the first night in new york

i celebrated my 46th birthday lasy weekend with a whirlwind trip to manhattan to visit my friend D. my plane into laguardia actually landed 20 minutes early on saturday evening. my bag was waiting on the carousel, there was no line for taxis and no traffic on the bridge—I was walking into D’s apartment on the upper east side less than four hours after I had left our bungalow in old brooklyn. it was a welcome chance to unwind after racing from work to cleveland hopkins on the other end. we blabbed for awhile, got dressed in our suits and jumped in a cab to make our way to the first of our dining destinations…

restaurant daniel

although the awning overhead is inscribed with the chef’s name, the entrance is otherwise very discreet. we floated through the frosted revolving glass door and into the hushed hubbub of the foyer at 9.30 pm, half an hour ahead of our reservation. we were seated at a table in the lounge, just at the bottom of the red carpeted stairs leading down from the street, where we could both see and be seen. a waiter arrived with cocktail menus, a bowl of mixed nuts and a silver beaker of breadsticks, each cleverly filled with black olive tapenade. we ordered champagne mojitos, a delicious combination of refreshing mint and bubbly champagne with a kick of white rum. we settled in to watch the parade of guests.

the folks headed out from the first seating were mostly older, very moneyed, park avenue types. the gentlemen were, by day, some of the major powerbrokers of manhattan. the ladies had clearly had lots and lots of work done on their faces. they were wearing original chanel suits, which their mothers had bought for them in paris in the fifties on their european tour. as they toddled out and up the stairs (headed back to their 16 room pre-war apartments, lined with original renoirs and brancusis), the second seating was coming in. this was a much younger and ever-so-slightly hipper crowd. the men were still in suits, but now some of the women sported more summery, less formal frocks. while we were waiting, chef boulud himself came out. he strode directly towards us and greeted us warmly. he welcomed us to restaurant daniel and said that he hoped we would enjoy our evening. we were thrilled!

a few minutes after 10, we were escorted to our table. once again, we were given a prime location for taking in the room. a waiter arrived immediately, taking our water order (volvic) and dropping off the massive, two volume wine list. moments later, a three tiered silver tray was set down with a selection of amuse bouche to whet our appetites. these included a crisp parmesan cup filled with herbed goat cheese; a tiny toast topped with a bit of mackeral and a sliver of tomato; a square of pate brisee laden with asparagus baked in an egg custard; and lastly, a chinese soup spoon into which had been piped a dab of hummus touched with basil oil. as we worked our way through these we took in the room.

the décor is serious high-french style. the ceiling is coffered and the coral colored terra cotta tiles cast a rosy glow all around. the back wall is a wild mass of flowers done by l’olivier. the tables are set far enough apart to allow for private conversation and easy access by the copious waitstaff. (the staff to guest ratio is 1:1) there are miniature tufted ottomans set next to each of the ladies seats for them to leave their handbags. the china is bespoke bernardaud with daniel’s logo and the glassware is all riedel. the table linens, again woven with the signature “D” of the chef, were, in fact, true linen. this was the first time in my life that I had actually experienced that. the flatware was christofle hotel in a sort of florid, grandmotherly and very french pattern. gazing around the room we noted at least one minor broadway character actor (whose name we could not remember), a famous sculptor and matt damon. MATT DAMON!!! holy cripes…is it really him? a second look confirmed that it was.

so now we have been at the table for a full thirty minutes and allowed ourselves to relax into our seats and drink in our surroundings. the sommelier has stopped by to ask if we have any questions about the wine list, which we have given only a cursory glance. we’ll need some help, we tell her, and she promises to stop back after we have decided on a menu. menus…that’s the one thing we haven’t seen yet! just when we realize this, a waiter appears with them. there is a traditional selection of first courses and entrees. there is a printed insert with specials of the day. and finally there is a six-course tasting menu offering two choices in each of the categories. the staff suggests that we might want to each get the different options so we can share and taste everything. it’s the simplest and the best choice and so we agree to begin! a relatively quick consultation with the sommelier yields an excellent half-bottle (neither D nor I are big drinkers and I have no desire to be so tipsy that I can’t taste the food by the end.): a chateau pontet canet 2000, from pauillac…a bigbigbig bordeaux that she promises will carry us through from the lightest seafood in the beginning to the heavy red meat dishes at the end. she opens the bottle before us on a little rolling cart with a lit candle, so she can see the sediment in the bottle as she is decanting it. it is an awesome selection…probably one of the best wines I have ever had.

