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Restaurants & Bars 11

Report: Daniel

tupac17616 | Mar 12, 2008 01:55 AM

Certainly more focus has been given to Bar Boulud lately, but not too long ago I checked in with the mothership. My thoughts are below, and pictures can be seen here:

Is fine dining in New York a relic of the past, a barely burning candle that was extinguished in 2004 with the loss of the old stalwarts Lutèce, La Caravelle, and La Côte Basque? Or was its demise ushered in more recently, with even the finest practitioners of haute cuisine — Ducasse, Robuchon, Vongerichten and Keller, to name a few — scrambling to either close their more formal eateries, open more casual ones, or both? And what about the so-called “New Paradigm” restaurants, vilifying table cloths and reservations, and venerating their smiling poster boy, the infallible St. Chang? For some people these are serious questions to be pondered, but personally I could not care less. Sometimes I just want to go to dinner.

And current trends be damned, I recently wanted to go somewhere nice. Someplace elegant, where I would wear cuff links and my friend would have a little stool to set her purse on. I wanted to be coddled, so to speak — both well-served and well-fed. And when you find yourself wanting such things, you go to Daniel. While Monsieur Boulud has not been immune to the lure of building his own little gastro-empire — with restaurants extending to Florida, Nevada, and soon all the way to China — his Upper East Side flagship remains unapologetically grand. Its ambience and its cuisine are immediately evocative of the way a grumpy octogenarian might claim things used to be. This particular evening was our first visit to the restaurant, and as such we chose the chef’s tasting menu presented in tandem. In no rush whatsoever, we ordered a few glasses of rosé champagne, my friend got the little stool for her purse, and we sat back and waited the show to begin.

As we sat in anticipation of what was to be a very pleasant meal, we took a closer note of our surroundings and I began to see hints of what makes this venetian renaissance dining space Adam’s favorite dining room in the city. For a relatively large room, the space is actually quite welcoming. Large bouquets of flowers are abundant, filling the void between the golden draperies and creme colored columns. There are two dining areas at different levels, an inner open floor with larger tables, and a slightly elevated perimeter of smaller niche tables that overlook the inner space. We sat at the latter, hiding in the comfort of our pocket table overlooking the balcony at the dining room below us.

Soon we received a plate of four amuses-bouche, or rather a beautiful tiered silver tray of them. There were four treats for each of us: a miniature parmesan tuile filled with herbed goat cheese mousse and toasted pine nuts; chickpea purée garnished with radish; a small chunk of lobster claw meat with fennel purée and lemon confit; and pressed artichoke hearts served on a crispy cracker. Each could have used something more, for example a crisper tuile for the goat cheese or another flavor to offset the sweetness of the fennel and the lemon confit — those kinds of small tweaks. Nothing here was necessarily bad, but as a whole the canapés were more impressive in number than in flavor.

Several minutes later the bread came around — raisin-walnut, olive rolls, and sourdough all baked in-house — and its timing was just right, as we each received our first courses moments later. I was given the Scottish game terrine with foie gras, spiced chestnuts, lady apple confit. The terrine was a beautiful meat mosaic on the plate, but was unfortunately served a bit too soon after bring pulled from the refrigerator. The cooler temperature dulled the flavors, preventing the nuances of each meat in the terrine from emerging. If nothing else, I at least thought the accompaniments — especially the lady apple confit — were well-chosen.

Meanwhile, my friend received the Duck foie gras terrine with port gelée, poached quince, walnuts, endive salad. Although I thought my dish read better on paper, it turned out hers was the tastier of the two. In order to avoid either of us having to envy the other’s dishes during this tandem tasting menu, we had already decided to switch plates half-way through each course, essentially creating a 13-course degustation (including our inevitable date with the cheese cart later on). So when the duck foie gras terrine was sent my way, it seemed things were looking up. It was creamy, rich, and very tasty. The port gelée brought some acidity to brighten things up, and the other items that ranged from sweet (quince) to slightly bitter (endive) really made for a well-balanced spectrum of flavors.

Next I received Yuzu marinated fluke with shiso, shaved crudités, lemon balm oil. This very Japanese-inspired dish at this very French restaurant was among the best of the evening. The fluke was of exceptional quality — tender and almost melting on the tongue, yet still maintaining some textural character. The dish avoided the common problem of over-marinating in citrus, and instead the yuzu brought just the right level of acidity to the complement the delicate flavor of the fish. The crudités and a long, thin sesame cracker provided crispy and crunchy textural counterpoints to the fish. And the shiso brought a just-perceptible minty background flavor that really made the entire combination incredibly cool and refreshing, even on this cold winter night.

