Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Impressive Dishes at Restaurant Daniel (food)

While we won the ICBL regular season (and tied for first in the playoffs) for the third consecutive time last year, we didn't get around to doing a celebratory dinner until just recently. We've done it at restaurant Daniel each time, and it's just gotten better and better.

I tend to feel that Daniel has a reputation within the foodie community as being not particularly exciting or impressive, especially for a 3 Michelin Star restaurant. As a friend put it, "Daniel is where men take their wives, not their mistresses." I was originally unimpressed as well, but my last two visits have changed that point of view.

The key is to order off the prix fixe/a la carte/market specials menu, and not the 6-course tasting. Many diners tend to believe that the tasting menu is a restaurant's way of showing off their best. It goes with the modern celebrity chef-centric route that food culture has taken. But for a restaurant that does so many things so well, you will end up with some rather "safe" choices in the tasting menu. To me, the best way to enjoy a place like Daniel (or even Le Bernardin) is to choose the things that you like or want to try, and then let them take it to another level. For the same price as the tasting menu, you can get the prix fixe and add another main course or two extra starters. This will be just as grand, and there will be plenty on the plate if you do come across a dish that you absolutely adore. Not just 20 courses of 1 bite each.

Nothing has changed in the decor since the last time we were at Daniel, but they did seat us in a nice little alcove in the corner of the restaurant. This was a really nice, spacious, area in a large, busy restaurant. Actually, Daniel is in fact the world's largest 3 Michelin Star restaurant, and did about 230 covers the random weeknight we were there.

Accomodative service and FOH:
We are not the easiest diners to deal with. As a group, we have many different dietary restrictions and preferences, and this time one of us had to come in a wheelchair. The staff was adept and professional, especially our server/captain Alex who handled everything we threw at him with ease. He even helped wheel my friend from the restaurant to the car parked outside the restaurant.

A couple of interesting points. When my friend in the wheelchair tried to tip our guy for helping wheel him out, he reminded my friend that his wife had already tipped him. Also, when one of my friends put down a $10 bill at the coat check, they actually asked if she wanted change. These may seem like minor points, but to me it's reflective of excellent training, and that the staff there don't take things for granted and just assume that everyone is on a huge expense account.


Our amuse was a trio of beet very similar to the amuse from our dinner a year and a half ago. Cured beet with smoked salmon, beet puree, and hamachi with beet and potato gaufrette. My favorite was the puree, which was luscious and sweet while opening up the taste buds instead of dulling them.

Excellent bread to go with excellent butter. The garlic/parmesan bread was especially flavorful, with a clove of garlic nestled in each piece of bread.

PHEASANT-FOIE GRAS AND BLACK TRUFFLE MOSAIC with Artichoke Barigoule, Celery-Mustard Coulis, Toasted Hazelnut
This was one of the market specials for black truffle season ($28 supplement to prix-fixe). The terrine was expertly layered, highlighting different textures of creamy foie, pheasant meat, and some sort of aspic. The meat was strongly-flavored, standing up to the foie, but at times seemed a bit chewy to me. There wasn't much of a truffle presence across the entire dish, but I loved the mosaic and the accompaniments.

FENNEL RAVIOLI WITH SCOTTISH LANGOUSTINES with Sauteed Cuttlefish, Sicilian Green Olive, Artichoke and Saffron Cream Sauce
It is interesting to note that the fennel ravioli is listed ahead of the langoustines in the name of the dish. While most places would consider very flavorful Scottish langoustines to be the feature of a dish, this was about harmony, and the fennel ravioli was indeed every bit the star as the langoustines. It is one of the things that I have to come to realize as being impressive about the food at Daniel. Every dish has many components, and yet flavors and textures are never muddled. This is in contrast to certain Michelin-starred restaurants where some items on the plate seem superfluous and the chef is trying too hard to do too much. Everything comes together in this dish, with an emphasis on great mouthfuls of texture and flavor, not just fleeting tastes.

OLIVE OIL POACHED COD SALAD with Mussel-Parsley Vinaigrette, Pickled Hon Shimeji Mushroom, Chorizo, Artichoke, Smoked Sablefish

BUTTER POACHED PRAWNS WITH POMELO with Braised Endive, Piquillo Pepper, Americaine-Ginger Emulsion

WILD MUSHROOM VELOUTE with Purple Potato, Parsley Custard, Confit King Oyster Mushroom, Hazelnut Oil, Black Truffle Cream

DUO OF MONKFISH CHEEKS - Hot Smoked with Potato "Boulangere", Leek Fondue - Braised with Littleneck Clams Chowder, Crispy Onion Ring
One, meaty and rich with a classic potato and leek flavor combination. The other, tender and comforting in a delicate yet umami-filled sauce. Just perfectly executed, from the choice of monkfish cheeks to the starchy, crunchy texture of the potato slices.

