My friend and I have been reading about and salivating over Daniel for months. We finally went the other night and got the six-course tasting menu so that we could try as many of the different dishes as possible. While we had a decent meal, and certainly left full, our overall sense of the evening was one of great disappointment. Service was generally excellent, with one distinct glitch explained below.
Sources: Daniel menu from the website
Cocktails: I had the City Crush, which was fantastic. The kumquat, pepper and lemon took the bite of the vodka to all sorts of interesting new places. I didn’t taste the alleged green tea, but that’s hardly surprising under all those more assertive flavors. My friend had the Bergamot Martini which was also really impressive. I almost couldn’t believe that there were only two ingredients (pear vodka and bergamot juice) with all the sweet and spicy and smoky going on. I have to get me some bergamots and try to just make a bergamot vodka
Amuse Bouche: We were brought a trio of little avocado preparations. The best, and indeed a contender for best dish of the evening, was a half teaspoonful of avocado mousse with a fleck of tomato and a tiny cube of the smoothest creamiest feta I’ve ever had. The mousse was lively and beautifully spiced with lots of pepper and citrus and salt, but the richness of the avocado was still clear, and took perfectly to the sweet tomato and creamy cheese. Another preparation was with geoduck, where neither the meat nor the avocado appeared to have been treated or spiced in an noticeable manner. No melding or complimenting of taste, just shellfish plunked on top of a bit of avocado. The final prep was basically just a shrimp with some small crunchy things, one of which I assume was some form of avocado. It tasted like mediocre shrimp; I can buy a pound of far sweeter and more freshly cooked ones in Chinatown for a couple bucks.
Bread: I am a voracious bread eater, so I’m pretty sure I managed to try all six of the breads they had available (they were very nice about bring the tray around to offer more without me having to feel like a pig by asking for more). Not a single piece of the bread was ever warm or felt at all fresh baked, which really shocked me considering the reputation Daniel has for looking out for the details. They ranged from a piece of tasty but extremely oily garlic bread to an excellent black olive and rosemary bread to a mini baguette that was at least 80% crust. The butter was nice and creamy and well softened.
First Course: I had the Almond Crusted Foie Gras Terrine with Kumquat-Date Napoléon, Mache, and Asian Pear. Very tasty, but nothing exciting. A pretty standard tasting foie gras and fruit pairing (standard for foie gras being delicious). They served it with two 1”x2” lukewarm pieces of nice brioche, and when I finished those I had to request more, whereupon I was told that it would be several minutes before more was toasted. Was it really that hard to predict I would need more bread? I shouldn’t have had to ask, and it should have been ready. My friend had the Chilled Rabbit Porchetta with Chorizo, Spring Vegetables, Purple Mustard, and Colza Vinaigrette. This was basically an excellent country style pate. Great course texture, and I’m a sucker for that touch of cornichon. My friend also raved about the purple mustard, which was indeed intensely delicious and inexplicably different. Unfortunately (but equitably) she received a similarly skimpy portion of sourdough which she pronounced inferior to my brioche.
Second Course: We both had the Maine Peekytoe Crab with Fuji Apple, Celery Crème Fraîche, and Hearts of Palm. This was, without question, the low point of the evening. The plate was colorless, the crab salad tasted of nothing but mayo, and the crab spring roll tasted of nothing at all except way too much chewy rice paper. I would be embarrassed to serve this to my friends, or even to be served it by my friends. I would be annoyed to get it for 8 dollars at a mediocre diner at 3AM. I know I’m ranting, but there is no excuse for sending out a dish like this. I’m not sure whether it was flawed conception or execution or both, but even if everything else that evening had been 100% perfect (which it wasn’t), I would have had trouble looking past this dish. I still don’t know whether I should have said something to the staff, but there was nothing wrong with the dish in terms of spoilage or difference from what was promised on the menu, so what could I have said?
Third Course: We both had the Paprika Crusted Maine Lobster Tail, Broccolini, Pine Nut Gremolata, and Piquillo Coulis. This was a very nice dish. The garlic in the gremolata and the paprika complemented a nice sweet piece of lobster. The broccolini was sort of tempura-ed, and I could have eaten a bowl of just that, even if it was a little cold. If I was being truly picky, I might take note of the gritty sandy texture that the paprika crusting turned into on contact with moisture.
Fourth Course: I had Grilled Arctic Char with Spring Garlic, Wilted Spinach, Glazed Ramps, and a Marcona Almond Emulsion. This came with a generous portion of browned butter poured over it, and the only things to be tasted anywhere were the fried garlic and browned butter. Now I love fried garlic and browned butter, and indeed I was mopping the dregs up with my fourth piece of bread, but I really felt that it was far less expert, less balanced and thought out than it could have been. Shouldn’t a restaurant of this caliber be able to produce a fish dish where the fish itself has a voice and provides a genuine flavor contribution? It could have been a hunk of soft styrofoam under flavors that overwhelming, and I doubt I would have noticed. My friend had the exact same thoughts about her Loup De Mer with Syrah Sauce, Leek Royale, and "Pommes Lyonnaise." She thought the syrah reduction was delicious, but that it completely overshadowed the fish it was served on. On a happier note, each us thought our potato accompaniments (not included in the menu description for mine) were extremely tasty little bites.
