Entries in Daniel (4)



When Frank Bruni re-affirmed the four-star rating for Daniel earlier this year, his endorsement came with caveats not usually found in such a review: “it yields fewer transcendent moments than its four-star brethren and falls prey to more inconsistency,” and a clunker rate “slightly higher than a restaurant as ambitious as this one’s should be.”

I gave Daniel four stars in March 2007, but as I look back on that meal, I think it was the least satisfying of those to which I’ve given the highest rating. This must be taken in relative terms: obviously the food was very good. But four stars, meaning “extraordinary,” must be something more than that. When I looked back on that meal, and realized I couldn’t even vaguely recall very much of it, I realized that I must have overrated the place.

This feeling was cemented by a return visit last weekend. The décor has been brightened, the plush red velvet banished, but the food remains unexciting. I should clarify that our tastes are distinctly not biased against Chef Boulud because he has been cooking the same food for twenty years. We love the classics done well. Actually, there is nothing more exciting than breathing life into an old standard.

But among seven courses we had on a $185 tasting menu (click on image for a larger copy), there was not one I would especially care to have again. That’s not because there was anything wrong with them—to the contrary, I have great respect for the care with which most of them were put together. But all of that effort yielded curiously dull effects.

Part of me wished we had selected the $105 prix fixe. Several of the items offered there sounded a lot more interesting. On my next visit to Daniel—though I assure you, it probably won’t be anytime soon—we will probably go that route.

The bifurcated service at Daniel—one level for the anointed, another for everyone else—is the stuff of legend. We experienced none of this. We found all of the servers friendly, efficient, and highly professional.

But there were several inexplicably long waits, which struck us more as inattention than snobbery. We figured that by 10:15 p.m., the time of our reservation, the restaurant would be starting to thin out. To the contrary, we were kept waiting until 10:45.

While we cooled our jets in the bar, it seemed like forever until someone came to took our drinks order. The party next to us endured a similar wait, and they appeared to be known to Chef Boulud, who came over to say hello; they were later seated in a secluded nook designed (or so it appeared) for V.I.P.s.

We do understand that restaurants sometimes run behind for reasons beyond management’s control, but we think an explanation—or at least an apology—was in order, and under the circumstances our drinks should have been comped.

The one thing they did to help us bide our time, was to serve the amuses-bouches in the bar (photo right).

When we were seated, there was another fairly long wait before bread (many varieties of it—none warm) was served. Once our tasting menu was underway, service moved along at a good, but not hurried, pace. As it was, we were not out of there until 1:00 a.m., by which time only one other table was still seated.

The tasting menu format offers choices for every course, and we diverged on all but one of them, which allowed us to taste a good cross-section of the menu. (Most of the tasting menu items are also available on the prix fixe.)

First Course:

  • Mosaic of Capon, Foie Gras, and Celery Root. Pickled Daikon, Satur Farms Mâche, Pear Confit (above left)
  • Pressed Duck and Foie Gras Terrine. Chimay Gelée Chestnuts, Red Cabbage Chutney (above right)

These were both labor intensive dishes, and you had to respect the artistry involved. The Mosaic of Capon was the more satisfying of the two.

Second Course:

  • Maine Peekytoe Crab Salad. Celery, Walnut Oil, Granny Smith Sauce (above left)
  • Olive Oil Poached Cod “en Salade”. Artichoke Puré, Tarragon Dressing, Lemon Zest (above right)

The crab salad was the more successful of the two. The juxtaposition with apples struck us as especially clever. The poached cod salad didn’t have much flavor.

We both made the same choice for the third course: Handmade Spinach Tortelloni. Chanterelles, “Tomme de la Chataigneraie,”, Lomo, Black Garlic (left).

(The other choice for this course was a butter poached abalone with yellow curry braised greens, crispy rice, and chayote.)

Once again, we were impressed by the amount of labor that had gone into this dish, but the flavors were far too muted.

Fourth Course:

  • Whole Grain Crusted Skate. Chanterelles, Swiss Chard, Caper Chicken Jus (above left)
  • Loup de Mer with Syrah Sauce. Leek Royale, “Pommes Lyonnaise” (above right)

The blizzard of vegetables surrounding the skate was arguably more impressive than the skate itself. The Loup de Mer was somewhat unappetizing; on the plate, it resembled an eel.

