(visited November, 2004)
Have you ever felt “man-handled” at a restaurant?From the moment my friend and I walked in, I was overwhelmed by Daniel’s “machismo.” Every nook, cranny and staff member of the restaurant exuded masculinity. This was a restaurant with confidence, and it isn’t afraid to assert it. And well, why should it? It’s made nearly every restaurant top-ten list in the past ten years and has garnered more awards, praises and acclaim than most three-starred Michelin restaurants.
Hot off the heels of reading Leslie Brennan’s book, The Fourth Star, my visit to Daniel, besides being one of those “once in a lifetime-type” places, was a much anticipated event. Also, hot off the heels of dinners at Le Bernardin and Jean-Georges, Daniel followed a couple of hard acts to beat. But I was fairly certain that the second-most famous Lyonnaise chef Daniel Boulud (Paul Bocuse being undisputedly the most famous) would not fail me.
Well, I overshot… slightly. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the experience I had anticipated.
First: about the restaurant space (I’ll keep this short since you can view the entire layout at the restaurant’s website – make sure you have your sound on). The entrance puts you just steps above the lobby, which is sizeable and includes a few seating sets spilling out from the bar and lounge to the right. The lounge is outfitted with plush banquette/couchettes and chairs.
Inside, diners waiting for their table saddled up to the bar for some chic cocktails or munched on olives and various crispy chips and dips.Facing the receptionist, a visitor announcing arrival gets a nice survey of the main dining room just beyond an impressive set of “bronze studded mahogany doors.”
The main dining room is famed for its lavish Renaissance Venetian décor. A limestone colonnade separates a gallery (of tables and banquettes) that wraps around a central dining area in the middle (the premium seats or “stage”). The room is lined with an orange-reddish carpet and trimmed all around with satin, damask and heavy velvet curtains of dark burgundy and gold. Ahhh, I was in a Romanesque palace… But wait – Italy? I thought Daniel Boulud was a French chef cooking fine French food…
Second: about the service. Now, I grew up around a lot of poor-English speakers (unfortunately, this included American-born Americans) and can decipher even the most butchered attempts at the language. But, I’d have to say the servers at Daniel did a number on me.
The large majority of the wait staff was from Latin America. The rest were either French or Italian. None spoke English very well (or at all).While I’m a big proponent of equal employment opportunity – I do think it’s essential that restaurant staffs are able to pronounce the dishes that diners are paying an arm and a leg for.
Some diners may not care. I do – especially at a place like Daniel, where no guest could possibly be expected to have the menu memorized. I am not exaggerating when I say that neither my friend (a native Parisian) nor I (proficient in French) understood a single item on the laundry-list of ingredients and nuances that were rattled off that evening. Half-way into the description of the second course, I broke down.
I caught the attention of our captain (see below) and requested a copy of the menu so that I could follow along.A gripe about the servers (note the plurality): I am sure the restaurant was on some kind of wait staff rotation schedule – I was never served by the same server twice. Instead, I watched our servers make their way around the room the entire evening. As a diner, this transience is destabilizing. For some, the constant change may be refreshing.
Personally, I think that a multi-course three-hour meal needs to be anchored by some consistency – especially the hand that feeds you. I mean, can you imagine watching a play where the characters were played by a different actor in each Act? It’d get a little confusing… and pointless after a while.
Truthfully, when I left the meal, I felt cheap and used. Sniff… The only person that did reappear at our table was one of the captains. Ours was a statuesque five-foot-ten woman in a very slimming black pin-striped suit, short frizzy hair and a pair of thick black rimmed Gucci glasses (you know, the ones with the intertwined G’s on the temples). She had the confidence of a Klingon woman (for you non-Trekky’s, suffice it to say, she was very amazon). Like a queen bee, she lorded over a buzzzzy crew of workers serving, busing and clearing tables.
Queen Bee’s presence was felt throughout our meal. When she graced us with her manliness, she seemed to take care of the administrative work – taking our orders and checking our progress. She was serious and dramatic, yet witty and straightforward – in a charming kind of way. However, when she wasn’t within sight, I couldn’t get over an eerie “Big Brother” feeling that those Gucci frames were honing in on my every move from some central command station.In fact, my paranoiac discomfort isn’t that far off from reality.
Brennen, in her behind-the-scenes book talks about the discreetly placed remote-controlled cameras from which the kitchen staff (ie. Boulud and his head chefs) can keep an eye out for VIP guests, or Mr. Bruni (these cigarette-thin implements are easily spotted along the ceiling panels). However, we were clearly not among this group – evidenced primarily by the fact that not only were we not seated in the main dining area, but our walk to the table was the shortest one possible – just inside the main entrance.
The disadvantages were many – including filtered noise from the lobby, the high traffic, and a running tab of every guest’s restroom/powder runs between courses. The advantages are equally numbered – especially if you are a nosy “fly-on-the-wall-type” like me. I was here to observe, and from our vantage, I had the perfect opportunity to survey – both visually and aurally – the scene.
