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.