I usually go out of my way to avoid perfection in a restaurant, ever preferring a place that gives me the simplest and most authentic taste of where I am. Every so often, though, I check in on perfection—usually at Daniel, in New York City. Its singular achievement is to serve what is on any day likely to be the best food in the best dining city in the world with an attitude implying that diners eat this well so often that it doesn't bear mentioning.
This tone, like the tone of all restaurants, is set by the owner. Daniel Boulud may be as temperamental backstage as any French master: I have seen assistants quail at one of his glances, and I've heard numerous tales of the colorful ways in which he and Daniel's executive chef, Alex Lee, can break the purposeful silence that prevails in the most professional kitchens. (These scenes and tales seem tame, though, in light of the picture Anthony Bourdain painted of life at less exalted French stoves in his book Kitchen Confidential .) But Boulud's generosity of spirit is evident in the number of faces I recognize in the kitchen from more than a decade of visits to his restaurants. Daniel is the most formal and classic of the three restaurants Boulud runs, which are all in Manhattan and all staffed by people he has trained for many years. They know that there are few better places to learn about food. That's what keeps me going to his restaurants too.
Although I'm tempted by the new and unfamiliar, I usually find myself drawn to the same few things. Whatever else appears on the appetizer menu, for example, I ask for soup. Boulud and Lee like to display their bravura at the very start of the meal; some chefs, thinking that the last impression is the one that will bring customers back, save it instead for the end.
Boulud uses the deepest and longest training a French chef can have—birth to a family of restaurateurs in Lyon, the home of French gastronomy; apprenticeship as a teenager with Michelin-star chefs; constant refresher trips home; experimentation with the latest technology—to achieve simplicity, the sure sign of an artist. I thought I knew what garden peas tasted like, for example, having grown up eating as many peas at the vine as I put into the pail. Then I had Boulud's lightly creamy fresh-pea soup, and experienced sweet pea flavor with a new intensity. I wasn't surprised in the following months to find chefs around the country trumpeting the formerly humdrum pea soup as a special spring gift.
Any selection of Daniel's soups shows a virtuosic variation of color and texture, usually around a theme. Recently Boulud sent to my table a warm velouté of cauliflower, Golden Delicious apple, and shrimp, colored bronze from the addition of curry, and a coolly elegant Granny Smith gelée, colored pale green from the celery in the jellied broth and garnished with a spoonful of tarragon-dressed salad of Peekytoe crab. Peekytoe is a delicate and clean-tasting crabmeat that Boulud helped make popular with chefs across the country when he first found it in Maine.
Knowing that Boulud procures various kinds of caviar from that same Maine supplier (Rod Mitchell, of Browne Trading Company, in Portland, who also sells by mail; his latest star product is Iranian osetra caviar), and needing to economize on canapés for a recent gathering, I asked Boulud to create a canapé with salmon roe. Though far less renowned, perhaps because it is far less expensive, salmon roe is a favorite of mine for its bright orange color and the fat beads that pop in the mouth. To complement its less authoritative flavor, Boulud reached into his memories of Lyon apprenticeships for crique Stephanoise, a potato pancake with chives, parsley, and black olives. Perfectly crisp, the criques tasted like adult latkes; Boulud, honoring his adopted home town, called them latkes on the evening's menu.
The regular menu at Daniel includes a modest sampling of classics that Boulud learned from his family and early teachers, and also a few dishes he made his signatures when he became a star at Le Cirque, still a temple of New York urbanity. I always ask one guest at my table to order roast squab, which is served with one or another of those French "small sauces" that take days to assemble, and another to order short ribs braised in red wine. I want to remember how squab and short ribs should taste—the farm-raised pigeon lightly gamy and a seeming cross between poultry and red meat, the nearly dissolved ribs soft, sweet, and deeply beefy. And I want to be reminded of why French sauces long ruled the world, and be relieved once again that fashions in home cooking have moved beyond the pot-intensive demands of making them.
Attentiveness to the diner that is neither condescending nor servile; the sense of family deriving from years of collaboration under an owner's strong guiding hand; responsiveness to the daily market; simplicity that reflects a lifetime of practice and learning; definitive flavors that go into the taste memory bank—I know I'll find all these at Daniel. Then there's what these admirable qualities should add up to anywhere a diner is lucky enough to encounter them, yet do not invariably: the sense on faces all around the room that having these particular surprises and jabs of familiarity at this particular meal is just the right thing to be doing. I know I'll find that at Daniel too.
Daniel, 60 East Sixty-fifth Street, New York City, 212-288-0033. Lunch 12:00-2:30 Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner 5:45-11:00 Monday through Saturday (closed Sunday). Reservations taken and recommended up to one month in advance. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, and Visa accepted.