Fifth Course: I had the Spiced Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Chop, Ras el Hanout, Chickpea Panisses, Cannelloni of Shoulder, Bulgur and Apricot. The lamb chop provided the only real competition for the avocado mousse in terms of Memorably Impressive dishes for the night. It was tender and juicy, and the sauce was both creamy and peppery. I was very sad when it was finished. A little piece of tenderloin was in a different creamy sauce and was nice, but nearly as complex or interesting. The “cannelloni” struck me as excessively mushy in texture and without nearly a strong enough lamb flavor to balance the amount of apricot used. The chickpea panisse was great! My friend had the Duo of Dry Aged Black Angus Beef: Red Wine Braised Short Rib with Carrot Gratin and Seared Rib Eye with Pommes Dauphine and Shallot Confit. This was overall a very solid dish. Nothing memorable or unusual, but nicely cooked beef, good roasted flavor and extremely tasty sauces and stood up to and complimented the meat. Unfortunately this is where our service hiccup occurred. My friend had asked for her rib eye cooked medium, and it arrived fairly rare, clearly dark bloody red from top to bottom. The waiter (not sure of his official rank) who we flagged down tried to argue the point, finally conceding that it was “maybe on medium rare side.” That steak had nothing “medium” about it! Which is precisely why I so thoroughly enjoyed that bloody piece of meat while my friend got her new cooked-through piece. When they brought the replacement they were as contrite and helpful as anybody could have hoped for, but I was a little shocked by the arguing in the first place. I was far less upset than my friend, however. Possibly because I got to enjoy a bonus steak. Are there sweeter words in the English language than “bonus steak?”
Sixth Course: Yay dessert! I really enjoyed my Cilantro Poached Pineapple with Coconut, Lime-Rum Gelée, and Piña Colada Sorbet. I couldn’t taste any cilantro, but I didn’t really miss it. It was a very intense load of pineapple flavor and acid, and it left my mouth sort of tingling, but fortunately I love high acid dishes. My friend had the Tainori Chocolate Dacquoise with Rice Crispy, Lemon Curd, and Dark Chocolate Ice Cream. She really liked the rice crispy and the lemon curd and cream aspect of the dacquoise, but she felt (and I agreed) that the cake aspect of the dacquoise and the ice cream were both very inferior versions of their breed. Then came a sudden rush of dessert bonuses which provided a lovely excessive and gluttonous finish to the meal. A basket of tiny fresh baked hot Madeleines, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, was without a doubt the best aspect of dessert. They were so good we finished off the whole basket and felt around the cloth liner for any that might have escaped our notice. Another plate very closely resembled my friend’s dessert, but minus all the aspects we liked, so basically a dry chocolate cake and a scoop of ice cream (coffee this time). Finally there was a plate of mignardises. It seemed pretty standard compared to what I’ve had at other restaurants, and I would rate at least half of them Good or better.
So we certainly left full, and we had a few excellent things, but there were far, far too many disappointments for it to be a meal costing 175 before drinks, tip, and tax. There were problems of the most basic sort (Dry cake? Cold bread?), and the crab dish was so shameful that I actually felt bad for the waiters who collected our plates. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed like they were avoiding our eyes, and I’m pretty sure it was the only course where nobody asked how we liked it. Then again, maybe they just noticed our face when we tried it. On the one hand I would like to give Daniel another chance. So many people seem to like it so much that I want to believe there are treasures to be found and great meal experiences to be had. On the other hand, my friend and I are students, and this dinner represented a very major splurge for us (celebrating the successful completion of a major component of our semester). I’m not sure I could ever convince myself to spend this kind of money at Daniel again instead of going to, say Eleven Madison Park. This same friend and I recently had the EMP 11 course “Gourmand” menu. We spent the same amount, got twice as many courses, and the food was more impressive in every way and on every level. Possibly excepting the cocktails. If I were to give Daniel Boulud another chance as a chef, I would just go to Bar Boulud and enjoy some of the excellent charcuterie, which he does superbly. I feel obligated, based on a single but in depth experience (case study style!), to suggest that people consider other restaurants over Daniel, especially if cost is an issue and you are really looking to feel as though you got your money’s worth. I very rarely expect perfection from anything or anyone, but Daniel fell so far short of the mark that my friend and were left feeling as though we had taken a big swing at a nice slow pitch, almost felt the home-run hit, and completely whiffed. Sorry Daniel lovers, but I really think this place has fallen victim to the Daniel Boulud attention over-extension.