What can I say about Daniel? The hype is real. We went there not knowing what to expect, and we walked out completely satisfied and elated. It was definitely one of the best meals of our lives so far.
When Josh and I first discussed how we wanted to celebrate our 12th anniversary as a couple, we decided that we would forgo presents this year and splurge on a decadent meal instead. Daniel has been on the top of our must-eat list for a while now, as Josh’s parents and his sister have all raved about it. We originally made a 7:30 reservation on the night of our anniversary but when I read about a pre-theater dinner deal the restaurant was running, which features a $105 three course meal including wine pairings for reservations between 5:30 and 6 pm (Mondays-Thursdays), we changed our reservation to 5:45. It was early, yes, but considering a three course meal normally costs $105 without wine pairings (which are an additional $60 per person), it seemed like too good of a deal to pass up.
As the date loomed, however, I began feeling apprehensive that the special pre-theater menu would be too limited, and that I would be disappointed by the offerings. The description on Daniel’s website only says that the menu features new favorites and classic Daniel dishes, but doesn’t say how many choices are in each course. I asked Josh to call up the restaurant and find out what was on the menu, because if it only included lower-end, boring choices, then I wanted to switch our reservation to a more normal time and order from the regular menu instead. With a huge snowstorm arriving the day of our anniversary, I was pretty sure the restaurant would be getting cancellations so they probably would have been able to accommodate us at a more decent hour.
When Josh called, the woman who answered the phone told him that there were four options for each course, and that she would find out what those choices were and call him back. When she did call back, she said that she was mistaken, that the pre-theater menu was the same as the regular menu, and we would be able to choose from all dishes. Upon hearing this we were both thrilled and more excited than ever.
Per my usual habit, I went online beforehand and looked at the menu, plotting what I would order that evening. When I left work the evening of our reservation, the snow was falling hard and several inches had already accumulated on the sidewalks. It was a bit of a hike to the restaurant from the subway, especially with all the snow and slush, so I was a bit flustered when I arrived at the restaurant. I checked my coat and umbrella in the front, and found Josh waiting for me at the bar in the lounge with a drink. He had ordered a scotch, which had a really cool big ball of ice in it (so that the ice melts more slowly and doesn’t dilute the drink) and was served with some crunchy olive twists. Shortly thereafter, we were escorted to our table in the dining room.
Because it was so early, and probably also because of the weather, we were the only diners in the restaurant when we were first seated. I was still flustered from rushing over to the restaurant from work, and being seated in the completely empty, quiet dining room with a dozen servers milling about also unnerved me a bit. We were seated at a lovely table for two on the far right side of the room, facing the rest of the dining room. It reminded me of our sweetheart table at our wedding, which made me feel like I was on display. I think most of it was just me feeling insecure, and that’s something I need to learn to get over. The room actually filled up pretty quickly, and it wasn’t bad after that as the noise level grew with people chatting. We enjoyed being able to people-watch from the sidelines.
The first thing we noticed when we sat down was a stool in between our chairs, presumably to hold my purse. It was a classy touch, although we ended up putting our camera there instead of my purse. The second thing we noticed was that when we were given our menus, the pre-theater menu was in fact a limited menu, and not the full menu like the person on the phone told Josh. We expressed our disappointment and confusion to the lovely young woman who was serving us, and she told us that the person who answered the phone must have been new because the pre-theater menu is always a more limited menu.
We were a bit annoyed by the miscommunication but once we looked over the pre-theater options, we still decided to order from that particular menu. Both of the entrees that I had been eyeing when I read the menu online were included, as was my choice for dessert. The appetizers only included one dish that I really wanted to order, but we figured that it wasn’t worth ordering from the regular menu over one appetizer. We got over our disappointment, made our selections, and settled down to enjoy our meal.
As we waited for our first course, Josh showed me the new lens he bought for our SLR, sort of an anniversary present for the both of us despite the fact that we had both agreed on no presents. I didn’t mind though, as it was a lens specially designed for taking pictures in low light settings. It was perfect for the restaurant, as the lighting was very dim and we wouldn’t dream of using flash at Daniel (though there was a table next to us where someone did take a few pictures with flash, and it wasn’t too annoying because the tables at the restaurant are really spread far apart so you never feel cramped). It took us a while to figure out the right settings to use for the best pictures but we were pretty happy with the results, and I think it’s a huge improvement from our previous dark restaurant photos.
