at Daniel is no afterthought.


Daniel is an essential Manhattan restaurant; a boon for New York diners. While grounded in French culinary techniques and modern sensibilities, it is not as Parisian as Alain Ducasse nor as Californian as Per Se; it is a happy outpost of an updated international cuisine. Daniel revels in a display of seasons, of technique, and of ingredients. Chef Boulud is not a big thinker; he is not revolutionizing contemporary cuisine. Rather his culinary explorations are based on the dish not on theory. No philosopher in the kitchen, Chef Boulud is a skilled synthesizer, borrowing, altering, ignoring, and searching for the best ingredients and most apt techniques. Chef Boulud's dishes never feel musty or nostalgic, but neither do they inspire tomorrow's cuisine. Daniel Boulud is a chef for now.

60 East 65th Street (at Madison Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

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