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Daniel Review - Very Long, Very Sad

My friend and I have been reading about and salivating over Daniel for months. We finally went the other night and got the six-course tasting menu so that we could try as many of the different dishes as possible. While we had a decent meal, and certainly left full, our overall sense of the evening was one of great disappointment. Service was generally excellent, with one distinct glitch explained below.
Sources: Daniel menu from the website

Cocktails: I had the City Crush, which was fantastic. The kumquat, pepper and lemon took the bite of the vodka to all sorts of interesting new places. I didn’t taste the alleged green tea, but that’s hardly surprising under all those more assertive flavors. My friend had the Bergamot Martini which was also really impressive. I almost couldn’t believe that there were only two ingredients (pear vodka and bergamot juice) with all the sweet and spicy and smoky going on. I have to get me some bergamots and try to just make a bergamot vodka

Amuse Bouche: We were brought a trio of little avocado preparations. The best, and indeed a contender for best dish of the evening, was a half teaspoonful of avocado mousse with a fleck of tomato and a tiny cube of the smoothest creamiest feta I’ve ever had. The mousse was lively and beautifully spiced with lots of pepper and citrus and salt, but the richness of the avocado was still clear, and took perfectly to the sweet tomato and creamy cheese. Another preparation was with geoduck, where neither the meat nor the avocado appeared to have been treated or spiced in an noticeable manner. No melding or complimenting of taste, just shellfish plunked on top of a bit of avocado. The final prep was basically just a shrimp with some small crunchy things, one of which I assume was some form of avocado. It tasted like mediocre shrimp; I can buy a pound of far sweeter and more freshly cooked ones in Chinatown for a couple bucks.

Bread: I am a voracious bread eater, so I’m pretty sure I managed to try all six of the breads they had available (they were very nice about bring the tray around to offer more without me having to feel like a pig by asking for more). Not a single piece of the bread was ever warm or felt at all fresh baked, which really shocked me considering the reputation Daniel has for looking out for the details. They ranged from a piece of tasty but extremely oily garlic bread to an excellent black olive and rosemary bread to a mini baguette that was at least 80% crust. The butter was nice and creamy and well softened.

First Course: I had the Almond Crusted Foie Gras Terrine with Kumquat-Date Napoléon, Mache, and Asian Pear. Very tasty, but nothing exciting. A pretty standard tasting foie gras and fruit pairing (standard for foie gras being delicious). They served it with two 1”x2” lukewarm pieces of nice brioche, and when I finished those I had to request more, whereupon I was told that it would be several minutes before more was toasted. Was it really that hard to predict I would need more bread? I shouldn’t have had to ask, and it should have been ready. My friend had the Chilled Rabbit Porchetta with Chorizo, Spring Vegetables, Purple Mustard, and Colza Vinaigrette. This was basically an excellent country style pate. Great course texture, and I’m a sucker for that touch of cornichon. My friend also raved about the purple mustard, which was indeed intensely delicious and inexplicably different. Unfortunately (but equitably) she received a similarly skimpy portion of sourdough which she pronounced inferior to my brioche.

Second Course: We both had the Maine Peekytoe Crab with Fuji Apple, Celery Crème Fraîche, and Hearts of Palm. This was, without question, the low point of the evening. The plate was colorless, the crab salad tasted of nothing but mayo, and the crab spring roll tasted of nothing at all except way too much chewy rice paper. I would be embarrassed to serve this to my friends, or even to be served it by my friends. I would be annoyed to get it for 8 dollars at a mediocre diner at 3AM. I know I’m ranting, but there is no excuse for sending out a dish like this. I’m not sure whether it was flawed conception or execution or both, but even if everything else that evening had been 100% perfect (which it wasn’t), I would have had trouble looking past this dish. I still don’t know whether I should have said something to the staff, but there was nothing wrong with the dish in terms of spoilage or difference from what was promised on the menu, so what could I have said?