Before our first course, we were given an amuse bouche platter that had bite-size servings of squash prepared three ways. From right to left, there was a bite of squash with Iberico ham, in the middle was a kabocha squash puree, and on the left was squash served with a piece of sable. The flavor of squash was definitely center stage in each bite, and everything tasted clean and fresh.
While we were savoring each bite of the squash preparations, we were brought yet another amuse, this time a geoduck ceviche that was served in clear shot glasses. The geoduck was tender and flavorful, with a nice and tangy acidic bite to it. These amuse bouches definitely left us wanting more food.
Next came a server with a huge bread basket offering around a dozen different choices. I wanted to try them all but didn’t want to seem like a total pig so we each got two at a time. Over the course of the evening we ended up trying mini french baguettes, a garlic focaccia, an olive roll, a sourdough roll, a multigrain roll, and raisin walnut bread, but the best one of all was the butter roll, which I still think about constantly. It was basically a roll with the crust of a crispy baguette and the insides of a buttery, flaky croissant. It was rich yet light and delicate at the same time. We both got seconds of this roll as it was just simply divine.
In preparation for our first course, our first wine pairing arrived, a light chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. It wasn’t too buttery and ended up going well with both of our appetizers. As was our usual custom, Josh and I each started with a dish and then swapped plates halfway through. I ended up with the meyer lemon royale with sea urchin, North Star caviar, Barron Point oysters, finger lime, and tapioca vinaigrette. Wow! This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening, and it was a melange of colors and flavors. For my first bite, I tried to get a little bit of everything and there was just so much going on that every chew yielded a different flavor. Then I ate each component individually, and that brought out more subtle nuances to the dish. The oysters were small but bursting with flavor, the sea urchin was rich and fresh, the caviar was salty and briney, and the vinaigrette with little chewy tapioca balls was just genius.
Our other appetizer was the watercress veloute with Nantucket bay scallops, Iberico ham, black trumpet custard, and port reduction. The veloute turned out to be a velvety soup that was creamy but not rich. The watercress flavor was not too bitter, and it was slightly peppery. There were also round mushroom-shaped objects in the soup that we couldn’t identify (perhaps that was the black trumpet custard?) but they melted in our mouths in a weird and delightful way. The scallops were served on the side and the ham and port reduction added a nice richness, but the scallops were a bit cold. We weren’t sure if that was intentional but I think they might have tasted better had they been hotter. We weren’t quite as excited with this appetizer (this was our concession order) as we were with the meyer lemon royale sea urchin dish, but it was still very well prepared and tasty.
After they cleared away our appetizer plates and wine glasses, our main server came to tell us that because of the menu mix-up, they were giving us an extra course to make up for the confusion. This was unexpected but very welcome, and a very thoughtful way to correct a mistake. In addition to the extra course, they also gave us an extra wine pairing to match, an excellent premier cru white burgundy. The dish came from the full dinner menu and was kataifi crusted rock lobster with broccoli mousseline, ricotta salata, lemon-pine nut gremolata, and sweet harissa sauce. Kataifi is kind of a shredded phyllo dough and added a nice textural contrast to the tender and sweet lobster meat. The broccoli mousseline was creamy and flavorful, and the gremolata added a nice zip. The ricotta salata was presented as tiny cubes that we kind of didn’t notice, but we loved the sweet harissa sauce that wasn’t very spicy. It was a beautifully presented and flavorful dish that we really enjoyed and were glad that we had the opportunity to taste.
After the lovely bonus course, we continued through the rest of our meal. The wine pairing was a syrah from Rhone that was a perfect match for both of our entrees. The first was black sea bass with syrah sauce, accompanied by leek royale and pommes lyonnaise. This is a classic Daniel dish, and apparently caused some controversy when he paired a red wine sauce with a delicate white fish. The fish was presented as two skin-on filets, perfect for sharing. The fish was perfectly cooked except for the skin, which was oddly rubbery and chewy. Josh actually couldn’t even cut through the skin with the fish knife and ended up peeling the whole thing off in one piece. Weird. But the syrah sauce was fantastic, as were the sides. The leek royale was fluffy and flavorful, and the pommes lyonnaise, which was thinly sliced potatoes rolled up and nicely browned, were out of this world.
