We thought 10 days in New York would be enough to get a great taste of the city – to really get under her skin, get to know her and convince her to divulge her secrets. But we were wrong, New York unleashes an overwhelming stream of possibilities on the unsuspecting naive. “The city that never sleeps” cliche did ring partly true for us – there are certainly venues and whole areas of the city that don’t sleep, but we were more impressed at the range of possibilities. Every city has bars, nightclubs, restaurants and gigs but New York pulls out such impressive trump cards in all these categories it made my hometown city of Sydney look like a sleepy backwater village. Any day of the week, one had perhaps a hundred different activities to choose from – any number of music or standup gigs; live Broadway, off Broadway or off off Broadway shows; interesting bars and nightclubs sparking global trends at every turn and of course, more good places beckoning us to feast than you can poke a stick at. There were so many places on my meticulously researched to-eat-at spreadsheet that even though we tried in vain to follow just fell to the wayside. If we’d filmed our 10 days in New York, it’d look like a Benny Hill skit complete with jovial saxophonist, with us racing around the city from place to place trying to engineer ways to fit in more meals per day. It was manic – but so good it very literally hurt my guts.
Speaking of guts, let me start at the first restaurant I booked. Up until this trip I’d never dined at any Michelin starred restaurants, as the guide is conspicuously absent from Australia (and let’s face it from the Southern Hemisphere) and my holidays of late have been more about rugged adventures than urban glamour. The Co-pilot on the other hand seems to dine on a Michelin star or three on every business trip, then recount it in gloriously excruciating detail. It was time to tip those Michelin stars my way, and I wasn’t going to quench a lifelong Michelin star drought by starting slow and trickling those stars in. So, before I’d even booked my plane ticket or accommodation, I booked Daniel, the 3 Michelin starred namesake restaurant of Daniel Boulud and one of only 5 three Michelin starred restaurants in New York. The awards for Daniel rain in from everywhere and to accompany the 3 Michelin stars, it has 4 stars from the New York Times (the highest rating), and scored 19/20 on the GAYOT rating system and came in at no.11 on San Pellegrino’s 2011 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Yes, I was stubbornly determined to go all out on this trip. And because we ate so well in New York (read: like gluttons), I am going to try my best and exercise brevity for once, for the sake of hopefully one day getting all the New York posts done since I’ve all but given up completing my other overseas write ups.
Surprisingly it wasn’t hard to get a booking at Daniel and joining the Co-pilot and me for dinner was the FineDiner and her friend. In a perfect world, the ideal lead up to such a momentous event for me would have included carefully planned out meals preceding the dinner; plenty of time to primp, preen and choose my outfit as there would be many photos – I’d make sure of it. In reality, we spent the entire day shopping in 40 degrees C heat at Woodbury Commons, outlet shopping stores located 90 minutes from Manhattan and forgot to eat until it was late afternoon; got stuck in horrendous traffic heading back to Manhattan that made us incredibly late; just squeezed in the world’s fastest shower whilst the Co-pilot barked out a military style countdown to keep us on track; then raced a whiteout torrential downpour that necessitated me bolting in heels across 6 lanes of traffic only to get thoroughly trapped under an awning within spitting distance of Daniel’s front entrance for 20 minutes. So started my introduction to a 3 Michelin starred restaurant – we burst in, wet, bedraggled, 30 minutes late and thoroughly flustered. C’est la vie.
Thankfully, our dining companions in their starved state were very forgiving and immediately got ordering underway as we calmed our stringy nerves. The choice was simple: the 6 course tasting menu came with a choice of 2 dishes for each course, so between a sharing couple we effectively had 12 tastings – perfect! Only then did we allow ourselves to take in our surroundings – Daniel is a gobsmackingly stunning venue. Designed by Adam D. Tihany, Daniel features neo-classical design touches like high ornate ceilings, Doric columns, soft lamp lit shadows and a vibrant floral display at the back of the restaurant that I couldn’t tear my eyes from – the commanding vivid pink tones were hypnotising. And then, guess who appeared in the restaurant? Only Daniel Boulud himself, personally ushering in a group of guests to the private room.
But there were more important matters to tend to – the feasting! We started with an amuse bouche trio of salmon, pea soup and prawn. There were more elaborate, floral descriptors and ingredients than just “salmon, pea soup and prawn”, but the American accent of our friendly, professional server was so thick that despite my best efforts and those of my dining companions, we couldn’t really understand her and as it wasn’t listed on our menu there was no cheat sheet to refer to. But the pea soup (at least we think it was pea soup) was delicious – very nutty, creamy with fresh pea flavours bursting through. This was followed by the selection of bread – the Parmesan and confit garlic rolls were so packed with flavour it was hard to exercise restraint and set it aside in preparation for the courses to come.
Our first courses seemed to showcase a dichotomy of flavours and textures. On one hand we had the duck terrine so sinfully rich, creamy and soft and on the other, the rabbit porchetta – the rabbit encased in a slightly gelatinous casing not unlike pork skin and a lifting vinegary tang. Interestingly for me, the porchetta dish also included pickled St George’s mushroom – a mushroom species I’d only ever examined in the pages of my mushroom foraging books. The pickling disguised much of the mushroom’s natural earthy mealy flavours but the acidic notes did well to brighten my palette for the ensuing courses.
The second course brought a dish studded with big, firm chunks of Taï Snapper lubricated in a bath of celery vinaigrette that had a creamy consistency and flavour not dissimilar to a green gazapacho. The vibrant slices of red radish provided both colour and textural relief. But the quenelle of caviar deservedly took centre stage. Caviar makes everything better. The alternative dish for this course was the adorably named peekytoe crab salad – the taste and texture of which made it one of my favourite dishes of the night. A thin sliver of carrot provided the casing for a column and resting on top was the cumin-carrot coulis delivered as the lightest, fluffiest, aerated mousse one could hope to make. Hidden inside the column were generous chunks of crab, its flavour thankfully uncomplicated by unnecessary ingredients.
