Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dinner at Daniel

I'm down in Pennsylvania visiting my friend Lisa this weekend, and we trekked into NYC Saturday night for what turned out to be one of the best and most enjoyable meals of my life.
The original plan was to have dinner at Jean-Georges, but something happened with our reservation (such that it apparently didn't exist). I discovered this on Friday night at around 11pm, and I am trying not to ponder it too deeply, since the explanation is probably related to me being an idiot in some way. I panicked, felt like an asshole for ruining our plans for a potentially-best-ever meal, then frantically searched OpenTable for another amazing place. Miraculously, Daniel had a table available for us.
We arrived 15 minutes early and were escorted into the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.
(Pictures of the restaurant are not my own, since I didn't want to look like a total crazy person taking a million pictures...) Lisa ordered a Jaipur sour, which is Tanqueray 10, apricot liqueur, lemon juice, and curry leaves. There was a big cube of ice (literally a cube, not just a big "ice cube") in the middle of the glass, topped with candied anise seeds. It was pretty cool. I was tempted by their specialty drinks, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have a highly skilled bartender make me the perfect Hendrick's martini... so that's what I ordered...
It was perfect, as were the bread sticks with black olives that they brought out for us to enjoy with our drinks.
From here we moved into the dining room, where things were beautiful and elegant without being stuffy or pretentious.
A selection of breads was brought out. Lisa went with an olive bread, while I went with a Parmesan-crusted focaccia with a clove of roasted garlic in the center. We both thought our own choice was the best, so I guess we chose well.
Apologies for the quality (or lack thereof) of the food pictures, by the way. It was pretty dark, and I was trying to focus more on the meal and the great company than on snapping the perfect shot... We both went with the 6-course tasting menu with wine pairings. There were two choices for each course, so it was fun to sometimes order different things so we could compare. We started out with an amuse bouche that focused on fresh peas. There was an amazing carrot purée (you can see the adorable sliver-thin slice of baby carrot that topped it on the right below), pee purée with a sliver of bacon and a fresh pea, and a rock shrimp with a sliver of tiny asparagus, a little tiny pickled mushroom, and a pea sauce.
The shrimp seemed like the most exciting part (because it was shrimp), but we were actually much more impressed with the carrot and pea dishes. It's sort of amazing how delicious something so simple can be. Next up were our foie gras courses. We, of course, had no idea we were ordering foie courses, since it isn't mentioned on the menus. Lisa ordered the Quail and Black Trumpet Ballotine with Plum Mostarda and Satur Farm Vegetable salad, which turned out to be a foie roulade. The dish was good, but the flavor reminded Lisa much more of pastrami (and reminded me much more of chicken liver) than of foie gras...
I ordered the Duck Terrine with Champagne Mango, Sicilian Pistachios, Young Salad, and Sauternes Gelée. The main component of this was a big hunk of foie gras terrine crusted in pistachios. Mmmm... This paired perfectly with the Riesling we were served (which I believe was a Zilliken Estate 2001 Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken Riesling), and we both agreed that I won in the Ordering Things Without Realizing What You're Actually Ordering lottery...
There was something candied in the middle of the plate that was perfect with everything as well, and that arugula leaf in the background is the best arugula leaf I've ever tasted.
The second course was our favorite of the night, and I think some extreme jealousy would have arisen if we'd ordered two different things for this course. It was a Peekytoe Crab Salad with Persian Cucumber and Radishes, Cucumber Gelée, Early Mesclun, and Black Sesame Coulis. There were also little things that looked like mini watermelons but tasted like a mix of cucumber and green tomato and were both adorable and delicious. Our one disagreement was over whether the black sesame coulis (the black dots in the corners of the plate below) tasted delicious (as Lisa contends) or like dirt (as I contend). I guess this is an area where my taste buds are defective. The course was paired with a beautiful 2008 Franck & Jean-François Bailly & Fils Sancerre that made it taste even better. That whole "box" of cucumber and radish in the picture below is filled with perfectly seasoned crab, by the way. So. Effing. Good.
We diverged again on the next course, and both felt that our choice was best. Lisa ordered the Gorgonzola Fedelino and Mesclun Tortelloni with Tomato Confit, Caramelized Walnuts, and Snow Peas. The Tortelloni were the perfect combination of sharp blue cheese and dark greens, and the combination with caramelized walnuts was fantastic.
