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Chez Daniel, Fighting Obesity One Course at a Time
Jun 3, 2006 - 12:42
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NEW YORK - Like truly patriotic New Yorkers, we celebrated Fleet Week by dropping anchor at Restaurant Daniel, 60 East 65th St., on New York's Upper East Side. Enticed by The New York Times's rave, "There is no better food in France than you'll find at Daniel," our party of five prepared for the ne plus ultra dining experience.

Our corner table was cozy enough for conversation and central enough to scope out the beautiful dining room of fabulous people. Wiry men in chunky black glasses—the architect's universal fashion statement of choice—wooed Japanese clients on the corporate card at one table, while it was trophy wives night out at another. Little red tags peeked out from gentlemen's shoes. The latest handbags from Chloe and Hermes got their own seats on overstuffed ottomans brought a table by the staff.

We were treated first to canapés. Tuna tartare in radish, oysters with creme fraiche and sea salt, an exquisite goat cheese, and lots more miniature delicacies—each a self-contained mouthful of pleasure—sculpted and arranged just so by little expert fingers working tirelessly behind the scenes. Then, a teeny cup of delicious English sweet pea soup with a sprinkling of crispy Niman Ranch bacon and porcini-quail brochette, a.k.a. croutons with attitude.

It was already looking like our number of courses would exceed five. The food just kept coming. With proper breaks in between, of course. The pacing was impeccable.

Next, the appetizer. Regular foie gras, rabbit foie gras, and jackalope foie gras wrapped in veal tongue. Flash-grilled sea scallops, so tender and melt-away. Wine. Water. Witty Parisian repartee by the men in white jackets. Mini-baguettes.

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The salad course arrived next. Peeky toe crab with jicama, mango coulis, and toasted peanuts. Yellowfin tuna with anchovy dressing, quail egg, haricots verts, and fried Pantelleria capers. A kiss of capers will always steal my hungry heart, but this was no regular caper. What sets Daniel above the rest and earns the restaurant its Michelin stars, is the special little qualifier that lets you know this is no ordinary caper. It's from the Outer Banks of Eastern Pantellaria, where devotion to capers is a religion.

For the fish course, my Dover sole came crowned with a halo of fair trade hazelnuts, baby leeks, baby albino asparagus, and baby albino aborted genetic fetus radishes. Plus, a very special guest: the morel. A bit of a dark horse, yes, but in the hands of the fey Frenchies, it emerges as the piggely-diggity star of the gastro-show.

What followed was a forward-marching army of various emulsions, roux, confits, terrines, paupiettes, bordelaises, fricassées, mille-feuilles, vacherins, pots au feu and jus, capped off by the piéce de resistance: the lamp chop with Meyer lemon crust, radishes from Satur Farm, which reminded me I owed Pa Satur a call, and avocado-mint chutney.

"We'd like to see the cheese trolley, s'il vous plait."

"But of course, a selection of your choosing, monsieur."

Our selection turned out to be seven different cheeses. A Roquefort, a triple-creme brie, a goat cheese, and the rest, some French, some Swiss, were like nothing I have ever tasted in my many-tasted life. But it was so much more than taste.

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At first, the aroma, the pungency, all but overcomes, and long after the morsel travels stomach-ward, the aura begins its transcendental journey into the sinuses to displace reality with a mind-altering haze of crypto-gastro-lysergic-opiate buzz. Of course, I kept eating. More and more teeny bitty morsels of these bizarre, surely illegal cheeses. Smuggled over the border, no doubt, to get you high.

What came next was like the invasion of Normandy. Fleet after fleet of dishes with gold filigree, carmelized diamonds, and droplets of syrupy baby extinct elephant nectar drizzled by the Jackson Pollock of the Upper East Side swooped down upon us. Ganache made with the rarest chocolate from a little-known African colony with bitter hazelnuts and Java coffee ice cream. Grapefruit tarte tatin with lemon-thyme anglaise and black sesame meringue. Ile flotante with rhubarb straws, almond crumble, and mascarpone sabayon. Chilled pomegranate and green tea soup. Single estate chocolate fondant nougatine.

Yes, single estate. The absence of the multiplicity of estates was as mouthwatering as the colonial occupation of India. Maybe even more so. Sao Tomé, yo, you make a mean chocolate, my native people friends. Thanks for keeping it a single estate and thanks for keeping it real all these years. Your mousse is the lightest, the fluffiest, the dreamiest, the cloudspuniest, the whiffle-fluffer-blissed-outiest. The extent to which Africa knows chocolate blows this reviewer's mind.

We gorged, we binged, we purged, we grabbed the little bastards when the origami-folded napkin was offered up to us, steam rising, with the words, "Fresh-baked madeleines?" Proust, mon amour.

Finally sated, we rested.

We watched a couple get engaged. We watched record company people chatter, architects dither, and social x-rays faux-ingest. When M. Boulud himself paid his visit, we could only babble. Bon appetit, indeed.

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