Dining at Daniel

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2004

Some people spend their money on cars, houses, tobacco, music, alcohol, shoes, clothes, electronic gadgets, or collectables. After taking care of my rent and savings account, I spend my money on very few things, one of which is food. Specifically, eating for experience. I developed this habit while living in San Francisco — one of the best cities in the world for food — and have continued it here in NYC, also, as it happens, one of the best cities in the world for food.

Eating for experience doesn't necessarily require vast sums of money. I probably spend less on average per month than the typical twenty-something does on booze or clothes. I haven't eaten at all of these cheap places in NYC, but I've been to more than a few of them and have had some very good experiences. Many professional food critics will tell you that their favorite spots to eat, places they wouldn't dare to review or write about, aren't particularly expensive. The soup dumplings at New Green Bo are 8 for ~$3 and I'd choose them over a $35 filet mignon most days of the week.

But every once in awhile, when you need to celebrate an occasion and have your tiny mind blown in the process, you get yourself a reservation at the type of place that requires reservations and perhaps a jacket and tie. For my birthday (as well as another special occasion I am quasi-legally bound not to reveal), Meg took me to Daniel, one of only five NY Times four-star restaurants in New York.

The vocabulary of a physics major can't do justice to the meal we had at Daniel, so I'm not even going to try. The dining room, the service, the food...all great/excellent/fantastic or whatever superlative you want to supply. Two things stood out:

- The — and I'm quoting from the menu here — Duo of Cedar River Farm Beef: Braised Short Ribs in Red Wine with Scallion-Mashed Potatoes, Seared Dry-Aged Rib Eye with Watercress, Porcini, and Young Carrots. The short ribs were excellent and I don't remember what I thought of any of the accompaniments, but the rib eye was a revelation. It literally floored me. Ok, not literally, but I would have been knocked to the actual floor if that kind of thing was acceptable behavior at Daniel. The first bite startled me it was so good. Beef, even really good beef, tastes like beef, but this was on some other level of flavor...it tasted like magic. The remaining few bites were as perplexing as the first as I struggled to comprehend how ordinary meat could taste like that. Best dish I've ever had in my life, ever. Ever!

- When the maitre 'd comes up to your table in the middle of the meal and inquires if you're there for a special occasion "or something", he's basically asking, "what the hell are you young people doing here?" in the really polite way of someone who has a lot of practice asking indirect questions. Because if there was a sore thumb sticking out in the restaurant that night, it was us. Young, not particularly fashionable (me only...Meg looked quite fine in her new dress), not rich, not there for the scene or to be seen, and genuinely interested in the meal rather than just eating on an expense account. I told him it was my birthday. Still trying to figure out precisely why we were there without asking outright, he tried the obvious follow-up question: "are you a chef?" I replied that I wasn't but that Meg worked in the kitchen of a restaurant.

From there, it was easy. When Meg starts talking about something she's enthusiastic about, the other participants in the conversation can't help but be engaged. Soon they were talking about garde manger, covers, and who knows what else. A tour of the kitchen was offered and accepted. After we paid our check, he showed us all around the huge kitchen, if that's even what you can call three stories of food prep area. Really nice guy and generous with his time...he spent 20 minutes showing us around when I'm sure, as the maitre d' of the whole fricking place, that he had a much better class of flesh to press about the dining room. He even gave Meg a card for the women in charge of staffing and suggested she come in to do a stage in the kitchen.

Right before we left (5+ hours after we'd arrived at the restaurant), we got to watch Daniel Boulud direct plate traffic and then chatted with him for a few moments. I tried to relate to him my religious experience with the rib eye, but I'm sure I didn't do it justice. What a wonderful experience all the way around.


- A visit to the French Laundry
- Rosecrans enjoys a night at Chez Daniel