Yesterday was day 3 of the big parental visit – DANIEL. This was the dinner I’d been waiting for. From the moment we stepped into the restaurant, I could tell we were in for a treat. The room is opulent, gorgeous. I had a velvet footstool for my purse. There were countless waitstaff bustling about, just waiting to make sure that our experience was utterly perfect. Or so I thought.
Once we were seated, a waiter gave us menus and explained that they offered either a 3-course meal or a 6-course tasting. I mentioned that I had seen the 8-course tasting detailed on their website and that we’d be interested in doing that, but he said they were no longer offering it and that if we wanted, we could certainly supplement the 6-course tasting with an extra course or two. We decided that was not necessary, but upon looking over the 6-course tasting we found that 3 of the courses had no non-seafood options (a problem for my mom, who eats no seafood). However, having read all the glowing reviews of Daniel’s accommodating staff (and having had no problem getting non-fish options on tasting menus elsewhere), I assured her that they would whip up something fabulous for her that didn’t involve fish.
However, when we mentioned this to the waiter who took our order (a middle-aged, short, bald French gentleman with glasses), he immediately said “oh, that will be a PROBLEM” in a rude tone and finally, after much prodding, said he would go check with the kitchen to see if it was “possible” to substitute some non-fish courses into the tasting menu. WHAT? I’m sorry, but we didn’t come to Daniel and spend $175 per person to be told that we were a problem and that it might be POSSIBLE to avoid fish, especially when I know that (in addition to all the non-fish options on the regular menu) they offer a vegetarian tasting menu that my mother would have been happy to select from (not that he gave her that option). As if she was the first person who’s ever gone to Daniel that doesn’t eat fish. Have they never encountered a fish allergy? Additionally, I told the reservationist when I called to confirm 2 days in advance that we would be doing a tasting and that one of our party didn’t eat fish, and she said that would be no problem. Unbelievable. This really started the evening off on the wrong foot. After a good 10 minute wait, he finally returned to the table and told her it would be possible, and asked what she would like instead. She chose a couple of things from the regular menu and he suggested a pasta course that could be made without fish, and that was that. Was that really so hard?
Anyway, by this time our drinks and amuses had arrived, so I took advantage of my very good seasonal infusion martini (lychee-raspberry) to calm myself and focused on the amuses to keep myself from giving Baldy a death stare. The amuses were tiny and adorable – a goat cheese mousse in a parmesan basket, a tiny square of lobster on some type of green sauce, a spinach mousse petit four and a zucchini “tempura.” Unfortunately, none of these tasted as good as they looked, but they were very pretty. The bread came quickly thereafter, and since it was so amazing I really didn’t care about the amuses. Olive and rosemary rolls, sweet garlic rolls – HEAVENLY. Normally I try not to fill up on bread at a long dinner like this but I could not leave that olive bread alone.
The meal was very nicely paced in general. Portions were quite generous, in my opinion – I would have been uncomfortably full if we’d done an 8-course tasting, especially because of the bread! My parents decided to do the wine pairings, which I thought were VERY well chosen, for the most part. I particularly liked the first 2 whites they were served. I am not a big drinker so I opted for a glass of the Daniel Chardonnay (aptly chosen for me by the sommelier), which was a very nice, full-bodied white that went with pretty much everything I ate. BF tried 3 excellent Belgian beers from their small but wisely chosen beer list.
Shortly after the bread came, we received our first courses - rabbit “porchetta” and pistachio crusted foie gras with blood orange and white wine gelee. The foie was delicious but there was WAY too much going on on the plate – if I just focused on the foie with the blood orange, it was great, but the wine gelee was just foul and there were several other small decorative things on my plate that detracted from the foie goodness. The rabbit porchetta was very disappointing – BF commented that it tasted like rabbit bologna, which was not inaccurate. It was served cold, terrine-style, and the only thing I liked on the plate was the tiny dollop of mustard. Of course, why anyone would choose rabbit when there was foie gras to be had is beyond me, but chacun a son gout!
Next we had scallops 3 ways and peekytoe crab (my mother opted for a minestrone with dumplings which was an appetizer special that evening – didn’t taste it but she said it was great). The scallops were all raw – a ceviche, a sashimi with yuzu and a chopped quenelle with caviar. The ceviche was bland – insufficiently citrusy, and the included scallop roe and oyster just didn’t go with anything. The sashimi with yuzu was very tasty – the little pool of yuzu juice that you were to drag your sashimi slices through had the tart kick that I was missing in the ceviche. The quenelle of chopped scallop was delicious and a really interesting play on texture – because of the way it was chopped, you felt like you were eating an entire mouthful of caviar rather than just the tiny bit that was on top of the scallops. BF had the crab, which was fine but not terribly exciting, and had no discernable curry flavor (though the menu said green and yellow curry).