The third courses, another seafood based duo, read like a tribute to Maine. The Maine sea scallops were tender, rich, soft and creamy, all enhanced by the creamy richness of the avocado. Contrasting that was the diced crunchy hearts of palm with just enough acidity from their pickling to provide a brighter edge to the creaminess of the dish. I didn’t think the pickled pepper would have added much spice given its large size but it delivered just the barest whisper, just enough to tickle the lips. The alternative dish was my other favourite dish from the night. If I loved the peekytoe crab salad for taste and texture, then I adored the Maine lobster dish for its aroma. The dish was delivered to the table covered by a ceramic domed lid and unveiled at the table to envelope us in the most delicious, sweet pungent perfume of cooked shellfish. I gladly lowered my nose to the dish and gave my best effort at hoovering up every last scent molecule. Chunks of Maine lobster adorned the dish, the fibrous layers soaking up the broth and demanding to be savoured slowly. Hidden inside the ravioli parcels was yet more Maine lobster – this time bathed in a what tasted like a Thai-inspired laksa concoction. It was so tasty it had us all enthusing its praise at the table and when the last morsels disappeared, wishing for an encore.
The fourth and final seafood courses brought some obscenely soft and tender Alaskan king salmon. It was clear from the vibrant peach pink colour that the sous-vide method had been employed, but the result seemed so buttery and silken smooth as though it had been confit treated also (it might have been but alas, I couldn’t catch what my server was saying). The flakes yielded to my fork with the barest of prods and slid down my gullet without protest. The other dish was tuna and though I’m not a fan of tuna steaks, even I could appreciate the quality of the soft, just seared tuna served with crispy squares of chickpea panisse. It’s tuna I could definitely develop a taste for!
The red meat course divided our table’s loyalties. Half preferred the veal tasting course with crispy, gooey, gamey sweetbreads, incredibly soft and sweet tenderloins and fall apart cheeks. The other half preferred the beef with a standout morsel of wagyu tenderloin so tender it elicited incredulous groans of delight from us. It was paired with the earthy flavour of morels and the asparagus-like fiddlehead ferns. Indecently good and we felt the quality of the produce used was really on show during this course.
And finally we came to dessert. I found the coconut meringue to be sublime: a feather light fluffy apparition of a mallow cloud that I couldn’t get enough of and the chocolate fondant was rich and decadent topped with a smidgeon of gold foil to complete the picture. The hot, sticky, gooey interior of the coulant was slightly salted to enhance the chocolate and the chewy caramel toffee centre was pure delight.
The ever-seductive lure of chocolate to the FineDiner raised half-jesting questions about whether truly fair sharing had taken place on her side of the table. Chocolate it appears can come before friends! For the record, she declared it the best chocolate coulant or fondant she’d ever tasted & for a self-confessed chocolate fiend and one who’s dined at more Michelin starred restaurants than anyone else I know (including El Bulli – twice no less!) who am I to argue?
The 6 tasting courses were filling enough but complimentary treats are always welcomed with open arms and gluttonous tastebuds. A basket of freshly baked madeleines still warm from the oven, delicately perfumed with the familiar comforting scent of home baked goods; a selection of interesting petit fours and chocolates were presented and also devoured in a flash.
And there you have my virginal Michelin star experience. Overall I thought it was a very enjoyable experience – amazing food, incredible produce in a stunning setting. Better enunciation of the dish descriptions would undoubtedly have enhanced our experience as we found it’s incredible how much the experience of clever fine food is dampened when you have no idea of what it is you’re eating or whether you’re supposed to be impressed by the chef’s innovation or use of ingredients. We mused in retrospect that so much pleasure from these fine dining experiences can be more about the idea of the experience, food for the mind if you will, rather than the senses. And given we’d paid $195USD for the 6 course tasting, or $300USD including the matched wines – we really wanted the whole bells and whistles experience. Next time I will know to keep a copy of the menu handy.
It seems almost sacrilegious that having never dined at a Michelin starred restaurant, let alone a three star one that I should be doing anything but lavishing praise in a gushing, slobbering fan girl manner, but I have to be honest that the experience didn’t blow me away. I didn’t have an epiphany at the table and there was no threat of me losing all restraint in a Harry met Sally-style ode to Daniel. Objectively, I’d say that it was a variation of my familiar fine dining experiences but a generous cut above in quality and execution. Was it so impressive as to be unfamiliar and new? No. Is it unfair to expect that – perhaps. I am still green with envy at the Co-pilot’s dining experience at Alinea and had hoped this meal at Daniel would similarly transcend my appreciation of fine dining to another level of enlightened foodie consciousness.
So, I concede perhaps my expectations were too high or perhaps the level of dining I’ve become accustomed to in Sydney is Michelin star worthy anyway (if they ever print a guide here I’m convinced many establishments would be awarded stars). Certainly I don’t think it is because as the Co-pilot suggests (or more correctly – not so secretly hopes) that I may have tired of expensive fine dining experiences. He laments that his satisfaction is much better sated with a simple bowl of noodles. Easy for the man who has dined at so many Michelin starred restaurants to say that he has tired of fine dining. I haven’t had my fill of stars and I have no intention of making this my only Michelin starred experience. Thank you Daniel for an impressive introduction to the world of Michelin stars, but my quest to devour stars will continue!
60 East 65th Street at Park Avenue
New York NY 10065
Tel: +1 212 288 0033
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