Fifth Course:

  • Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Chop. Garbanzo Bean Fricassé, Chorizo, Rutabaga, Chickpea Tendrils (above left)
  • Duo of Dry Aged Black Angus Beef. Red Wine Braised Short Rib with Parsnip-Potato Gratin, Seared Rib Eye with Black Trumpets. Gorgonzola Cream (above right)

The lamb and the short rib, although correctly prepared, seemed pedestrian for a restaurant on this level—or should I say, purported level. The ribeye was tough, and had none of the marbling that it should.

Sixth Course:

  • Citrus Biscuit with Pink Grapefruit. Buddha’s Hand Lemon Confit, Mandarin Sorbet (above left)
  • Warm Guanaja Chocolate Coulant. Liquid Caramel, Fleur de Sel, Milk Sorbet (above middle)
  • Birthday Cake (above right)

The citrus biscuit was the best of the three. The chocolate coulant was dry, and we didn’t bother finishing it. The birthday cake was better.

The meal finished with petits-fours (average) and the warm beignets (excellent) that, by this time of the evening, sadly went to waste.

While Daniel has the format of a four-star restaurant, with its high ratio of servers to customers, high-end servingware, labor-intensive preparation, sauces poured at tableside, and so forth, we found the food uninspired and dull. We hold nothing against Daniel for serving the same classics year after year. But they need to inspire more than just “respect” for the level of effort involved.

We respect Daniel, but we did not love it.

Daniel (60 E. 65th Street west of Park Avenue, Upper East Side)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: ****
Overall: **½

The crab salad was the more successful of the two. The juxtaposition with apples struck us as especially clever. The poached cod salad didn’t have much flavor.

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

Rolling the Dice: Daniel

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews one of the few remaining grandes dames of French cuisine, Daniel. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 500-1
One Star: 499-1
Two Stars: 498-1
Three Stars: 4-1
Four Stars: 2-1 √√

The Skinny: Daniel currently carries four New York Times stars, courtesy of Mr. William Grimes. It is the last remaining four-star restaurant that Bruni has never reviewed. He has, however, written obliquely about the restaurant on several occasions, and it has never been positive.

Here he is in December 2004:

I dropped by Cafe Boulud the other night. I went because I had recently visited the chef Daniel Boulud’s other two Manhattan restaurants but not this one, which happens to be many of my acquaintances’ hands-down favorite of the three. I can see why. It doesn’t have the starched self-consciousness of Daniel or the cheeky swagger of DB Bistro Moderne.

And then in August 2007:

Under Mr. Carmellini Café Boulud had thrived: for many diners, it was the most consistently enjoyable of the restaurants owned by Daniel Boulud, more relaxed than Daniel, less scattershot than DB Bistro Moderne.

And here he was in October 2007, commenting on the Michelin Guide’s two-star rating for Daniel in relation to the three stars given to Jean Georges:

Putting the restaurant Jean Georges ahead of Daniel — giving it three stars to Daniel’s two — is a more defensible judgment call, consistent with the appetites and appraisals of many of the city’s most discerning diners.

In all of these comments, Bruni’s enthusiasm falls well short of the rapture one expects at a four-star restaurant. Unless Bruni has been wowed lately to a degree he wasn’t before, I cannot see how Daniel can remain a four-star restaurant. Bruni’s well known abhorrence of classic French luxury dining is another factor not in Daniel’s favor.

We’ve long believed that Daniel’s days in the four-star club were numbered, as soon as Bruni could find a replacement. There are currently just five such restaurants, and that total has remained remarkably stable over the years. When Bruni demoted Alain Ducasse and Bouley from four stars to three, other restaurants replaced them.

What would be Daniel’s replacement? I had once thought that either Eleven Madison Park or Del Posto could be the lucky winner, but in a blog post on New Year’s Eve, Bruni strongly suggested that neither one was ready. Among Bruni’s known favorites, that leaves only Momofuku Ko as a potential promotion candidate—a review that would put Bruni on the map like no other. Among traditional restaurants, the newly relocated Bouley is the best candidate, though we don’t see it happening.

