My Dinner at Daniel
From the outside, it looks like a hotel, with potted plants on either side of the door. But once inside the solemnity of the place overwhelms you, as you traipse past a bar on one side, small flock of cocktail tables on the other, then up to a reservations desk that might be the control tower for a small airport, except for the formal dress of the male and female reservationists. Finally, you emerge into the large, square dining room.
"This looks like a mausoleum," my guest noted as we were led to a table on the porticoed balcony -- only a few feet above the main dining floor -- that runs around the room. The room was dark for the most part, lit by huge descending light fixtures glowing yellow, which looked like space stations from the planet Dim.
Daniel is, of course, the flagship restaurant of Daniel Boulud, the city's most respected French chef. It is one of a handful of four-star (New York Times) restaurants, and has received a near-perfect 28-28-28 score in Zagat. It is one of NYC's few remaining temples of French haute cuisine gastronomy.
I hadn't been to Daniel in 10 years, when I'd accompanied a magazine editor and her entourage to a privileged meal. We'd sat in a tented enclosure on the other side of the circumferential balcony we now sat on, feeling as if we were eating in the backyard of a mansion.
I mentioned the tent to our Parisian waiter. Like all of the waiters he was dressed in a black, perfectly tailored suit. "They renovated three years ago. You remember when it was all red velvet? Quite a different feel now. I hope you like it."
Picking the course of our meal was something of a challenge. The entire menu is prix fixe, but at three levels of expenditure. We'd arrived at 5:30 p.m. -- the only reservation available a week in advance in the earlier part of the evening -- and thus we could get the pre-theater option, served only until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday: three full courses plus wine pairings for $125, which is really one heck of a deal. The wine pairings included a white from California, a red from France, and a dessert wine from northern Italy. There were, as I recall, four choices for each of the three courses, most of which also occurred on the regular prix-fixe menu. It had twice as many listings per course (but no wine pairings) at $108 per person. There was also a six-course menu at about twice the price. I decided to go with the regular three-course menu. I avoided those dishes that had supplementary charges of $10 to $20.
But to go the regular prix-fixe route, I had to consult the wine list. Calling it a list gives no impression of the number of bottles it contained -- let's just say the thing was the size of a medium-size city's phone book, pages upon pages of Burgundies, Bordeauxs, and Rhônes, with some Italian and American stuff thrown in, and all sorts of sweet wines and fizzy wines, too.
There were virtually no bottles less than $55, but a bit of action in the $55-to-$80 range, which is, of course, what my date and I focused on. There was a Côtes du Luberon from the southeast Rhône region that looked interesting at $65, so I ordered it. What an amazing red! Dark and saturated, it had a long lingering finish, and suggested that, even at the lower end of the list, the wines were amazing.
We had only a few minutes to savor the wine before the amuse arrived on three minuscule plates -- stick-like, blobby, and geometrical sculpted substances that had been mainly generated from sunchokes. (How random, I thought.) It seemed more intended to cleanse the mind than the palate. The bread sommelier showed up next, with his pincers and selection of six breads, including a couple of rolls, one featuring garlic, bread studded with nuts, and small torpedo-shaped French rolls so sharp at each end you could actually stab yourself.
Ten minutes later, the apps entered with a flourish. Don't depend on me for an exact description, because, like all dishes at Daniel, they represented complex assortments of elements, with no dish presenting fewer than eight or nine items on the plate (many in multiples), interspersed as if generated on some landscape-producing computer software. Even assaying a plate of food like that requires the formulation of a strategy.