Also, Queeny apparently had “family.” Yes, the Italian palace came fully equipped with a fleet of princes. The princes were a ubiquitous Mafia-esque group of alpha males who intermittently roved the room in matching black pin-striped suits. They may or may not have had sunglasses (I think my imagination was getting away with me). Nevertheless, their presence was very real, although their function was less apparent.
At one point, I was seriously wondering if the Godfather himself was present and whether this crew were there for protection. This notion was quickly dispelled when I saw a number of them serving food to guests. One even came to our table to check up on us – no doubt at the Queen’s behest.
Finally: having set the stage, the featured presentation – the food. Because it was a weekend night, we were informed that the chef would not be able prepare the eight-course degustation. Disappointed, but slightly relieved to have spared my wallet some grief, we opted for the the five course dinner. Although the five-course is usually selected from a set group of options, Queeny convinced the chefs to do a “whimsical” tasting course – that is, the chefs would select from the entire menu to afford us a broader sampling of the restaurant. This was Queeny at one of her finest moments. So, between my friend and me, we tried a total of eight courses and four desserts.
The dinner, as with all dinners at Daniel, starts with canapés served on a tri-tiered silver server. From top to bottom were: Parmesan crisps with goat cheese mousse, Anchovy and gourgeres (cheese profiteroles), and finally a beet salad. Overall, they were flavorful, but unremarkable. The crisps weren’t so crispy and the gourgeres weren’t so puffy – kind of soggy on both fronts.
First Course: My friend and I were both served a terrine duo. The first, and my favorite of the two, was a foie gras terrine with a gingerbread crust, a side of mache salad and mango chutney with Tasmanian pepper (imagine saying that in a foreign language you don’t speak and expecting the diner to understand you – see what I mean?).
The gingerbread “crust” was a dusting of finely ground gingerbread around the edges of the terrine mold – the spicy nuttiness of the sweet gingerbread was a wildly creative and unspeakably bewitching compliment to the pure untouched livery-ness of the foie. The foie itself was fantastic – very fresh and silky.
The second terrine was made of venison and foie gras and studded with chestnuts and black truffles. Saddling up was quince confit, minted date chutney and a port gelee. This was the product of the hunter god’s sport, the spoils of early winter.
Second Course: The danger of letting the chef choose different courses for you and your dinner mate(s) is the potential of “course envy.” We had avoided this phenomenon thus far, having been treated equally. In a blue-sky world, “course envy” wouldn’t exist – the chef’s creations would be equally and universally outstanding.
Unfortunately, blue skies don’t prevail over Daniel’s Lyon (or Venice?)… Thankfully, my date and I had made an agreement to share and share alike… (sage (no pun intended) advice to all tasting course dining couples/groups)…
I, the step-child of this pasta course, was served a “Nine Herb Tortellini” with porcini cream, stewed tomatoes and toasted walnuts. Despite its description and beauty, someone had pushed the “mute” button on the flavor channel on this dish. Deaf to taste, the stewed tomatoes and walnuts added the only excitement – more textural than . To be sure, the pasta was done very well, but the herbs (I couldn’t identify any single one – maybe basil if I listened very carefully) were indistinguishable, ironic considering herbs’ primary use as a flavor agent. Perhaps they cancelled each other out, or were drowned out by the barely audible porcini cream?
While my dish remained silent, my date’s pasta spoke volumes. It wasn’t as pretty as mine, but “Reblochon and Fontina Agnolotti” with ovoli mushrooms provided a welcomed (and much needed) injection of flavor. Indeed, the boldness of the cheeses and earthy strength of the ovoli was the antithesis of blandness. Complex, nutty, creamy – yummy – this was a dish that took you back to the womb in comfort.
Third Course: The score evened out in the fish course. My date was served “Grilled Swordfish with Curried Bearnaise,” Granny Smith fricassee, nugget potatoes, and roasted eggplant. In my opinion, this was a disaster on a plate – a cacophonous confusion of far-flung combinations. The swordfish was dry, the curry didn’t go… Granny Smith fricassee? I pitied my date who played the martyr by refraining from abandoning his fish for an all-out proxy contest for mine.
I landed the better “catch:” “Dover Sole Fricassee” with Marcona almonds, cauliflower mousseline and Romanesco and almond emulsion. This was a familiar pairing (sole and almonds) in an unfamiliar format. I’ve never encountered fricassee fish – especially one as delicate as sole. I suppose this is a testament to the chef’s skills. The fish was firm, yet very tender, and almost silky. The double shot of cauliflower in the mousseline and Romanesco emulsion was a cute coupling, but otherwise unremarkable.
Fourth Course: The “green eye” returned as I saw the “Loin of Niman Ranch Lamb” with Romaine coulis, artichokes, pommes fondants, Taggiasche olives and sweet garlic jus set before my friend. I love lamb. I was sure that I had been short-changed with a “Duo: Dry-Aged Rib Eye and Braised Short Ribs.” The lamb was very good, but the Romaine coulis was absolutely wretched. Both my date and I reeled from its acridity. It was so overpowering that I was unable to taste sweet garlic in the jus or the pommes fondants – I just assumed it tasted like buttery mashed potatoes.
