June 14, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

The Book On Daniel


         June is a month for Lohengrin and linen. That school's-out feeling strikes even chronic workaholics, and Friday shrinks to a three-hour day as all of us long to escape. It's not the month to launch an ambitious new restaurant. But even if Daniel weren't slightly out of sync, its long-winded warm-up, its soap-opera heritage, its link to the noble house of Maccioni would definitely intensify the heat. What a spotlight. What pressure. Almost a year in the works, so many unexpected delays…it seems as if the world-- well, the world that counts in this town -- is pressing, demanding a table. Foodniks professional and amateur, with nothing else to distract their neophilic hungers, scheme and maneuver for reservations. Henry Kissinger wants a table for his birthday. The phone is endlessly busy.

         A posse of piranhas from the press keeps sneaking in. Barbara Walters, a guest at lunch, returns with Mort and Linda Janklow for dinner the same night. That's Woody with Soon-Yi and friends. Jean-Georges Vongerichten at one table, Barry and Susan Wine at another, Zarela dining late. I.M. Pei seems to have made the place his canteen. Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff, in from California, greet Paul Kovi. Grace Jones. Nan Kempner (lovesitlovesitlovesit). Anna Murdoch doesn't seem to mind a two-o'clock lunch at one of the better tables.

         And already there are tastes that thrill -- the tuna tartare with its curry scent and crunch of celery and radish, the gently gelled cod painted with parsley purée in a sea of leek-and-potato broth with diamonds of potato, and the dazzling cherry soup, the sweet raw fruit afloat in a spiced-wine syrup.

         You or I might be traumatized, even paralyzed by this siege. Not Daniel Boulud. At least, not so that it shows. Quite frankly, these first few weeks are rehearsals, dishes constantly evolving, right up to the official opening day, June 2. It's taken time to make a team of the crew he's assembled in the spectacular kitchen, which surely devoured a big chunk of the $1.9-million spent here.

         Yes, it's too early to judge. Some chefs need an obsessed and demanding patron in the dining room, pushing. Others find that same drive within. Time will tell if Boulud is his own best editor. But we're here with the ladies who lunch. "Can I have the dressing on the side?" one asks. The waiter demurs: "It's really so light." There are only waiters in green blazers, no captains or bus boys-- "less formal," Boulud believes. More focused. Back for dinner, we linger late with the second shift. The pace is pleasant. Two nights later, it is inexplicably slow.

         Boulud promised the room would be "pretty but not overdone." Simple and not self-conscious, he told W. And so it is. Carpets with a small green leaf not unlike Italian parsley. Most everything else (except, alas, the paintings) is beige, with here and there a discreet pattern. Innocuous sconces suggest ladylike earrings. The expensive custom-made Limoges with its rich bands in mottled sage, sky blue, and yellow does spell it "Bulud" on the bottom (of course I looked), but it would be less expensive to change his name than to redo the plates. There's a great gorgeous burst of flowers and small, slightly scruffy blooms in rustic boxes with potatoes and cherry tomatoes. It's not a gracious space -- chunky columns, a square lost to the winsome bar, and back-to-back service stations make demands on the limited room. 

         "I am the decorator," says a handsome woman rising from the next table, directing the announcement to us. I want to believe it is pride that moves her. But we've been a quintet of outspoken faultfinders. I fear we've been crueler than John Simon. There are fussy folks here who will love so much beige. What's meant as a carp -- it's a well-bred hotel dining room --can be taken as a compliment.

         Lunch that first day was disappointing. We had brought expectations too grand for the mostly good food. We'd come for transcendence. But even that night, some of the same dishes were better, more finely tuned.

         A few days later, the odds are improving. Flavors are sharper, more distinct, often original. The chef's way with lemongrass is very French, and he loves it with sautéed soft-shell crabs and in a fabulous chilled soup of Louisiana shrimp and melon. The usual house "amusement"-- a ramekin of garlicky eggplant purée and tomato to spread on croutons --may be followed by a taste of foie gras with rhubarb and beet chips or early spring cherries for special pals (and extravagant clients). But tonight, Boulud goes wild, dispatching four different gifts -- a zucchini flower plump with crabmeat in a savory thinned mayonnaise with capers, that foie gras, bits of frog's leg with chanterelles and pea sprouts, and a Nantucket scallop in fresh tomato sauce, miniatures of dishes that may reappear on the $27 prix fixe lunch of the $65 five-course tasting dinner. He'd hoped to keep a tighter rein on prices, but with appetizers $9.50 to $19 and entrées $27.50 to $31 at night, a shade less at lunch, Daniel is at play in the fields of Le Cirque.

         So unknot the bear-grass napkin tie and tuck into thin layers of salmon on crisp garlic toast with a froufrou of avocado and black olive on chive dressing, or peppery spring greens with vegetables and herbed goat cheese piled into Parmesan shells, or the salad of crab, mango, and cucumber with mint-coriander-lime vinaigrette.

         There may be complex gazpacho or intense sweet-pea soup with a hint of bacon and rosemary, the chef's classic herb ravioli in a barely cooked tomato sauce, and warm salad of asparagus, artichoke, and more herbs with cured lemon and red pepper confit. Spicy spring fruit (apricot, plum, mango, cherries) garnishes juicy, tender roast duck beside a Vidalia onion stuffed with Swiss chard. Sadly, overcooked swordfish is wrapped in bitter eggplant. Veal chop and sweetbreads roasted in chamomile, with vegetables and porcini (presented in a large copper pot), is disappointingly bland, and Boulud's signature black bass in potato crust is soggy, not crisp -- and for some reason, the Pinot Noir sauce tastes of coffee.

         The daily-changing menu grows more ambitious, with market offerings and "a celebration of spring mushroom from Oregon and France"-- expensive ($16 or $21), but perfect as a starter for the table to share. The chef has discovered a goat cheese from Washington State that precisely evokes the taste of his grandmother's -- that's the only cheese he offers. And he's persuaded François Payard, the celebrated patissier lured away from Le Bernardin, to focus more on the season. Of course, chocolate knows no season -- the gratin with verbena on a sugar wafer is sublime, and the banana tart with white chocolate, exotic fruit, crème anglaise, and pastry curlicues has our crowd raving. But as the days grow longer and warmer, you'll want tangy fruit soup (at the moment, it's rhubarb or cherry), frozen nougat with a citrus sauce, or lime-macerated strawberry fricassee in a crème brûlée guise.

         June is such an unfocused time of the year, there's no way to predict what Daniel will be in the fall…a  boon for the neighborhood, a food-world handout, a thorn in the side of Le Cirque, or a gnat with a crown all its own. One things I do know-- if there were such a thing as futures in lemongrass, I'd call my broker right now and tell him to buy.


20 East 76th Street  288-0033


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