I now know where the beautiful people are.
They’re past Times Square; past the shiny lights, sweat splattered brows, polyester pants and ‘five shirts for $11.99′. They’re past the clusters of hot dog-munchers with aprons of excess flesh that squat in Central Park and watch other people exercise.
They’re weren’t staying with us in a cosy sublet in Nolita, or sweltering beside us on the platforms of the number 6 subway.
No. They’re hiding in crisp comfort on the Upper East Side, beneath vaulted ceilings and curved arches, on carpet the colour of summer plums. They’re flanked by hydrangeas.
Who knows if they’re happy. They should be. They’re eating at Daniel.
Daniel Bouloud’s eponymous restaurant is downright glamorous. There’s no getting past it. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to iron a shirt twice and put a brooch in your hair. It’s the kind of place that makes you wish you weren’t quite so subway -sticky when you step inside.
Here on East 65th street there’s no twinkling view to dazzle, but amidst its air conditioned comfort there’s people watching worth paying for, service to swoon over and some very serious play on the plate.
All three of those things are made obvious within our first ten minutes inside.
On the night we take refuge at Daniel we’re seated on a mezzanine level, on a raised perimeter that looks down to a centre-field of tables. It’s theatre in the round, and tonight’s performers include a large percentage of shiny blondes wearing big diamonds, flanked by salt and pepper gentlemen. Squatting on little stools beside them are handbags that cost more than my car. Couplings like these provide great fodder a game I like to call ‘father or fling?’
The service at Daniel is so attuned it borders on the comical. Particularly when a sommelier scoots over and begins offering a profuse apology when he spies me me poring over the wine list. You see, initially it was presented it to The Hungry One. “Madame, I’m so sorry. Please forgive my assumption. Would you like to talk through anything? Again, I’m terribly sorry for the assumption”. He seems mortified. It’s enough to make you wonder if he’d once made the same assumption with another and then met a sharp tongue inside one of those beautiful heads.
It’s hard to imagine getting stroppy about anything here. Particularly when there’s so much to distract on the plate.
It all starts with an amouse bouche of ‘three tastes of peas’. They come out looking delicate food for a doll’s tea party.
In three tiny bowls we meet sweet summer peas paired with playmates. There are peas and rock shrimp and shimeji mushrooms, with carrots pumped up with tumeric and ginger and peas with Ibjerico jamon.
For the bulk meal there’s the option of a six course tasting menu. We choose a more pocket-friendly three course prix fixe. With it come some canny calculations. If the two of us select different options then in the end we’ll have tasted six courses. Chalk it up as a win for the impostors.
The wins keep on rolling in when The Hungry One sees his Maine sea scallops come with a circumference more commonly seen in Coke cans. To improve the situation they’re crusted with a crunchy coat of hazelnuts and rolling about with corn and chorizo. It’s a cracking combination.
Making sure we get half each is an interesting episode in marital compromise. Lucky our chosen alternate is a Peekytoe crab salad with black sesame, Persian cucumber and radishes. It looks a little like a sculpted hilltop vista of rolling green, but is more like a train carriage packed full of fat threads of crab and gilded by cucumber. It’s sweet, cool and with the nuttiness of sesame adding a baseline of interest.
Main courses are also fodder for healthy discussion. There’s a trio of veal, which includes cheeks, a roasted tenderloin and crisp sweetbreads with leeks, artichokes and turnips. It’s a beautiful dish that’s richer than most of the nearby residents.
Then there’s the lamb. It’s one of those meals which almost makes time stand still. A hunk of Elysian Fields loin is pink like flushed cheeks. There’s a ratatouille of such fine dice that one might assume it was there just to show off the knife technique in the kitchen, except it’s pulling its weight as a foil for the meat. There’s some shredded tandoori spiced lamb shoulder, wrapped in the crunch of brik pastry. There’s a crisp fried zucchini flower standing to attention. And then there are some glorious dots of thickened yogurt for some tart and creamy relief. To me, it’s a perfect dish. In the category of what I’d happily eat for my ‘last meal on this planet’. I should have stayed quiet about how good it was.
Dessert comes with two choices “Fruit, or chocolate?”. As time winds on the waitstaff have softened and become cheekier. I think they sense we’re blow ins here for the food. “The wind is whispering the coulant” I’m quietly told. After a few neatly paired wines and a generous Campari it’s a little cryptic for me. I think I’m being steered in the direction of warm fondant, with liquid caramel, salt and milk sorbet. I’m happily carried along by the wind. The Hungry One opts for an aerated milk chocolate mousse with coffee ice cream. A winning combination for him, always.
Someone inside the kitchen must have been dissatisfied with our choice. Perhaps the fruits got offended. So we’re also brought tasters from the other side- ‘just for fun’. Soon we’re merry go round tasting the two chocolate dishes and a blueberry and hibiscus vacherin, and a coconut lemongrass soup with mango and thai basil gel, poached pinapple and a coconut rum sorbet. The coconut soup is like a summer holiday in a bowl.
Throughout the course of the meal the waitstaff must have heard us chatting about our impending move to London. At one point- when lamenting that we don’t yet have solid jobs- we sarcastically crack ‘yay for us!’ and cheers each other.
Our dessert plates arrive with ‘Congratulations’ and the above phrase inscribed in chocolate. We assume it’s the waitstaff wishing us luck in our adventure. Or perhaps the flatware senses just how thrilled we are to be here and approves of our indulgence.
The rest of the night brings espressos that are a touch on the long side, an origami napkin encasing fresh baked madelines, warm and the size of a thimble. There are chocolates and mignardises and a tour of the kitchen.
After two and a half hours we skuttle out like the impostors that we are in this land of beautiful people.
With us we have a hand written card by the manager, who has taken it upon himself to guide us to other places in New York we must visit while we’re here.
We don’t look at it properly until we’re back on the subway.
In flowing script are the names and addresses of the wine bars Terroir and Please Don’t Tell. Below them are other locales that are much less about the fuss, and much more about the food.
We think we’ve been made.
Daniel is a very special place. It’s the kind of place that makes you wish someone would teach you how to wear a headband as a grown woman without looking like a six year old, or how to drink a campari which comes with a block of ice the size of a rubix cube without it constantly knocking and numbing your nose.
It’s full of beautiful people. And very very beautiful food.
But it’s not our natural home. We know it, and they know it too.
And I think we’re ok with that.
60 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065, United States
Eighth best restaurant in the world in the 2010 San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’.