Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Daniel, New York

Last time I was in New York for one night, my friend Mayu (thanks for reading!) and I went to Charlie Palmer's Aureole. I know what you're thinking - it's so touristy now, and you're over it. We went when it was still up the East Side in a townhouse, and it was nice sophisticated American food in a very rich, clubby, New York environment. I distinctly remember some sort of meat towers with red berries, and an overall casual refinement. But my reminiscenses digress - Aureole has moved to Midtown and now looks as much bar as cafe as restaurant, and in any case Mayu and I went to the even-more-notable Daniel, the longtime flagship of New York celebrity French chef Daniel Boulud.

Daniel has been a New York Times 4-star restaurant since 2001, and Frank Bruni reconfirmed that assessment early this year when he visited after their mid-2008 refit. It recently received a third Michelin star, putting it quite exclusive company (Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Per Se), and it stands quite alone in the sense that it had a table available for us at 8:30 on Wednesday night. In the Lounge, mind you, but the menu is the same. I ask you, what's the recession coming to when all the restaurants are booked out on Wednesday nights? The facade and door conspire to make you feel grand when you arrive, no matter which part of the restaurant you eat in.

The Lounge is perfectly fine. It's a little tight, space-wise, but this is New York, and it's extremely dark, light-wise, but this is New York, and a lounge by name. Actually I would say that the Lounge conforms very well to my ideas about what a fine dining room should be (minus a bit of lighting) - comfortable, stylish, not too fancy. It put me in mind of the downstairs area where Mayu and I had eaten at Aureole (although that room was of course better-lit. I remember it being warm and orange-tinted, almost like there was a glow around everything.). This is leading up to an apology about how bad the photos are; it was seriously dark, and we had to pretend it was my birthday just to get a candle so I could take pictures! I kid, I kid. But the photos are laughably bad; I did a little recovery so you could get an idea what shape the food was, but that's about it.

The dinner of 3 courses for $105 seems like decent value to me considering everything about the location and luxury of the experience (I paid the same amount for lunch in Paris though, and also found that a good value, so my expectations could be funny). It gives you 8-10 options for each course, only a very few of which have supplements (and those are reasonable). We were determined to have a good time, engaging in a bit of friendly banter about the menu with the captain, Pascal. Eventually he asked if it was my first visit to New York, which said to me that we had perhaps damaged our good names through too much frivolity and ended up looking like we were just in from Ioway. Heavens! We soldiered on enjoying ourselves regardless.

The amuse was a silver tower, very much in keeping with the luxury theme. Interestingly, we both thought that the simplest was best - a parsnip puree at the top. No parsnips in Japan, but I sure wish there were. The second level, smoked salmon had great texture and smoke but the garnish didn't do much for it, and the bottom level has escaped my memory after only a week. We agreed that they were best in order from the top down.  We didn't drink much, partly because we were unamused by the sommelier (and partly because I had just flown in from Tokyo, boy were my arms tired, and we all had to work the next day); he happily recommended the two most expensive glass wines as a good way for us to start things off, and we turned to the joys of tapwater thereafter. Incidentally, I saw another ostensibly cosmopolitan and epicurean reviewer from several years ago complain that the staff were all foreign and impossible to understand. The staff were indeed all foreign, but I don't see that a native speaker should have any problems understanding them, nor should said speaker be horrified to find French people providing service at a top French restaurant. They may have been less comprehensible when that review was written.

Mayu had the sauteed foie to start (this may have been a supplemented item, but if so only at $10). Country bumpkins always go for this sort of thing, while sophisticated New Yorkers are over it and have moved on to less obvious and more healthy choices. Their loss; it was good foie cooked well (but not better on either dimension, I think). The accompanying peaches were rather hard and had an odd flavor, which in retrospect is totally forgivable since they were quince. I didn't think they were sweet/soft enough to go with the foie, nor acidic enough to oppose it.

This scallop preparation was a nice one with a lot of good ideas, and was executed well. I confess that when Pascal told me it was a rosette of sliced scallop discs on a fennel marmalade, all I could think of was the scallop/broccoli/truffle dish at l'Ambroisie that I'd like to eat, and I ordered this out of sympathy. It was very good - the scallops placed on top and barely grilled, while the cooked fennel underneath was interesting and the fresh fennel on top crunchy. Fortunately not overpowering to the scallops either. This picture is terrible; it makes the dish look like half a cut Japanese pumpkin.

Mayu's Duo of Beef is evidently a classic of the house. It consists of a piece of filet (I think) and a few short ribs, plus some black trumpet mushrooms and a mound of something else. Or something. With due apologies to Mayu and the chef, I thought the steak was good but no more, and the short ribs quite nice, but there wasn't anything unexpected in their fatty, gelatinous beefiness. I felt like I'd had equally good food elsewhere.

On my side of the table, things looked better (let me digress for a second. I went to Chicago's Tru in early 2000 and our table of 4 had the tasting menu. At the time that meant that each diner got a different dish for almost every course (minus things like the caviar, which was one presentation for the table). I was the notable loser on most of the courses - e.g., getting monkfish liver when everyone else got a different treatment of foie. Clearly I'm still bitter about this.). I went for the grouse - it's early autumn, time to get started on game meats for the year! (Note: $15 supplement) You do have to be up for something like grouse - this was appropriately hung, meaning it had that savor of well-hung meat. I tend to think that this gives the meat a blue-cheese flavor. If you overthink, that actually means the meat is a little moldy. But yum! Here, the meat was made into a sort of loaf with grouse, mince and dressing (sort of a berry jam?), then cut diagonally in half. The vegetables were somewhat aloof, by which pretentious phrase I mean I didn't see how they related to the bird or sauce, but beets were included, and this was a very good dish. It looks a bit like a dessert, doesn't it, with all the colored nuggets and curly bits?

Earlier I joked about faking a birthday just to get a candle. It was my birthday 4 days earlier, but the real reason for the request was mainly to try a third dessert. Actually this may have been the best of the lot, a sort of 'apples aplenty' theme where the most notable element to me was the apple gummy holding up the candle. I particularly enjoyed (and took advantage of the temporarily superior lighting to take a closeup of) my name as embroidered on the plate.

Spelling it with an 'h' is perfectly understandable, but 'Jhon'? Perhaps that's the currently-fashionable treatment on the Upper East Side. I also like how the squiggle at the end resembles a question mark. It's as if the kitchen is saying "Don't they spell John this way in Ioway?"

Mayu's dessert, wherein he fell prey to ordering the 'molten chocolate cake', in this case a bit more extravagant by having caramel in the center instead of just chocolate.

My dessert, basically chocolate and hazelnuts (I do like how the dessert menu is divided into 'fruit' and 'chocolate' pages. It's easier to avoid all the nice fruity things that you can make at home.). Actually the main reason I got this was the lemon ice cream, which turned out to be a nice, fresh contrast. But the cigar in the pastry curl on the left is a chocolate tube filled with hazelnut pastry, and it was good. As for the ice cream on the right side, I didn't order it medium-rare, it just came that way.

How does the above read? Negatively? I don't mean to be. We had a great time and enjoyed the experience. I think the execution of the food let the side down a little, but the atmosphere and service made up for it (barring the wine service). Possibly we would have felt even better if we had managed to get Dining rather than Lounge seats, but I don't think so. To my limited mind, this seems like a quintessential New York experience; overall between 2 and 3 stars, food unfortunately being the slightly weaker element. The best part is that, if you're used to Tokyo or Paris fine dining, the prices will seem quite normal or even reasonable!

The pipes, the pipes are calling

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