after a visit from the bread basket, whose temptations included individual baguettes, a walnut raisin loaf, butter rolls, wholegrain rolls, olive focaccia and sourdough slices, the plates began arriving. first there were the charcuterie dishes:

foie gras terrine with sauternes gelee, black mission fig chutney and celery salad, served with brioche toast points

squab and foie gras terrine with pistachio, pickled chanterelle, gooseberry, lillet gelee and pistachio mustard, served with toasted country bread

these were both classic examples of french cooking and could not have been better. then followed the cold fish presentations:

ceviche of tai snapper with wasabi cream, radishes, meyer lemon coulis and a poppyseed tuile
the tuile was square and the size of a dime

marinated yellowfin tuna with anchovy dressing, poached quail egg and haricots verts
this was a take on salade nicoise, as it included a bit of tomato and a tiny lettuce leaf

on to the warm shellfish course:

peeky toe crab stuffed zucchini flower with pine nuts, arugula pasil pistou and tomato oil

roasted maine lobster with a cashew crust, savoy cabbage fondue and malabar peppercorn jus

next came a couple of hot fish plates:

paupiette of black sea bass in a crisp potato shell, tender leeks and syrah sauce
this is his signature dish—the sauce was probably the best of the evening

fricasee of dover sole with cauliflower, golden raisins and a light brown butter emulsion
this was the first time I remember having true dover sole

by now, the bordeaux is really opening up and coming into its own. the dining room is in full swing. everyone is on their second (or third) glass of wine, the kitchen is cranking out the plates and the waitstaff is making it all happen effortlessly. we have been at the table for a couple of hours and we’re ready for our entrees:

seared beef rib-eye and braised short ribs, caramelized yukon gold potato, chanterelles and shallot confit
the short ribs were meltingly tender but had been finished with a crispy edge

colorado rack of lamb with vegetable “frito misto,” lemongrass shoulder sate, harissa and orange glazed carrots
the sate was a little fist of lamb, chopped, seasoned and formed around a lemongrass “skewer”
for these plates, the sauces were dispensed from silver pitchers by the waiters tableside

at this point there came a substantial pause. the bread plates and silverware were cleared, along with the wine glasses. the table was crumbed (this had actually happened after each course.) coffee was ordered. then came the first desserts:

maury wine roasted figs with pistachio financier, balsamic gelee and yogurt sorbet

warm griotte black forest with vanilla sorbet, whipped cream and bittersweet chocolate
the chocolate dessert offered that heady mix of warm chocolate and brandied cherry that just glides down your throat and makes you sink back into your seat. you can see a picture (from someone else’s dinner) here.

once we had finished these, coffee was poured, each from our own individual silver pot. this was followed by a napkin folded in the shape of a basket and filled with warm, lemon scented madeleines. finally, we were presented with a miniature silver tray of petit fours. already stuffed to the gills, we asked that these be packed to go for us, along with the extra madeleines….for our coffee the next morning! rather than bring them to our table, we were given a ticket and told they would be left at the coat check for us to pick up as we left.

we sat at the table for a little while longer, soaking up the room, the food, the wine, the service, the whole evening…for just a bit longer. we watched matt damon slip out the back through the kitchen, making a secret getaway. when we finally headed out in to the night we discovered we had been there more than four hours. this was certainly one of the top five meals in my lifetime, and it may, after some more consideration, seize that coveted #1 spot.

read the new york times 4 star review here. watch the times video review here.

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