My next choice was butter-poached lobster with polenta and arugula, and BF chose fennel ravioli with calamari, cuttlefish and shrimp. They made a seafood-less version of this for my mother, which she raved about. I tasted BF’s and I must say, the ravioli were delicious. The sweet fennel worked nicely with all the seafood and the rich savory sauce. The cuttlefish bits were perfectly tender. My dish was also terrific, although I have to say that the lobster was a tad dry, which was unexpected given the butter-poaching preparation. The polenta was good but a tiny bit too grainy. I really liked the bitter edge that the arugula lent to the dish, but my father felt it was overly bitter.
More fish for course number 4 - Dover sole with crayfish and stuffed romaine lettuce for me, cod with morels and potatoes for BF (chicken with morels for Mom – another winner, according to her). My sole was fine but nothing spectacular – the fish had some sort of custardy filling that just didn’t do it for me, and the crayfish seemed like an afterthought. The stuffed lettuce was only okay as well. BF’s cod was another story entirely. Indescribably delicious. I don’t know what they did to the potatoes, but they just melted in my mouth, surrounded by flaky cod and rich, savory morels. Incredible. BF is the BEST orderer in the world and I really need to start letting him choose courses for me, because I always like his food better than mine (except the rabbit!).
For our final savory course, dad chose the lamb loin and chop with pea puree and the rest of us went for the signature beef 2 ways – short rib and ribeye. Finally, TWO BIG WINNERS! The lamb was simply grilled but was probably the most flavorful lamb I’ve ever had – richly earthy, perfect with the sweet pea puree. The beef was excellent – impeccable ribeye with a porcini mushroom, beef jus and a tangy mustard that was a perfect counterpoint. The short rib was delicious but almost TOO tender – the texture was so soft it was nearly mushy, and although the red wine braise was good, it needed more acidity. I found myself comparing it to the short rib I had at Jean-George the day before, and JG won (for me – I think BF liked Daniel’s better). The accoutrements for this included a cube of spinach (good) and a cube of deep fried mashed potatoes, which were good but tasted weirdly just like the batter coating on those frozen fish filets that my mother used to serve us occasionally when we were kids – it’s a very specific flavor and I have no idea what it is, but I’ve never tasted it in anything other than cheap frozen fish filets and that potato cube. Strange!
Dessert – dad chose mango, the rest of us went chocolate. My mother doesn’t care for dessert wine, so I commandeered her glass of Maure’ (or Moray?), a fortified wine from the south of France (I need to call and get the exact name and info, because this was seriously amazing). It was similar to a tawny port, but not as heavy. Anyway, the desserts were simple and delicious – the chocolate was a layered cake (good but a TINY bit dry) with ganache (unbelievable) and a scoop of chocolate gelato (excellent). It was great on its own, but when paired with the wine it was simply spectacular. Jaw-droppingly fantastic. I think this wine with ANY of their chocolate desserts would be incredible. The mango was also excellent, with an equally apt wine pairing (a sweet ice-style wine). I particularly enjoyed the sorbet and the sesame mousse. Madelines were okay (BF loved them) and mignardises were fine, with a tiny key lime tart being a standout.
In conclusion, I really, really wanted to LOVE Daniel, but I just didn’t. Rude service issues aside, there were too many things I tasted that just weren’t as good as they should have been. My father commented that it seemed as though they might not be quite as picky about the quality of their ingredients as they ought to be, and I think that’s accurate (in the case of the crab and Dover sole especially). Many of the flavors were a little too middle-of-the-road for me – I wanted just a touch more tang or a touch more spice, etc, on a number of occasions – and I don’t think it was just me not appreciating the subtlety of the flavors. I just feel that at this price point, I should be WOWED by almost everything I put in my mouth, and there were really only a couple of things that wowed me out of the 12 courses I tried. I did enjoy the meal and I would go back, but I would likely not do the tasting again, and I would probably wait for another season (I have a feeling their fall/winter menu might be better than the spring one). Thanks for reading, and stay tuned – we’re going to Aquavit tomorrow!