Our other entree was Elysian Fields Farm lamb loin with braised radicchio tardivo, confit fennel, crispy polenta, and sicilian olives. The lamb was incredible, with a beautiful crust and juicy, pink, and tender on the inside. It had a lovely gamey flavor and I couldn’t get enough of it. The fennel was delicate with a subtle flavor, and the polenta was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. It was just a wonderful dish overall – earthy, rich, and deliciously flavorful.
When it came time for dessert, we were brought the regular menu dessert list rather than the limited pre-theater menu dessert list. We inquired about that and were told that we could order whatever desserts we wanted, which was another nice gesture. We did end up picking things that were listed on the pre-theater menu but we appreciated the thought, plus they gave us wine pairings that matched each of our desserts rather than the moscato that is listed on the menu. Dessert was one course where we didn’t swap, though we did taste each other’s dishes. I ordered the warm guanaja chocolate coulant, another classic Daniel dish. I was intrigued by it because it was described as having liquid caramel and fleur de sel, a combination that I greatly enjoy. Unfortunately, I didn’t taste much of either in the dish, and it ended up being like every other molten chocolate cake that I’ve eaten. The accompanying milk sorbet was refreshing but a bit bland. This dessert really didn’t stand out to me at all.
Josh selected the coconut lemongrass soup with mango-thai basil gelee, poached pineapple, and coconut rum sorbet. It also sounded like an interesting combination on paper but failed to impress as well. It reminded both of us of a fruity pina colada, nothing really that different or exotic.
In honor of our anniversary, they brought us an extra dessert with a candle in it and “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate on the plate. Again, another very nice gesture and just highlights the level of service at the restaurant. The dessert was a spiced poached pear with hot chocolate sauce, almond frangipane, and earl grey ice cream. The chocolate sauce was neat because there was a thin disc of chocolate on top of the frangipane, which they poured hot chocolate over and the disc melted over the dessert. It was a cool effect, but the dessert itself wasn’t one of my favorites. It was a strange mix of flavors and slightly bitter – not exactly my cup of tea.
Fortunately our meal did not end there. We were also presented with a basket of tiny madeleines, served warm and fresh from the oven. They had a nice crispy chewiness to them, with a delicate citrus flavor. Even though I was very full at this point, I couldn’t stop popping these delicious little bites into my mouth.
Another dessert plate followed, a small platter of petit fours. We were stuffed but we continued on, taking a bite of each one. To be honest, I don’t really remember what was what, only that every one was tasty. The macaron was delicate and crackly, as it should be, and there was a pistachio one that we both really liked.
And just when we thought the meal was over, they set down empty plates in front of us. We weren’t sure what was going on, but then someone came by with a tray of chocolates, asking us which ones we would like to taste. We were near capacity at this point so we asked for suggestions on the best pieces, and the server told us that we should try all of them, so who were we to argue? Luckily there were only four kinds, though each one was very rich and intense. The four flavors were Grand Marnier, toasted sesame, dark chocolate, and praline. The toasted sesame was really interesting, with a nice nutty, savory flavor, and the praline was my favorite, a classic sweet crunchy bite to finish off our meal.
Overall Josh and I really enjoyed our dinner at Daniel, and I think we would rate it as the second best meal we’ve ever had, behind Alinea. But comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Daniel serves very classic and well prepared dishes, while Alinea’s offerings were unique and strange but very exciting. The service at Daniel was impeccable though, everything you would expect from a three star Michelin restaurant. All of our servers were polite, gracious, and attentive. Our food was always carefully presented and explained with a lot of detail, something that we appreciated.
We were wary at first after the pre-theater menu snafu, but they more than made up for it during the meal. I had also been hesitant about ordering from a limited menu, but we walked out feeling like we had fully experienced Daniel, and the cheaper price was just a bonus on top of a magnificent meal. Although desserts weren’t quite up to par in our opinion, the amuse bouches and all the little extras, like the madeleines and petit fours, were lovely touches that helped cap off a great evening. I would absolutely recommend going for the pre-theater special if cost is a concern. You’ll still have a terrific meal, the same level of great service, and experience all the miniscule details that make this restaurant truly special. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything, and we’d happily go back there in a heartbeat, either for the pre-theater meal or a splurge on the regular menu. We definitely believe that the restaurant deserves all the accolades it receives.
60 East 65th St. between Madison and Park Ave.
New York, NY