KATAIFI CRUSTED MEDITERRANEAN SARDINES with Cucumber Ragout, Blood Orange, Bottarga Oil, Celery Salad

ROASTED MILLBROOK FARM VENISON LOIN with Cocoa Bean Shavings, Celery Confit, Sunchoke, Parsley Root, Sauce Grand Veneur

SLOW BAKED EUROPEAN WILD TURBOT with Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, King Crab Legs, Wild Black Rice, Sauce Americaine
This was the type of dish that would lead one to have thoughts that a wow factor was missing from Daniel. While everything was perfectly cooked, and even the little slivers of crab meat had great flavor, it was a very good dish, but not a particularly impressive one.

GRILLED SWORDFISH with Pine Needle Gremolata, Gourgane Panisse, Brussel Sprouts, Pioppini Mushroom, Sauce Diable
Who would've thought that the most exciting and impressive dish of the night would be grilled swordfish? I never would have thought to order swordfish, so I was only able to get one bite from my friend's portion to try. It was revelatory. I don't know if it was the part of the fish itself, the way they grilled it, the combination of herbs in the gremolata, the sauce, or all of the above, but it tasted every bit like a gorgeous filet of beef. It was still definitely swordfish, but the give in the flesh as you bit down on the pretty thick piece was like biting into a terrific piece of steak. I just didn't know swordfish could take on those flavors and be cooked to that kind of texture. No part of the flesh was at all hard or flaked off during chewing. It's completely changed how I view swordfish. I would go back just for that dish.

ROASTED LIBERTY FARM DUCK BREAST with Hazelnut-Spinach Subric, Confit Turnip, Poached Quince, Garganelli Pasta, Winter Black Truffle, Sauce Civet
This was another market special for black truffle season ($38 supplement to prix-fixe)

This time, however, the presence of truffles was definitely noticeable! When I eat meat, I tend to want a textural sensation similar to eating steak. So it would have never occurred to me to serve medium-rare duck breast without crispy skin in such thin strips. But it worked. It really worked. With the civet sauce (thickened strained sauce, not the animal) and black truffle accompanying it, every chew of the duck breast brought out more flavor. More and more flavor kept coming with every chew, rehydrated and enlivened with sips of wine in between. While the texture might not be as satisfying as a sizeable piece of duck with crispy skin, it forces you to extract every bit of flavor and continuously re-experience it with wine.

KENYAN COFFEE GANACHE with Dark Chocolate Cremeux, Rice Crispy, Chocolate Sable, Coffee Ice Cream
The seasonal dessert themes were fruit and chocolate. Similar to my meal at Le Bernardin, none of the desserts jumped out at me. While I believe that the final dessert should give you a sense of comfort and being sated, I would have preferred some sort of pre-dessert that tries one last time to wow you, like during my meal at Brooklyn Fare. This one was another example of a dish that was perfectly executed yet not particularly impressive or memorable.

MILK CHOCOLATE DACQUOISE with Jivara Parfait, Toffee Tuile, Salted Caramel Ice Cream

CARAMELIZED HONEYCRISP APPLE with Vanilla Sable, Mascarpone-Calvados Cremeux, Granny Smith-Ginger Sorbet

ROASTED PINEAPPLE with Exotic Cream, Coconut Pearl, Pina Colada Sorbet

VANILLA POACHED PEAR with Maple Parfait, Mirliton Biscuit, Honey Ice Cream
I remembered from our previous visit that the honey ice cream was really good, so I asked if we could have a taste. They brought each of us a small scoop and it was indeed wonderful. Creamy with a natural honey taste, it was comforting and sweet without being cloying.

Assorted petit fours and chocolates

Fresh and warm, a perfect way to end the meal.

Like I said, I also started as a skeptic who thought Daniel was another "canteen to the rich" that served perfectly cooked but not particularly exciting food. But with my last two visits focusing on what the entire menu had to offer, I've found some truly impressive and memorable dishes, and I very much look forward to my next visit.

60 E 65th St
New York, NY 10065

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