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23 JULY 2013
Serving the Stuff of Privilege
By PETE WELLS
Your job may be worrying you, or your father’s health, or your own. You may have been up at 2 that morning drafting a better ending for a long-ago memory. But certain restaurants, if you can afford them, can knock down the barriers between you and happiness for a few hours. Every taste seems to transport you to another world, while every gesture of the staff convinces you that you live in the privileged center of this one.
Daniel, which turned 20 this year, can make you feel that way. Does chilled pea soup sound like the stuff of privilege? It is when it comes from this kitchen, where Jean François Bruel has been the executive chef since 2003, and which Daniel Boulud, the proprietor, watches over from a windowed perch above the saucepans and sieves.
Those sieves got a workout on this soup, straining it to a gliding smoothness. It had the clear, refreshing sweetness of the smallest peas eaten straight from the pod. Salty diamonds of smoked sable and a white ring of rosemary-infused cream helped the soup’s purity shine more clearly. This kind of exquisitely sensitive, profoundly seasonal, fundamentally French cooking helped lift Daniel to several four-star reviews in The New York Times, the most recent one by Frank Bruni in 2009.
Again and again, I have been startled by the excellence of Mr. Bruel’s ingredients and his talent for unlocking all they had to offer. I have never tasted more calmly flavorful veal tenderloin, or fresher and more gently handled swordfish, or a more skillfully roasted breast of guinea hen.
But some of these star ingredients were embedded in elaborate, multipart compositions that didn’t fully reward the attention they demanded. At times, the restaurant gave the impression that it was trying to garnish its way to greatness.
And while the service can be among the best in the city, with a supreme attentiveness softened by a surprising warmth and even chattiness, it is not always that way for everyone. When people who are known at the restaurant tell me about their meals, they look blissful. Others look disappointed or resentful as they tell me about cramped tables in the neoclassical arcades around the grand sunken dining room and hasty, perfunctory service.
One night I had a reservation 15 minutes apart from a colleague who wasn’t likely to be recognized, as I repeatedly was. We both ordered the six-course $195 tasting menu. (A three-course prix fixe dinner is $116.) Our meals were virtually identical. Our experiences were not.
The kitchen sent two amuse courses to my table. His got one. A few remaining sips of my wine, ordered by the glass, were topped off. His glass sat empty at times while he waited to be offered another.
We both ate extraordinary fried lollipops of filleted frogs’ legs on a long stick of bone, but only I was then brought a napkin-covered bowl of rosemary- and lemon-scented water for rinsing my fingers.
My servers were solicitous: Was this course, or that one, or that one, prepared to your liking? Was the pacing of the meal satisfactory? Could we interest you in a cheese course? Would you like your espresso with dessert, or after? Finally, as I neared the revolving door on East 65th Street: Can we help you find a cab tonight?
My colleague wasn’t asked any of those questions. Still, the next morning, he reported feeling very well taken care of. And a restaurant can’t be blamed for trying to impress a critic.
It can be faulted, though, for turning its best face away from the unknowns, the first-timers, the birthday splurgers, the tourists. They are precisely the people who would remember a little coddling at a place like Daniel for years.
And while a missing finger bowl won’t seriously mar anyone’s evening, missing Daniel’s cheese cart might. It is one of the finest four-wheeled vehicles in New York. Whenever I wondered if I really wanted cheese, a server would lay his knife on a soft wheel, pressing gently. The mounded top would fall for a moment then rise up again, gracefully and almost willingly. After that, the question was not if I should have some, but how many kinds could fit on one plate.
It was just as pointless to try to wave away the basket of Mark Fiorentino’s gorgeous breads, like a garlic focaccia, round and dimpled in the center. Rajeev Vaidya, the head sommelier, shepherded me past the many bottles that could land a weak wine lover in debt to more affordable ones. He has a 2007 halbtrocken from the German riesling maker Georg Breuer. Some buyers scoffed at the vintage, pushing prices down, but not Mr. Vaidya. A bottle can be yours for the princely sum of $25.
Recently, the title of executive pastry chef passed from Sandro Micheli to Ghaya Oliveira, and the dessert course, already exciting, has a little more energy. Ms. Oliveira’s approach is more modern and wide-ranging, embracing unusual spices and exuberant swipes of color. Her mint-scented strawberries are a giddy, flagrant essay in pink, with triangles of watermelon, columns of half-frozen strawberry mousse and ladyfingers tinted with powdered strawberry skin. It was a soft, lilting summer tune I won’t get out of my head before Labor Day.
The courses before dessert could be just as wonderfully haunting. I’d give a lot to recapture the happiness I got from slow-baked abalone, rich with creamed avocado and slightly tart with heart-shaped wood sorrel. I’m still transfixed by a peekytoe crab salad’s bravura variations on apple and celery, carried through to the juices in a walnut-oil vinaigrette.
And nothing quite prepared me for the untamed whoosh of intense green herbs in a bowl of olive-oil-poached cod teased into big, glistening flakes, then seasoned with za’atar and a bright cilantro sauce.
But the kitchen’s compulsion toward complexity could also result in a proliferation of dollhouse garnishes. Grilled sweet shrimp were outfitted with a heart of palm purée, microcubes of mango and cucumber, bok choy, tiny tapioca crackers, curls of shaved hearts of palm, among other things. The parts never quite gathered into a rush of flavor.
A variation on Mr. Boulud’s classic roasted sea bass with syrah sauce came with radicchio so bitter I wanted to slap it. A drum of sweet potato purée with a candylike crust of marrow on top only made the next bite of radicchio harder to take.
The kitchen loves to put two or three treatments of an ingredient side by side, when it might do better to focus on the one that works best. In a triptych of striped jack, a poached piece on a salad of mustard seeds with cubes of riesling gelée tasted as if the components were destined to be together. But there wasn’t the same inevitability about the lettuce-wrapped dumpling of striped jack tartare topped with caviar, or the smoky rillettes surrounded by crunchy carrot and asparagus.
Daniel built its fame on Mr. Boulud’s exquisite refinements on French peasant food. Over the years, the refinements have multiplied while the peasant food has been sent away to his many spinoff bistros.
Traces of it are still around, as in the short rib braised in red wine, half of a beef duo. The last time I tasted it, I was sure it was the finest French beef stew in existence. I knew my servers were trying to make my night one I’d recall with a smile. And I wished everyone could be so lucky.