My friend was unfortunately not so lucky: we both agreed that her dish — Maine peeky toe crab salad with granny smith apple, celery root, toasted hazelnuts — was probably the weakest of the night. I should have learned my lesson with an absolutely horrendous peeky toe crab dish at Café Boulud (I don’t even want to talk about it) a few months before this. But I didn’t. The next time I see this crustacean on the menu in a Boulud restaurant, I think I’ll just politely leave the table. It wasn’t not so much the crab itself that was the problem, but rather its discordant back-up singers. The shot glass on the left in the photo contains a layer of chunky apple gelée topped with sweetened celery root purée — a vile concoction not unlike watery yogurt with mealy applesauce mixed through it. The small cylinder of crab meat on the right was ringed with thin slices of radish and topped with lightly dressed greens. This all sat upon a sickeningly sweet purée whose ingredients (besides apple) I couldn’t quite identify. A few coarse chunks of toasted hazelnut brought a very welcome textural change here and there, but its flavor was pretty much annihilated by all the sweetness on the plate.

I don’t want to make it seem like that one dish soured the entire meal, though — far from it. Things were back on track with the Roasted Maine lobster with herb crust, savoy cabbage fondue, glazed turnips. Quickly steamed before being de-shelled and sent on a short trip under the salamander, the lobster had a delicate texture. Once I cracked its thin golden panko-and-herb crust, the meat within yielded to the slightest prodding of my knife, evidence that the lobster had been (correctly) just slightly undercooked. The buttery savoy cabbage complemented the natural sweetness of the lobster, while the glazed turnip, onion and carrot on the side were fork-tender and fortunately not the least bit mushy.

A course of Wild mushroom ravioli with sherry emulsion, sweet garlic coulis, parsley-celery salad was simple but well-executed. The pasta was neither too thick nor too thin. It had just slightly toothsome before it gave way to the smooth and earthy duxelles on the inside. The flavors of the emulsion, coulis and salad that made up the condiment for the ravioli complemented the pasta without shining through very brightly. But they really didn’t need to. This dish was all about the mushrooms, as it should have been.

Moving into a fish course for both of us, my friend was given the Chanterelle stuffed skate, creamy spinach, “carotte fondante”, Bordelaise sauce. Skate is one of my favorite types of fish, with the subtle sweetness and tender texture much like a scallop. Its flat shape ensures the development of a really nice crust when it is pan-roasted. This skate wing’s mushroom stuffing gave it a nice earthiness to complement the delicate flavor of the fish, and the spinach and the carrots brought a buttery richness that really lent a nice depth to the flavor combination. But the texture of the fish was unfortunately a bit dry and stringy, a sign of too much time on the heat and an inexcusable mistake at this level of restaurant.

There were no such problems with my Olive oil poached cod, sweet bell peppers, chickpea purée, chorizo. It was again in a dish of non-French origins — in this case, Spanish — that I found some of my favorite flavors of the evening. The tender and mildly-flavored fish fillet was elevated — literally and figuratively — by sweet roasted peppers and smoky, peppery chorizo. The creamy chickpea purée brought these flavors together into a package redolent of olive oil, garlic, and pimentón. It brought to mind the beautiful Spanish countryside, or at least what I imagine it to be like, having not been there myself just yet.

Next we came to a meat course, and one that never seems to leave Daniel’s menu — the Duo of Dry Aged Beef — Short Ribs layered with Pasta, Black Trumpets; Seared Ribeye with Sunchoke-Potato Gratin, Salsify. The braised short rib was ultra-soft, and the black trumpet mushrooms and red wine reduction that came alongside it made for a luxuriously rich, earthy and meaty combination. Even better was the rib eye, cooked to a rosy medium rare. The meat was nicely marbelized, and had both a tender texture and a deeply concentrated flavor brought about by the dry-aging process. The sunchoke-potato gratin was great, like mom’s old-fashioned scalloped potatoes on steroids. A buttery potato purée and a single long piece of salsify — an often-neglected vegetable — also worked well with both meat preparations.

Our other meat course was Colorado lamb saddle with spiced goat cheese and pistachios, brussels sprouts fricassée, black radish, crosnes. We were hard-pressed to choose between this and the beef duo. There is nothing complicated here: just two properly cooked (medium rare) pieces of meat, one crusted with pistachios and slightly tangy spiced goat cheese and the other topped simply with herb-infused butter. The brussels sprouts were as creamy as you might expect given the method of preparation. And the crosnes are certainly uniquely shaped, aren’t they? Well here they were quite flavorful also.