Third Course: We both had the Paprika Crusted Maine Lobster Tail, Broccolini, Pine Nut Gremolata, and Piquillo Coulis. This was a very nice dish. The garlic in the gremolata and the paprika complemented a nice sweet piece of lobster. The broccolini was sort of tempura-ed, and I could have eaten a bowl of just that, even if it was a little cold. If I was being truly picky, I might take note of the gritty sandy texture that the paprika crusting turned into on contact with moisture.

Fourth Course: I had Grilled Arctic Char with Spring Garlic, Wilted Spinach, Glazed Ramps, and a Marcona Almond Emulsion. This came with a generous portion of browned butter poured over it, and the only things to be tasted anywhere were the fried garlic and browned butter. Now I love fried garlic and browned butter, and indeed I was mopping the dregs up with my fourth piece of bread, but I really felt that it was far less expert, less balanced and thought out than it could have been. Shouldn’t a restaurant of this caliber be able to produce a fish dish where the fish itself has a voice and provides a genuine flavor contribution? It could have been a hunk of soft styrofoam under flavors that overwhelming, and I doubt I would have noticed. My friend had the exact same thoughts about her Loup De Mer with Syrah Sauce, Leek Royale, and "Pommes Lyonnaise." She thought the syrah reduction was delicious, but that it completely overshadowed the fish it was served on. On a happier note, each us thought our potato accompaniments (not included in the menu description for mine) were extremely tasty little bites.

Fifth Course: I had the Spiced Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Chop, Ras el Hanout, Chickpea Panisses, Cannelloni of Shoulder, Bulgur and Apricot. The lamb chop provided the only real competition for the avocado mousse in terms of Memorably Impressive dishes for the night. It was tender and juicy, and the sauce was both creamy and peppery. I was very sad when it was finished. A little piece of tenderloin was in a different creamy sauce and was nice, but nearly as complex or interesting. The “cannelloni” struck me as excessively mushy in texture and without nearly a strong enough lamb flavor to balance the amount of apricot used. The chickpea panisse was great! My friend had the Duo of Dry Aged Black Angus Beef: Red Wine Braised Short Rib with Carrot Gratin and Seared Rib Eye with Pommes Dauphine and Shallot Confit. This was overall a very solid dish. Nothing memorable or unusual, but nicely cooked beef, good roasted flavor and extremely tasty sauces and stood up to and complimented the meat. Unfortunately this is where our service hiccup occurred. My friend had asked for her rib eye cooked medium, and it arrived fairly rare, clearly dark bloody red from top to bottom. The waiter (not sure of his official rank) who we flagged down tried to argue the point, finally conceding that it was “maybe on medium rare side.” That steak had nothing “medium” about it! Which is precisely why I so thoroughly enjoyed that bloody piece of meat while my friend got her new cooked-through piece. When they brought the replacement they were as contrite and helpful as anybody could have hoped for, but I was a little shocked by the arguing in the first place. I was far less upset than my friend, however. Possibly because I got to enjoy a bonus steak. Are there sweeter words in the English language than “bonus steak?”

Sixth Course: Yay dessert! I really enjoyed my Cilantro Poached Pineapple with Coconut, Lime-Rum Gelée, and Piña Colada Sorbet. I couldn’t taste any cilantro, but I didn’t really miss it. It was a very intense load of pineapple flavor and acid, and it left my mouth sort of tingling, but fortunately I love high acid dishes. My friend had the Tainori Chocolate Dacquoise with Rice Crispy, Lemon Curd, and Dark Chocolate Ice Cream. She really liked the rice crispy and the lemon curd and cream aspect of the dacquoise, but she felt (and I agreed) that the cake aspect of the dacquoise and the ice cream were both very inferior versions of their breed. Then came a sudden rush of dessert bonuses which provided a lovely excessive and gluttonous finish to the meal. A basket of tiny fresh baked hot Madeleines, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, was without a doubt the best aspect of dessert. They were so good we finished off the whole basket and felt around the cloth liner for any that might have escaped our notice. Another plate very closely resembled my friend’s dessert, but minus all the aspects we liked, so basically a dry chocolate cake and a scoop of ice cream (coffee this time). Finally there was a plate of mignardises. It seemed pretty standard compared to what I’ve had at other restaurants, and I would rate at least half of them Good or better.

