Last week a group of friends and I had the incredible opportunity to dine at Daniel, the pinnacle of New York French cuisine and one of the best reviewed restaurants in the world. It was a first time for all of us, but I’m certain it won’t be the last time for any of the half dozen who attended. This may have been the finest dining experience I have had and imagining a better meal is beyond my ability. Daniel Boulud and the staff at his self-titled restaurant have imagined every detail to perfection in advance.
We arrived for late Saturday reservation to enjoy a celebration dinner. While sitting at the bar, we enjoyed our first exposure to the excellently trained, polite and genuine wait staff. Even the simple bar snacks – cashews and a delicious bread stick with deposits of tangy olive tapenade – provided the perfect appetite teaser and balance to the expertly made cocktails.
Sitting in the main room, we were all struck by the beauty expressed through the thoughtful details in the décor, flowers and art. For an evening meal the lights were dimmed to create a lovely private mood. Dining at Daniel comes at a fixed price - $96.00 per person with a tasting menu available for $132.00. The tasting menu includes two extra courses, but everyone at the table must order which could be more difficult with larger parties.
We ordered the three course prix fixe and I could not imagine attempting to eat any more than we did. The meal began with a quintet of complimentary appetizers which had the expected Pavlovian affect on the diners. They were all excellent, though the oyster mousse stood out as particularly unique. The creamy, tangy concoction served in a small shot glass evinced a strong, rich oyster aroma, but the taste was light, nuanced and sophisticated.
Each of us ordered a different appetizer, sampling the Peekytoe Crab Salad, Quebec Milk-Fed Pig among others. I ordered the appetizer special, a crusted abalone served over mashed potatoes. The abalone was positively spectacular. Instead of being chewy, it dissolved on the tongue with the golden crust carrying tufts of potato base beneath. The reviews were generally very positive, though a few diners found the appetizers slightly salty. Professional chefs are infamous for developing salt insensitivity (which as an experienced cook, I am guilty of myself).
As the wine flowed and the staff flitted around us, topping off our water almost unnoticeably and offering us fresh bread from the wide selection, the time flew by quickly. By the time the main course arrived, we are all buzzed on an excellent and reasonably priced Roussillion ($100) and the interesting conversation. For my main course, I had the Paupiette of Black Sea Bass in a Crisp Potato Shell with Leeks and a Syrah Reduction. The soft gently aromatic flesh of the sea bass formed a perfect harmony with the slightly sweet wine sauce, the crispy potato and the restrained, savory leeks. The other dinners equally enjoyed the Bass, Peppered Yellowfin Tuna “a la Plancha”, the Duo of Dry Aged Beef and the Spit Roasted Four Story Hill Farm Guinea Hen Choux Farci. Everyone at the table responded to their first bite in the same manner – closing their eyes, sinking back into their chair and sighing with contentment.
By the time desserts came, it was almost too much. They brought us the treats we ordered, like Tahitian Vanilla Bavaroise, a spiraling, sweet Hazelnut Rice Crispy, Warm Chocolate Financier Gelee and Cranberry-Lychee Vacherin. But that was only part of the dessert show. They also brought extra desserts for the table from the menu, plates of chocolates and tiny confections. If that wasn’t enough, they set about baskets of freshly baked madelines dusted with powdered sugar that melted in your mouth.
The meal came to an end almost four hours after it began, at the very end of the night with only one other table remaining. But not for single moment did we feel rushed or hurried. This emphasis on the diner was infused in every element of the night’s service. Unlike so many upscale New York restaurants, there was never a sense of condescension from the staff’s expertise. They were more than just polite and efficient. The staff was warm, genuine, funny and welcoming.
Of course an experience like this one is not cheap. With an average of a cocktail each, two bottles of wine for the table and the prix fixe meal, the bill came to about $200.00 per person with tax and tip. But at price, the meal was surely a bargain. Daniel is not for everyday dining. If and when you can afford it or for those lucky enough to have a business account and entertainment budget that will accommodate Chef Boloud’s gastronomic temple, Daniel will make any occasional special and provide a true once-in-a lifetime gourmet experience for the uninitiated.