I ordered the Hazelnut and Chorizo Crusted Maine Sea Scallop with Stewed Gnocchi, Corn Fricassée, and corn powder. I ordered this sort of on accident, too, not getting as far as the word "scallop" in the description, having already been sold at the word "Chorizo"... Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to find that I'd ordered a perfectly cooked scallop (beneath the foam in the picture below) with chorizo and corn. It was absolutely brilliant, and paired beautifully with the wine. Neither of us can remember what the wine pairing was with this course, but it was a little less perfect with Lisa's pasta than with my scallop since the flavors in her dish were so strong.
The fourth course was fish, and both options were fantastic. Lisa ordered the Slow-Baked Nova Scotia Halibut with Chanterelles, Yukon Gold Potato "Quiche," and Tuscan Kale. This was paired with a super-tasty Rhone rosé. The fish was incredibly tender and delicate, and the accompanying jus was fantastic.
I ordered the Black Sea Bass with a Syrah Sauce, Roasted Leek Potato "Parmentier," and a Celery-based cube of some sort. The fish was meaty and rich and perfect, and the sauce was amazing. The wine pairing was a 2008 Copain "Tous Ensemble" Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, which was the perfect match. At this point in recapping I realize that almost every course makes me think "Ooh... Maybe that was my favorite..." Heh.
It turns out I am a huge fan of Black Sea Bass. Who knew?
On to the meat. Lisa ordered the Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Loin, Tandoori Spiced Shoulder, Minted Ratatouille, Ricotta Gnocchi, and a Tempura Squash Blossom. It was definitely kick-ass. I loved the gnocchi (those round things flanking the phyllo-wrapped lamb shoulder in the picture below), and the squash blossom was really cool. You can't see any batter on it at all, but it has a perfect crunch and tastes like the world's greatest tempura. We both had a 2001 Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape with our meat courses. It was a really really nice wine, and was a great match with both dishes.
I ordered the Duo of Beef, which featured (from left to right in the picture below) Black Angus Short Ribs with Young Spinach, a Stewed Tomato encased in creamy tomato goodness, a perfectly cooked rare Wagyu Tenderloin, and Black Garlic Pommes Dauphine. The tenderloin was fantastic, and the tomato thing that I don't know the name of rocked. I loved the caramelized goodness on the short rib, but also felt like I prefer the texture of the 48-hour short ribs that I made. Everything was delicious and perfectly cooked, as was a theme this meal.
Our (first) dessert was a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. The first thing I said to Lisa after tasting this (and after we both finished swooning over how insanely delicious it was) is that Daniel Boulud had taken a completely cliché dessert and turned it into something mind-blowing.
Unlike your typical molten chocolate cake where the outside is cake-y, the cylinder encasing the molten center was crispy and almost had a cookie-like quality to it. This was just insanely good. It was paired with a delicious fortified dessert wine that we cannot recall the name of...
We had mentioned to a member of the ridiculously awesome waitstaff (who I will mention more below) that part of the inspiration for dinner was Lisa's birthday, so they snuck out a bonus dessert for her, with "Happy Birthday" scrawled on the plate and a candle for a birthday wish... (They refrained from singing the Happy Birthday song table-side, however.)
That was an incredibly nice gesture, and was consistent with the way everyone on the staff seemed completely dedicated to our happiness. Just when we thought it was over, a tray of petit fours was brought over... Then, when we felt like we could not eat another bite, our waiter brought by a little bundle of perfect, warm madeleines... and then some just-made truffles...
This was without a doubt one of the best meals of my life. Part of what made the experience so great - beyond the near-perfect food - was how absolutely spectacular the service was. One of our favorite moments of the night was when our sommelier (who had a thick French accent when presenting our first wine) gave the first half of his spiel on the second wine with a French accent, then came to the other side of the table and had no accent at all. When he came with the third wine he mentioned that he was from Springfield, Massachusetts (having heard me say I had come down from Boston) and he had no accent for the rest of the meal. Hee. We also loved our head waiter, who was very very French, and absolutely hilarious. He was fantastic and funny throughout the meal, but his best moment was when he came to the table after the molten chocolate cake course. He looked down at our plates (which we had shown great restraint by not licking clean), shook his head, and said (in his awesome, thick French accent), "I see that you did not care for it at all. Like the other courses. We are so sorry." Hahaha... This was my best-ever experience at a restaurant in terms of service, and is second only to The French Laundry in terms of quality. I'm so very glad that we ended up here for dinner, and I know I will have to go back someday.

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