So we certainly left full, and we had a few excellent things, but there were far, far too many disappointments for it to be a meal costing 175 before drinks, tip, and tax. There were problems of the most basic sort (Dry cake? Cold bread?), and the crab dish was so shameful that I actually felt bad for the waiters who collected our plates. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed like they were avoiding our eyes, and I’m pretty sure it was the only course where nobody asked how we liked it. Then again, maybe they just noticed our face when we tried it. On the one hand I would like to give Daniel another chance. So many people seem to like it so much that I want to believe there are treasures to be found and great meal experiences to be had. On the other hand, my friend and I are students, and this dinner represented a very major splurge for us (celebrating the successful completion of a major component of our semester). I’m not sure I could ever convince myself to spend this kind of money at Daniel again instead of going to, say Eleven Madison Park. This same friend and I recently had the EMP 11 course “Gourmand” menu. We spent the same amount, got twice as many courses, and the food was more impressive in every way and on every level. Possibly excepting the cocktails. If I were to give Daniel Boulud another chance as a chef, I would just go to Bar Boulud and enjoy some of the excellent charcuterie, which he does superbly. I feel obligated, based on a single but in depth experience (case study style!), to suggest that people consider other restaurants over Daniel, especially if cost is an issue and you are really looking to feel as though you got your money’s worth. I very rarely expect perfection from anything or anyone, but Daniel fell so far short of the mark that my friend and were left feeling as though we had taken a big swing at a nice slow pitch, almost felt the home-run hit, and completely whiffed. Sorry Daniel lovers, but I really think this place has fallen victim to the Daniel Boulud attention over-extension.

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  1. Great review and excellent writing...Thanks!

    www.thelunchbelle.com

    1. This is disappointing to read, as Daniel's been one of our top choices for celebratory meals and we haven't been back since the make-over. I'm really sorry that it didn't live up to its reputation and to your expectations, but I don't think your less-than-hoped-for experience will keep us from going back - at least once - to see for ourselves if there's a downhill trend or if perhaps it was just an off-night. You'd think that, at those prices, there should be no such thing as an off-night, but I suppose it happens to the best of 'em.

      1. I love exhaustive, blow-by-blow reviews like yours, bworm42. So thorough, so well written and perceptive... I'm just sad you had a disappointing experience! I've never fallen in love with Daniel, either, and would also rank the food as good, but not amazing, for this price range. But it's usually a solid establishment. Better luck on your next blowout meal...

        1. Very good review. Just a minor note---I suspect that purple mustard was moutarde violette, which is a mustard made with grape must.

          1. great review! My husband and I went to Daniel a couple years ago, and had a very similar experience. the food was good (and sometimes just 'fine'), but nothing was outstanding by any means. I can't even remember what we ate there. The service was good, except for a huge hiccup at the end. I ended up quibbling with the waiter over my tea, which was way over steeped. he claimed it wasn't. i'm an avid tea drinker, and i know when tea i usually love is over steeped! I couldn’t believe he’d even question me about it. If I don’t like it, just take it away! I have been curious to give Daniel another try, but we will probably not be back.

            1. I agree completely. I went a couple of weeks ago and had the 3 course prix fixe. While certain elements of the meal were very, very good and the service was generally very nice, I left feeling somewhat less than impressed - certainly given the caliber of restaurant I expect in this price range.

              I strongly second your problem with the foie gras terrine, it was mind boggling that they gave out so little bread...I didn't bother asking for more, I expected it to come.

              All of my courses (and those of my party) were very well presented, but in some of the dishes the subtle flavor was too subtle - maybe it's a personal preference, but I like a little punch of flavor every now and then...

