The Distinguished Gourmand: Daniel

Opportunities arise. You can either move forward and take them, or let them pass you by. I am one of those who will take pretty much any opportunity that is set before me. I’ll go on a date even if I don’t like the girl just because it might provide me with a story to share with friends sometime down the road. I’ll travel to places I’ve never been before in the hopes that something worthwhile will befall me. And, when someone makes a reservation for me at a 3 star michelin-rated restaurant on the Upper-East Side of Manhattan, I’ll let them spend $500 so I can eat at one of the top twenty-five restaurants in the entire world. That’s how I wound up dining at Daniel last night. It’s also how I’ll be dining at Per Se in October. Opportunities arise. And I’m always ready and willing.

All that I’d heard about Daniel before venturing to the restaurant last night was that it was, “like dining inside of a Fabergé egg.” It had been called “stuffy French food,” and Frank Bruni of the New York Times once wrote, “Pastel, frilly, and feminine, the decor at Daniel brought to mind the lining of a prim octogenarian’s underwear drawer.” Jean-Georges — another high-end French eatery with a more-modern “vibe” — was compared favorably to it when I asked which my mother preferred. Honestly, I didn’t care for what was rated higher by this website or that one. What it boiled down to was a friend of mine who told me, “Jean-Georges is just going to feel like you’re eating in Beverly Hills. Go to Daniel.” And so we did.

The dining room has since changed from its days as a priceless Russian jewel or an old woman’s panties. The room is tenebrous, the colors are neutral, and every surface is sleek and sharp. Other than the artwork adorning sparse wall-space in the main dining room (which is split into two levels, though only a step or two distinguish the central dining space from the tables lining the perimeter) the only notable decoration is the black-and-white portrait of chef Daniel Boulud hanging near the washrooms downstairs. It is a stark space. A diner’s focus is meant to be on the food, and that is exactly where it belongs.

Our meal began with an Amuse-bouche of beets three ways. There was a tiny sliver of beet-red hamachi, a lusciously delectable puree, and a third iteration that was not as memorable as the other two. Next came the bread service. The sourdough was tasty, the multi-grain slightly less so, and the French roll my favorite of the seven or eight options. There was also parmesan bread and olive bread, neither of which I tasted.

My first course was a trio of arctic char. The first variant was “Hot smoked” with Yukon gold potato. After I finished consuming that third of my dish, I was the subject of much mockery because there might have been some cream cheese and chives present beneath the little sashimi-style cut of char. It might have been a play on lox and cream cheese…but I refuse to believe that that’s what it was. I tasted a hint of horseradish, but when I offered a bite across the table I was rebuffed. Maybe my palate is worse than I thought.

The second variant on the arctic char was served confit with lemon zest and lovage pistou, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil. It wasn’t the best of the trio, but it was my second favorite. The best of the variants was the tartare char with sesame oil and wasabi-spinach coulis, a very thick sauce of puréed and seasoned rich green veggies that was garnished with roe. That was a pretty stunning combination of flavor and texture. Rich, elegant, and smooth with a hit of salt from the fish and egg, it was one of my favorite bites of the meal.

Elsewhere at the table there was a “tasting of rabbit” that included a terrine with curly mustard and young vegetables (Elissa didn’t know what a terrine was and seemed disappointed when she found out), and a rabbit gelée with tarragon, baby leeks and carrots. Again, I don’t think she was impressed with the crossly chopped and minced rabbit paste. I think she was hoping for a bloody piece of rabbit on her plate. That poor girl…she will never be as distinguished a gourmand as I. The third appetizer brought to the table was a Maine lobster salad with poached peaces, lemon verbena oil, green almond and purslane (some kind of flowering plant). I tasted a bite of the lobster with poached peach and thought it was a perfect pairing.

After another serving of bread, our main courses arrived. I had the duo of beef (although the special duo of chicken (one of which was a leg stuffed with foie gras) tempted me. The plate arrived looking sublime. There was a small serving of braised black angus short ribs with a romanesco purree, a small confit tomato-stuffed russet potato, a seared wagyu tenderloin (easily the best part of my meal) and glazed chanterelles. The sauces were incredible, the meat cooked to perfection, and the garnishes simple yet complimentary. I was very, very impressed by the dish. Thanks to Elissa (mistakenly?) ordering the roasted veal tenderloin with artichoke barigoule, braised cheeks with tomato-jalapeno chutney and crispy sweetbreads, I got to enjoy some cheek and sweetbreads that I hadn’t bargained for when I ordered my dish. The sweetbreads were prepared far more elegantly than those served at Animal in Los Angeles, they were soft and not at all gamey. The third main course was the cantimpalo-crusted swordfish with a fricassee of Jersey corn and potato gnocchetti with braised lacinato kale, clay pepper sauce and corn shoot salad. I had a few bites of the fish with the chorizo crust and a small serving of the corn fricassee, both of which were yummy. All in all I’d say all three main courses were successes.

Dessert began with a complementary assortment of petit mignardises and madelines. My dessert was a strawberry granite with creme d’anjou, sacristain and a Szechuan pepper sorbet. Elsewhere on the table was a supremely-rich warm guanaja chocolate coulant with liquid caramel, fleur de del, and milk sorbet. Also there was milk chocolate dacquoise with jivara parfait, toffee tuile and salted caramel ice cream. All three were a balance of richness, and sweetness. The plates looked brilliant, and no matter which you ordered, it was a fitting way to complete an extraordinary meal.

Afterwards we received some complimentary truffles (mine had pralines in it) and then we were handed our check and asked to leave. Just kidding. That’s just how it felt. Because 3-star Michelin rated restaurants don’t often serve hill people like me. This isn’t some Red Lobster free-for-all for neanderthals who are used to eating off the floor with their bare hands. This is Daniel. I shouldn’t be here. Why did they even let me inside? I should have just retired to my hill, with my people, to eat slop off the floor with my bare hands.

And that’s where I’ll remain (in Los Angeles) until October. When the winds start to blow a little cooler, and the leaves turn brown and fall from their trees. That’s when the hill people roll in from Appalachia (that is, suburban middle-class New Jersey) to overtake another fine dining establishment. And on that day, when that next opportunity to eat world class cuisine arises, you can be damned sure I’ll put on another suit and tie and grin and bear it. For just one night, I will cease be a disgusting, slovenly hill person. I will be a distinguished gourmand!

Thrones – Nuts And Berries [MP3]

[All photographs courtesy of Yelp! I was too craven to bring my camera into the restaurant with me.]

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