On the other hand, I had underestimated my beef duo. The rib-eye was good, but the braised short rib was arresting. Piping hot and surrendering to the tug of my fork, the juicy meat pulled away from the rib without objection. Its deep and rich taste evidenced hours of coddling in fat and fine wine. I was reluctant to share with my partner… together, we picked the bone dry. Too bad short ribs aren’t long…The meat was so good that I nearly neglected the sides: Swiss chard gratin, parsnip-celery mousseline and a red mustard salad. None were remarkable, and thankfully not as shocking as my partner’s coulis.
Dessert Course: I had a “Tasting of Madagascar Mangaro Chocolate” with thyme chibouste, caramel chaud–froid and a passion fruit tartelette. This was coupled with “Baked Fuji Apple with Calvados Raisins,” Diplomat Crème and orange blossom financiers. On my date’s plate were “Hazlenut Dacquoise with Milk Chocolate Parfait,” vanilla yogurt Bavarois and dark caramel ice cream and “Walnut and Seckel Pear ‘Frangipane’,” maple pear jam, cranberry and Darjeeling tea sorbet.
Desserts, on a whole, were wonderful, but not dazzling. But, I’m not sure that they had to be dazzling. After the uncertainty my palate had just experienced, all I wanted was something solid. Solid is what Daniel’s pastry chefs delivered. I very much appreciated our desserts.
First, they were reserved and very thoughtful – perhaps the most thoughtfully paired and presented course of the evening. I loved the “angel and devil” concept – each of us was given one forgivingly light treat but was also allowed to sinfully indulge in the other.
Second, I was delighted at the incorporation of fruit: I had my passion fruit, apples and raisins and my date had pear and cranberries.
To be sure, both of us were satisfied. My deep dark Mangaro provided a wonderfully rich anchor to the jazzy tang of the passion fruit. As well, the Calvados-macerated raisins lent the perfect umph to the sweet baked Fuji. Truth be told, I could have been happy with just a bowlful of those golden little gems doused with Diplomat Crème.My date’s Dacquoise wasn’t as exciting as my passion fruit tart and I preferred my dark chocolate to his milk.
However, I am a sucker for hazelnut. Moreover, I envied his frozen delights – the dark caramel ice cream was bewitching. As well, we both agreed that we could easily have foregone the frangipane for another scoop, or four of the Darjeeling sorbet.Despite the strong ending to an otherwise hit-or-miss meal, the biggest “treat” came post-dessert when a pair of Queeny’s brothers escorted a man in chef’s whites to our table. “Monsieur Ulterior Epicure?” It was Daniel himself. “I hear you’re in the food industry.”Huh? Where did he get that from? Queeny appeared behind him, smug. I stood to shake Mr. Boulud’s hand, “No, you must be mistaken.”
“Your captain tells me that you know quite a lot about the food industry. Tell, me what is it that you do?”
“Monsieur Boulud, I do not work in the food industry. Rather, I’m just an admirer of good food. I travel to eat.”
“Well, sounds like you’ve got the best job in the food industry. I hope you enjoyed everything. You must excuse me, but I have been very busy all evening – I am hosting a very good friend of mine in the Bellacour Room tonight.”
So, he hadn’t been in the kitchen – he had been entertaining a VIP. Thankfully, he didn’t ask for my honest opinion about the food or the service – perhaps he knew better… After exchanging a few words in French with my date, and being duly charmed, he was escorted by his “bodyguards” to another table, of true VIP’s, for more soigné.
To ease the pain of forking over a second mortgage, Daniel sends the bill out accompanied by his signature madeleines, still warm in a swaddle of fine linens and petit fours on a silver tray. The madeleines were so buttery that it made me wonder whether they would help hasten the heart attack when seeing the pricetag… which, by the way was $125 per person plus $60 for my date’s wine tasting. (Sorry, can’t comment).
I thanked Queeny on our way out. Had she told Daniel that I was “in the industry?” Had they spied me pointing out the camera’s to my date. Had our servers actually understood our hushed remarks about the service and the food? Did asking for a copy of the menu tip them off? It must have been a mistake… do you usually “man-handle” suspect restaurant critics???
If you’ve read this entire review (bravo!) and are left with a feeling of inconclusiveness or perplexity, you’re not alone. If you feel like you’ve been strong-armed through a confused journey of cultural mis-identity and unpredictable and often disappointing experiences, you’re not alone. That’s very much how my date and I felt after eating at Daniel.
As we retrieved our coats from the coat-check, I spied with my little eyes Boulud escorting Paul Bocuse out of the Bellacour Room…
Exhausted, my date and I stumbled out onto the blistery cold streets of New York, and hailed a cab and headed up to our favorite late-night “Hot-and-Crusty” on Lexington between 100th and 86th. I bought a jumbo chocolate chip cookie and my date got some macaroons… we walked around the corner to my date’s condo… popped the biscuits into the oven, poured a couple glasses of milk and sat down to a predictably satisfying post-Daniel “snack.” Sorry Monsieur Boulud…
60 East 65th Street
New York, New York 10021
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.