The first time that Josh and I ate at Daniel, for our 12th anniversary, we booked an early reservation to take advantage of their special three course pre-theater menu that included complimentary wine pairings. Although there was some confusion about the actual menu itself, the meal ended up being fabulous, one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Everything was top notch, from the food to the service. We were thrilled by the experience, and when we were trying to decide where to go for my birthday a few months later, we decided to go back to Daniel and try out the regular menu.
Sadly, that experience left much to be desired. I was actually so disappointed with the meal that I never ended up blogging about it. There was nothing egregiously wrong, it was just not the same experience that we had before, and the food wasn’t as memorable. The only thing I remember eating was the sauteed foie gras appetizer, which wasn’t on the menu but if you ask them for it, they’ll usually have it on hand. The foie gras was perfectly cooked, slightly crisp on the outside, rich and silky on the inside, and lots of deliciously livery flavor. There were seven of us at that dinner, and none of us were really impressed with the meal in its entirety. Service was just slightly off, and I was pretty disheartened afterward.
When I saw that Daniel was once again offering the pre-theater menu special, this time three courses for $110, including wine pairings, I wondered if we should give it another shot. The menu really is a bargain, and we had such a great meal the first time. Josh had some friends in Canada who come for a visit once a year and we usually go with them for some really nice meals. One year, they went to Le Bernardin and absolutely loved it. The next year, we joined them at Jean Georges, which ended up being a huge disappointment, food-wise (I lost the pictures and ended up never writing about, unfortunately). This year, we were wracking our brains for a new restaurant to try, but decided that price-wise, the pre-theater menu at Daniel made the most sense. The special runs from 5:30-6 pm, Monday through Thursday, and we were able to get a 5:45 reservation on the day that worked best for us.
The restaurant was pretty empty at 5:45 but soon filled up quickly. They did ask on the phone when Josh made the reservation if we were going to the theater afterward, which we weren’t, so they knew we wouldn’t be in a rush. We started with a round of cocktails while we looked over the menu. Unfortunately, they didn’t give us the pre-theater menu initially, so we had to stop someone and ask for it specifically. A slight misstep I thought, but no harm done. The pre-theater menu features four choices for each course that come from the regular menu or are classic Daniel dishes. We were all pretty pleased with options for each course and still had a hard time deciding what we wanted because everything looked good.
After we placed our orders, they brought us a trio of amuse bouches that featured eggplant.
They included a shrimp with eggplant brunoise, an eggplant mousse, and smoked salmon on top of a piece of eggplant. I loved the smoked salmon, which tasted fresh and had a great texture, but the one that featured eggplant the best was the mousse, which was light and airy and showcased the subtle sweetness of the eggplant.
After we finished with the amuses, the bread man came by with a selection of assorted rolls and breads. I honed in on the butter roll, my favorite of the bunch, and a standard baguette. The butter roll is really just wonderful, with a nice crispy crust and a buttery inside that is flaky and chewy at the same time. The baguette also has a nice crust and good flavor.
For the first course, I selected the trio of hamachi while Josh chose the wild herb ravioli with ricotta. We swapped plates midway through, per usual. The hamachi (yellowtail) featured three different preparations – confit with sorrel and hearts of palm, tartare with North Star caviar, and cured with bergamot (a type of orange) and snap peas.
The tartare was my favorite of the three preparations. I could really taste the flavor of the hamachi, and the caviar added a slight saltiness and brininess that just elevated the dish. The cured hamachi was also pretty tasty and had a nice glossy texture to it, similar to high quality lox. The confit was my least favorite preparation, as it had a soft, mushy texture. I also didn’t find much flavor in the sorrel sauce, and it needed just a touch more seasoning.
The wild herb ravioli was a fantastic choice. The raviolis were filled with ricotta from Dancing Ewe Farm that had a lovely milky flavor that wasn’t overpowered by the herbs. While the filling was soft and fluffy, the pasta skin was perfectly al dente and had a nice chewy bite to it. The sauteed mushrooms and grilled spring onions on top added an earthiness to the dish, and there were slightly chewy pieces of gamey iberico ham that provided some saltiness. The dish as a whole was a bit richer than you would expect from an appetizer course, but the fresh herbs really brightened everything up.
Chuck opted for the peekytoe crab salad with cumin carrot coulis, spanner crab craquelin, ginger, and avocado. The dish was beautifully presented, and he had nothing but nice things to say about the taste.
For the main course, Josh and I selected the lamb loin and the trio of milk fed pig from Quebec. The lamb loin, from Elysian Fields, was crusted with taggiasche olives and incredibly flavorful. The lamb had a nice gamey flavor, and though it was a bit past the requested medium rare, it was still tender and juicy. The lamb was served with asparagus, ramps, and a kamut berry ragout that had a wonderfully chewy texture to it and a nice nutty flavor. I really enjoyed this dish and thought it was well balanced – not too heavy or rich.
The trio of pig featured a roasted chop with glazed turnips, braised shoulder cannelloni with cucumber, and smoked ribs with fennel-avocado coleslaw and vadouvan jus. The presentation was stunning; it was almost a shame to tear into it, but we were eager to try all the different kinds of pork. The chop was tender and juicy, and it had super crispy skin surrounding it that was pretty incredible. It was like the best chicharron – flavorful and crunchy. The braised shoulder was stuffed inside a hollowed out piece of cucumber, which added a nice freshness to the rich pork. The pork itself was well seasoned, and it was an interesting combination. The smoked ribs were absolutely succulent, with a nice caramelized layer of fat on the outside. There were lots of different components to the dish but everything tasted great, both individually and together.
