Even in the worst of times, a world-class city needs restaurants offering the escape of over-the-top coddling and luxurious food, with a star chef who's not just on the awning but in the kitchen and dining room, too-—in short, a place like Daniel.
The most classically opulent of the city's rarefied restaurants, Daniel Boulud's 15-year-old flagship emerged from a face-lift last fall, looking about as youthful as a restaurant in a landmark Park Avenue building realistically can. The sprawling dining room no longer resembles the doge's palace in Venice. Instead it's been brought into the 21st century with white walls, contemporary wrought iron sconces and a centerpiece bookshelf lined with vibrant crystal vases among other curios.
The redesign, by longtime Boulud collaborator Adam Tihany, couldn't have come at a better time. With even neighborhood regulars keeping an eye on their budgets, now more than ever the place needs to cultivate a new clientele. Despite Boulud's ever-expanding reach—he'll soon launch his tenth restaurant, on the Bowery—the chef still prowls the dining room here most nights, charming fans and sending extras to his special guests.
While the setting has been revamped, the food—overseen since 2004 by executive chef Jean Franois Bruel—hasn't taken a radical turn. Still, presentations overall seemed much more up-to-date. The tiered silver tower cradling an overkill of miniature bites that used to kick off a meal has given way to a less-is-more amuse-bouche on a single-ingredient theme (in this case a gorgeous beet trio) on a minimalist ebony shelf.
Though the seasonally changing menu always includes a few signature dishes—Boulud's black truffle and scallops in puff pastry, introduced in 1987, remains a classic—it's the chef's new creations that keep the food as fresh as the decor. The early-spring menu showcases a global sensibility, exceptional pedigreed proteins anointed with flavors from across Europe and Asia. Wasabi-kissed hamachi tartare in a raw starter, as striking as the modern art on the walls, comes paired with hamachi sashimi marinated in a beautifully subtle tandoori rub. Another fine appetizer, built around an exceptionally sweet lobster tail, borrows a little from Spain (a bright streak of piquillo pepper coulis) and a bit more from Italy (pine nut gremolata, light batter-fried broccolini).
For a restaurant of this caliber, entres are unusually generous—often deceptively so. Pan-seared Wagyu sirloin, a market special one night, featuring two perfect cubes of densely marbled meat with wild mushrooms and a luscious hazelnut-potato croquette, was nearly as rich and filling as a Peter Luger porterhouse—but not so much that it spoiled my yen for dessert. Halibut, roasted on a slab of Himalayan sea salt in another bountiful main—and served with Thai basil, shaved heart of palm, and a mellow yogurt curry sauce—is so astonishingly tender there's virtually no chewing required.
Given the munificence of the savory spread, it's a relief to discover that Dominique Ansel's desserts aren't overwhelmingly rich or cloyingly sweet. The young pastry chef, who last worked at Fauchon in Paris, is a wizard with tropical fruit. In one sculptural finale he piles fresh mango onto a delicate base of lime dacquoise, then wraps the whole thing in a wispy candied mango tuile. In another, he lines passion-fruit-glazed discs of baby banana atop the world's most ethereal banana bread—spiced with nutmeg—with more passion fruit folded into the sorbet, sauce and whipped cream.
Sure, Daniel is still a big-ticket commitment of time and money, but—from the waiters who sweep up to the table like synchronized swimmers, to the whole fish filleted on an old-school cart—you won't find such lavish attention to detail without springing for a ticket to Europe. And with New York's fine-dining restaurants increasingly under siege these days, Boulud and his team make a powerful case for keeping the genre alive.
Drink this: The sommelier will happily guide you—through 1,600 selections—to a match for your meal, like Chateau d'Armailhac ($75), a fifth-growth grand cru bordeaux.
Eat this: Duo of hamachi, paprika-crusted lobster tail, halibut baked on Himalayan sea salt, kaffir-lime-infused mango.
Sit here: While notable guests are generally given a prime spot in the central pit, there are no bad tables in the main dining room. The front lounge, with a more relaxed dress code, offers the menu in an la carte format.
Conversation piece: Top Spanish artist Manolo Valdes was commissioned to create the eight tableaux encircling the dining room, which pay homage to great modern painters.
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