We don’t discount entirely the possibility of four stars tomorrow: Boulud could have upped his game since Bruni’s earlier visits, or maybe the Brunz just feels itchy because he hasn’t given four stars to anybody in almost two years. But given Bruni’s long-standing disdain, both for Daniel itself and the style of dining it stands for, we just don’t see it.

The Bet: We believe that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Daniel.



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Daniel.

My girlfriend and I had dinner at Daniel last Saturday night, the first visit for both of us. Daniel (pronounced “dahn-YELL”) is one of three French restaurants carrying the top honor of four stars from The New York Times. It is also the only remaining four-star restaurant not yet reviewed by Frank Bruni, the current critic.

The only clue to what Bruni might think of Daniel came in a December 2004 Diner’s Journal piece about one of chef Daniel Boulud’s other restaurants, Cafe Boulud:

I dropped by Cafe Boulud the other night. I went because I had recently visited the chef Daniel Boulud’s other two Manhattan restaurants but not this one, which happens to be many of my acquaintances’ hands-down favorite of the three. I can see why. It doesn’t have the starched self-consciousness of Daniel or the cheeky swagger of DB Bistro Moderne.

The reference to “starched self-consciousness” is entirely typical of Bruni, and suggests he doesn’t find Daniel as exciting as his predecessors did. Given his many other comments about similar restaurants, it also suggests that he simply doesn’t enjoy this style of dining.

We found nothing starchy about Daniel, except for whatever the laundry put in the table cloths. We found it polished, professional, and nearly perfect. It is perhaps the most “old school” of the three four-star French restaurants, which may explain Bruni’s hostility to it, and may also explain why Daniel received just two Michelin stars, while Le Bernardin and Jean Georges received three.

I’ve got the time only for a whirlwind tour of our meal at Daniel. We started with a tray of petits-fours (above, right). We continued with the six-course tasting menu ($155) with wine pairings ($75).

There were two choices for each course. We agreed on the first: Foie Gras Terrine (above, left), which was excellent, although not as special as the Foie Gras Brulé we so much enjoyed at Jean Georges. But foie gras can’t really be screwed up. We order the foie gras whenever a tasting menu offers it (which they usually do), and we’re seldom disappointed.

For me, next up was the Yuzu Marinated Snapper (above, right), which I found far too bland—the only dud of the evening. My girlfriend chose the Crab Salad, of which I had a taste. This was delightful, and put the marinated snapper to shame.

At the risk of being boring, I’ve nothing to say about Wild Mushroom Ravioli (above, left), except again that it was excellent. So was Dover Sole, which we attacked so quickly that I forgot to photograph it.

Last among the savory courses was the Due of Dry-Aged Beef (above,right). The “duo” is ribeye and short rib. It’s evidently one of Chef Boulud’s signature items, as it’s always on the menu. I always say that even a four-star restaurant can’t do steak like a good classic steakhouse, but this was one of the better “fine dining” renditions of steak that I’ve had.

We diverged again for the desserts; mine is the one on the left, hers the one on the right. We were feeling plenty festive by this point, and I’m afraid the desserts didn’t make much of an impression. You can see the photos and imagine them for yourself.

A wonderful tray of sweets and a bowl of warm sugar puffs (both pictured at right) concluded our meal on a high note.

I have not noted the wines, but this was one of the better pairings we’ve had, both as to the quality and the progression from one pour to the next.

Throughout the evening, we were thoroughly impressed with the service. It was never pompous or obsequious, simply correct in every possible way.

Daniel has a larger dining room than the other four-star restaurants, and there is a very large serving brigade. But they move through the room quietly and efficiently, never noticeable except when they should be.

The room won’t be to all tastes. We found it a bit over-the-hill, although we were impressed with the custom-designed bone china.

Except in Frank Bruni’s mind, there is nothing wrong—or at least, there shouldn’t be—with doing classic things well. We won’t visit Daniel every week, or even every year. When we are in the mood for that special kind of elegance, it’s wonderful to know that it’s there.

Daniel (60 E. 65th Street west of Park Avenue, Upper East Side)

Food: ****
Service: ****
Ambiance: ***½
Overall: ****