              Finally, I have to say I am a little disappointed with their service to kids - we had a younger teenager with us and they only seemed somewhat willing to work with us, "sauce on the side" kind of thing. Again, for a restaurant of this caliber, I would expect at least a standard operating procedure for picky younger eaters...

              5 Replies
              1. re: inmybackpages

                Wow...maybe it's just me, but I couldn't disagree with this post more. I was at Daniel about a month ago, and also had the crab dish. I thought it was delicious, and it was meticulously prepared with the thinly sliced hearts of palm and the abundant amount of crab meat. I think the thing that annoys me most about this post is that the service at Daniel is fantastic. Yes, it's an expensive, special occasion place. I just don't understand why, if this diner had so many issues with the meal, he didn't say a thing to anyone. If he didn't like the crab (whether anything was actually wrong with it or not, he didn't like it), he should have said something to the captain. They would have remedied it right away. Waiting until he got home to write a post about it does no one any good.

                1. re: food10011

                  " think the thing that annoys me most about this post is that the service at Daniel is fantastic." perhaps that is true for most people's experience there, but that was not true in my experience. Our server was downright rude to us at once point (i explained a little bit in my response above), which is absolutely inexcusable in a restaurant of this caliber.

                  1. re: food10011

                    I think the two things that annoy me most about your reply to this post are 1) that you don't allow for the possibility that the OP could have behaved in a completely appropriate manner for an "expensive, special occasion" restaurant, paid the "expensive, special occasion" tariff for Daniel (which, for the record, I like very much, but at which I have also experienced service issues), reasonably expected the "expensive, special occasion" experience, and been validly disappointed because his experience was not identical to your own; and 2) your one "suggestion" reveals that you were pre-disposed to your response, as the OP did, in fact, do exactly as you suggested--when the steak was not cooked to his companion's liking, they alerted the staff and were met with an argument and when he ran out of toast points for the foie gras and requested more, the staff was unprepared--that's hardly not saying a thing to anyone.

                    Daniel is probably my favorite fine dining restaurant in NYC, and I'll continue to patronize it despite its imperfections, but it is not immune to criticism when it fails to deliver a halcyon experience for its halcyon price tag.

                    I have to admit that it has never occurred to me to think of it as a service issue that reserve toast points are not kept at the ready, but upon reflection on the several times that I have run out of those very toast points on this very dish, it strikes me that that OP is completely right--I'd bet almost everyone runs out of those toast points; the runners should be offering more. The argument over the steak is completely unacceptable and also, unfortunately, completely believable to me, having been on the receiving end of a very unpleasant encounter with the hench-sommelier at one point with a wholly unsatisfactory follow-up with the captain. I am in the unfortunate position of having to do a bit more persuasion now than I'd like to get my husband to choose to go to Daniel with me as he has come to believe that Daniel is less adept than certain other establishments at taking care of non-VIP (though hardly one-off) customers who nonetheless spend real money there, and at dealing with valid issues raised by those customers.

                    1. re: food10011

                      food10011,

                      We have been to Daniel several times, and while they are capable of stellar service, unfortunately, they are also prone to very serious service glitches. The last time we were there, we fell victim to the latter. Regardless of your contention that "the service at Daniel is fantastic," the fact that there are others who have also had service issues is very indicative of how unreliable it can be. For a restaurant of Daniel's caliber, service should be consistently faultless, and the fact that it is not is, at least to me, unforgivable.

                      The odd thing is that at all Daniel's other restaurants, we have always had the kind of spot on service one would expect to find at the flagship. This is especially true of Cafe Boulud. The countless times we've been there, the service has never been anything but cordial and very polished. Why this discrepancy in service between the flagship and Daniel's "lesser" restaurants exists remains a major mystery to me. Thus, I find it totally ironic that Restaurant Daniel is a finalist for this year's James Beard Award for Best Service.
                      .