Though it wasn’t listed as part of our tasting menu, as soon as we saw the magnificent cheese cart we asked if they might add in a Degustation of four cheeses for us. The maître fromager, whose name I wish I could remember, was very knowledgeable and he made it easy to choose a nice flight of cheeses from their many options. Starting at the top right in the photo below, we had some wonderfully ripe Vacherin Mont d’Or, nutty Mimolette, slightly tangy goat cheese whose name eludes me (he said it rhymes with “Chevrolet”), and almost smoky Tomme de something or other. Clearly I wasn’t taking notes, and perhaps the cheese guy’s accent was a little… tough to decipher, but either way, there’s no doubt that Daniel’s cheese cart is among the best in the city, and we really enjoyed our selection.

We had finally come to dessert, and my friend received the Bittersweet chocolate-praline crémeux, amer cocoa biscuit, dark chocolate crème glacée. This was so chocolaty that one or two bites was sufficient… Oh hell, who am I kidding? Sure, that would have been the socially acceptable reaction, but you know me better than that by now. My friend uttered one of the happiest phrases in the Englsh language — “It’s all yours. I’m full” — and I dutifully cleaned this plate down to the very last speck once it was pushed my way. Each element, from the mousse-like crémeux to the unapologetically rich ice cream straddled the line gracefully between bitter and sweet. There were no foreign flavor elements to complement or even compete with the unadulterated chocolate, and frankly, it didn’t need them.

There’s no denying that I’m a sweet-tooth all year around, but there’s something especially appealing about sweets in the colder months. So I was very happy to see the seasonal Four spice pumpkin mousse, speculoos biscuit, kriek-cranberry sorbet as the other dessert. We didn’t ask what the four spices were, but our best guess was cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Whatever they were, they lent both good flavor and aroma to the mousse, which was delicious and very light in texture. The crispy and crumbly Speculoos biscuit was buttery and very flavorful. And the combination of cranberries and kriek made for a sweet-tart sorbet that countered the richness of the other items nicely.

We were celebrating my birthday on this particular evening and the kitchen was nice enough to send out a Spiced bosc pear with Vietnamese cinnamon streusel, orange pâte de fruit, Poire William sorbet in addition to the sweets we’d already had. By this point, my friend had long raised the white napkin of surrender, so this dessert was all mine. The poached pear was simple but very flavorful. It’s texture was fork-tender without being mushy or mealy. And the sorbet on the side provided contrast of both flavor and temperature to the pear. The pâte de fruit made for a tasty candle holder as well.

It would seem that we were done at that point, but there was more on the way — a napkin enveloping several Warm madeleines. This is a signature ending at Daniel, and rightfully so. I’m not sure if they’re the best madeleines I’ve ever had, but having these treats warm from the oven is what made this special. Small details like that can really make all the difference. When’s the last time a restaurant served you warm bread and room-temperature butter, for example? Exactly — that’s too long. My friend’s appetite miraculously returned, and we happily killed off about half of these delicious little cakes before I even remembered to stop and snap a photo.

Lastly, we had a plate of Petit fours. They wouldn’t want us to go home hungry, after all. There were several different things here: miniature macarons, coconut marshmallow, linzer cookie, chocolates, caramels and tarts. Nothing very remarkable, but petit fours rarely are. Those last few sweet bites are always appreciated, though.

By now, it was getting late in the evening and we were among the last tables (I can’t quite figure out why this always seems to happen) to finish up. We had seen Daniel Boulud making his rounds, chatting with a few regulars. I mentioned to our waiter that we’d love to meet him, and lo and behold, he came over and talked with us mere mortals. For about the next half hour. Daniel knows pretty much everyone in the NY restaurant industry, so it wasn’t long until we got to the “Oh, you know so-and-so also, eh? He used to work for me.” point in the conversation. He offered to take us down to the wine cellar which lies past the maze-like labyrinth of offices downstairs and back up through the kitchen, where we met the executive chef Jean François Bruel. Speaking with him, I recalled Adam’s story about how when he dined here, chef Bruel passed him a beer and invited him out for a drink with the rest of the kitchen staff — talk about hospitality. Daniel smiled and laughed with us, speaking mostly in English but also in French with my friend whose language skills far surpass my own. He really has a warm, vibrant personality and it was a real pleasure to have met him. But it was getting late, so we thanked him profusely and promised to return.

Overall, this was not a meal I would call amazing or exciting. In fact, I didn’t find the food to reach the same level as the other New York Times 4* restaurants, or even the fabulous Eleven Madison Park for that matter. But the overall experience is certainly a special one. I found the whole atmosphere to be incredibly warm and welcoming and the service to be knowledgeable and attentive but non-intrusive. Could I go back next winter and see the same exact dishes? Probably so. But the non-food elements of a meal mean something, too, and there’s a certain comfort in knowing I could go back anytime and get the same great service and enjoy the same comforting atmosphere. And of course, knowing my friend will always have that cute little stool for her purse.

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