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The Payoff: Daniel

Today, Frank Bruni re-affirms four stars for Daniel. A new Adam Tihany décor sealed the deal:

Daniel was always fancy; now it’s genuinely gorgeous, too. And that’s almost reason enough to reaffirm the four stars the restaurant was awarded by William Grimes in The New York Times in 2001.

But the contemporary French menu and the service make their own contributions, usually measuring up to the extremely high standards the restaurant has established.

All in all Daniel remains one of New York’s most sumptuous dining experiences. And while it yields fewer transcendent moments than its four-star brethren and falls prey to more inconsistency, it has a distinctive and important niche in that brood, a special reason to be treasured.

Among the handful of elegant restaurants that maintain the rituals once synonymous with superior cuisine and cling to an haute French style, Daniel is the most straightforward, the one with the fewest tics or tweaks. It’s the truest link to the past.

The review invites at least two meta-critical questions. First, should a restaurant that is “prey to…inconsistency” be rewarded with four stars? And second, is this consistent with what Bruni has done in the past?

To the first, there is no clear answer. I gave Daniel four stars myself, so I certainly cannot disagree with Bruni’s conclusion. Even at the highest level, in a forced ranking some restaurant would be the least wonderful four-star place, just as some restaurant would be at the top of the three-star heap. Bruni has put Daniel on the better side of that line, and I won’t argue with him.

But if Bruni’s oeuvre has a consistent theme, it’s that classic luxury doesn’t matter. Even when luxurious places got good reviews, one always sensed that Bruni would rather be elsewhere—that he believed fine dining was only for old fogies. In almost five years on the job, I cannot think of another review in which he actually celebrated luxury as something worthwhile, as he does here:

In fact there are moments during a meal at Daniel when you may well wonder why it isn’t more expensive, given how much staff is required for service like this…how much plotting goes into the ceremony.

At restaurants considered much less exclusive, you could spend only $30 less on a similar amount of food, and you wouldn’t get anything approaching Daniel’s bells and whistles. These flourishes make you feel that you’ve slipped into a monarch’s robes, if only for a night, and turn an evening into an event.

Take note of the dotted circles, a visual motif woven into the restaurant’s new design. They’re on the welcome mat outside. And on the carpeting inside. And on the china, the cotton damask napkins and even the plush, thick paper hand towels in the restrooms…

It’s for coddling this thorough that lovers of fine dining turn to restaurants like Daniel, which safeguards a graciousness that deserves to survive any change in fashions and fortunes.

Where did this Frank Bruni come from?

Eater correctly predicted that Bruni would award four stars to Daniel, and wins $2 on a hypothetical one dollar bet. We thought that Bruni would demote Daniel to three stars, and lose a dollar.

  Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $106.50   $129.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   –1.00
Total $108.50   $128.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 49–23   51–21

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