                      1. re: food10011

                        food10011

                        I'm quite sure that it's not just you. Most of the reviews I've seen seen for Daniel are extremely laudatory. That is one of the reasons why I was curious to hear responses to my own experience. Which brings me to your theory about how "Waiting until he got home to write a post about it does no one any good." Perhaps I'm wrong, but this stands in direct contradiction to the very concept of Chowhound. I by no means claim to be the definitive authority on Daniel or on any aspects of dining, but to me a large point of this site is to learn about the experiences that different people have had. Since I am fortunate enough to live in a city with such a plethora of dining options, I often like to read reviews from a number of different "amateur" diners before finalizing my decisions, especially the more expensive ones. Do you think that reviews should only be posted when they are overwhelmingly positive?

                        You may be right that I should have said something about that crab, and I'm not great about raising a fuss. It seemed unreasonable to me since there was nothing actually noxious or toxic or (as far as I know) incorrectly done about the dish. Are you really allowed to expect accommodation simply because you don't like what you ordered? Usually I just take it as a lesson and don't order it again. Could you take three bites out of your pastrami at a deli, and then decide you were more in mood for knockwurst and expect them to make the change? Even if the pastrami was inferior in quality?

                    2. I realize this is a very nit-picky point, but I am a huge fan of good bread, and even when fresh I prefer many breads at room temperature. I haven't been to Daniel, but I have eaten at Cafe Boulud, which I love, and they have among the best breads I have ever eaten (probably the same as Daniel). The assortment offered by the server is never warm but crusty and absolutely fresh, perfect.

                      1. Great review. I had a very similar experience the only time we've been there. The food was good (some courses were very good but not great, others were average). The service was highlty mediocre, though I think we just happened to get a waiter (perhaps new?) that did not know what he was doing. In any case, I agree that if I'm going to pay that much money in a city with so many other fabulous choices, pretty good doesn't cut it. I was seriously considering giving them another shot for our upcoming anniversary but your post (and several of the replies) may have convinced me not to. I would rather go back to EMP or JG (or even spend a little more for Per Se) than risk another less than stellar meal here. BTW, I quite like Bar Boulud so I think I'll stick with that.

                        1. I have not enjoyed my meals at Daniel, and I have been twice. I felt like they tried way too hard from every aspect. The food itself was above average, but not excellent. The service was intrusive and the high end of the wine list was overpriced, even for a restaurant of this calibre ($2k for a mediocre year of Laour?!?)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Farfalle

                            wats Laour? latour?

                          2. Does anyone else see a food appreciation problem here or.... after foie gras, kamquat, brioche, chorizo, mustard, chonichon, most poeple probabaly wouldn't be able to taste something like peekytoe crab meat which is a much too subtle flavor anyways... not arguing for the restaurant here, but it does seem to be common sense.
                            And just a personal opinion, i think one should never consume a portion of food one intend to return to the kitchen upon discovering that it is unsuitable to ones individual preference... if I was the staff at some restaurant, and someone told me their steak was the wrong doness, and when the replacement came out, their party have already devoured the steak, i would feel very cheated and upset. just as you would if your food came out the wrong doness.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: donnywarchild

                              "...one should never consume a portion of food one intend to return to the kitchen upon discovering that it is unsuitable to ones individual preference... if I was the staff at some restaurant, and someone told me their steak was the wrong doness, and when the replacement came out, their party have already devoured the steak, i would feel very cheated and upset."

                              I agree 100% with this statement. However, it is customary for the diner to point out any problems after taking only a bite or two of the dish in question, and then for that dish to be taken back to the kitchen so that the chef can see it before cooking the replacement.

                              Anyone who fails to complain until after they've consumed 2/3 of the item is at fault, as is the restaurant who leaves the item complained about on the table.

                            2. I'm with you -- I'd rather go to Bar Boulud for some tasty charcuterie. Regarding the bread, I love warm bread, too, and used to hold it against restaurants when they served it cold. But someone pointed out to me that the French never serve bread warm, which is why Daniel probably doesn't.