While Chuck also ordered the lamb, Dave opted for the roasted black sea bass with syrah sauce, a classic Daniel dish. Josh and I ordered it the first time we were there and really enjoyed it, and I think Dave did as well. It was served with stuffed leeks, potato confit and caramelized cipollini.
For dessert, Chuck and Dave both selected the warm guanaja chocolate coulant with liquid caramel, fleur de sel, and milk sorbet. Again, a dish that Josh and I tried the first time, and another Daniel classic. While they both enjoyed the molten chocolate cake, they found it a tad rich and difficult to finish. Still, there were no major complaints.
Josh and I split the Thai basil macerated mango dessert and the sesame bavaroise with chocolate cremeux. The mango, which tasted ripe and sweet, was piled on a lime dacquoise that was shaped like a little tart shell. The basil flavor was subtle, but the combination was wonderful. The lime added a nice brightness, and it wasn’t an overly sweet dessert, which I liked. There was pink guava sorbet on the side that gave the dish an even more tropical feel. It reminded me a bit of Taiwan, where I would spend my days eating fresh mangoes and drinking lots of guava juice. I was pretty happy with this dessert.
The sesame bavaroise and araguani chocolate cremeux was a much richer dessert, with lots of toasted sesame flavor. Sesame is kind of nutty, which pairs well with chocolate. There was also a szechuan pepper gelee on the plate, though I don’t really remember tasting it, and chocolate ice cream. It was an interesting dessert with an unusual flavor combination, but you really have to like sesame to enjoy it.
The complimentary wine pairings that came with our pre-theater prix fixe were pretty decent. Obviously it’s not the best wine you can order, and everyone gets the same wine no matter what dish they’ve chosen, but the restaurant did a good job of selecting wines that would go with many different kinds of dishes. The wine for the first course was Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Cuvee Daniel”, Santa Barbara County 2009. It was not overly buttery in flavor, with a bit of crispness that I appreciated. The wine for the main course was Roc du Manoir Cotes du Castillon, Bordeaux 2008. I thought it worked well with the lamb but was a bit heavy for the pork trio. I was incredibly pleased with our third wine, La Spinetta, Moscato D’Asti, Piedmont 2010. It wasn’t too sweet for a dessert wine, and had an intense grape flavor that I really enjoyed. I might need to pick up a bottle of that for myself, which is saying something because I almost never drink dessert wines.
When they gave us our first pour of wine, I thought it was a bit on the small side, but then our server came around midway through the course and refilled our glasses. I was much happier then, and thought it was actually a good idea to do two half pours. Otherwise, I have a tendency to drink too much of my wine before the course is even served. With this method, I had enough wine to drink with my dish until it was finished.
With our desserts, they brought us a basket of madeleines, which I loved both previously at Daniel and at Cafe Boulud. After we finished our desserts, they brought us a selection of chocolates and a few petit fours. The chocolates were flavored with praline, cinnamon, basil, and raspberry. The cinnamon was a surprise, with a nicely subtle flavor, not the Atomic Fireball that I was expecting. The basil was also wonderful, pairing the sweet chocolate with the herbaceous, savory flavor.
Overall, we were pretty happy that Dave and Chuck thoroughly enjoyed the meal, and they both thought the food was much better than what we had at Jean Georges last year. The ambiance was also more upscale, and the whole experience seemed better. There were just some minor missteps with service, aside from forgetting to give us the pre-theater menu. Our appetizer course plates were cleared before Dave had finished eating, making for a slightly awkward moment. They also served our desserts while Dave was away from the table. They held off on his dessert plate, but the rest of us were left to wonder if it was rude to start eating before all our ice creams melted. Minor quibbles, really. They didn’t detract from our meal but we were surprised nonetheless given Daniel’s three start Michelin status. For the most part, I thought service was exemplary. Our servers were all very friendly and efficient, keeping our water glasses filled and coming by to check on us frequently, but not intrusively.
Josh and I were extremely pleased with our meal, and this experience definitely made up for the mediocre dinner we had for my birthday. Our only guess to the reason behind our lackluster meal was that on my birthday, we were a large party of seven, and perhaps that’s too big of a crowd for the individualized service we received on our first visit. For example, instead of presenting the different chocolates at the end of our meal, they just brought over a small plate of chocolates, only enough for one for each person so we didn’t get to try all the different flavors. Our server also didn’t really explain each dish in detail, probably because there were so many dishes on the table. The food also seemed a bit flat, things served not quite at the temperature, not seasoned perfectly, etc. It was just little things like that, but it all added up in the end.
Nevertheless, our faith in Daniel has been restored. And the pre-theater menu is an absolute bargain at $110, probably one of the best deals in the city. So what if you have to be seated between 5:30 and 6? The meal is luxurious and relaxing, especially if you’re not actually going to the theater afterward. No one rushes you, and you get all the little extras that you normally would, plus the bonus of the complimentary wine pairings. Considering the regular prix fixe is $105 and wine pairings are an additional $60, this pre-theater special really can’t be beat. The menu is more limited, with four choices for each course, but all the options are top notch and most are items that can be found on the regular menu. If you’ve never been to Daniel before, this is a great way to try out it. I’m already trying to decide when I want to go back!
60 East 65th St. between Madison and Park Ave.
New York, NY