Simply as Good as It Gets: Four-Star Frolics at Daniel

It was Monday lunchtime and at a nearby table eight men were seated before dozens of gleaming wineglasses, fanned out in front of them like the spokes of a wheel. They kicked off with a glass of champagne and then got down to business, sniffing and swirling and holding their glasses of red wine up to the light as waiters brought one platter of food after another to them. They were having a fine time.

So were we.

Four of us had met for lunch at Daniel Boulud’s new restaurant, which has opened in the old Mayfair Hotel (now condo apartments) where Le Cirque used to be. We, too, were sitting at a big round table, but we only filled half of it, and we weren’t drinking from 30 bottles of 1982 Bordeaux, as were the men, who I learned later were the wine writer Robert Parker and seven friends having what is euphemistically known in the business as a wine “tasting.” Our budget permitted a chilled Sancerre, one of a few wines on Daniel’s remarkable list priced in the low two figures that wasn’t a half-bottle. It went very well with a couple of our first courses–pearly slices of sea scallop seviche topped with sea urchins and Sevruga caviar, and raw tuna en escabeche with pickled vegetables. The ballotine I had ordered, made with generous chunks of squab, dried fruits and foie gras, might have matched better with a buttery Sauternes, perhaps, and the sweet pepper and potato bisque laced with pesto demanded something big and red. But we weren’t complaining, for the food was nothing short of wonderful.

Daniel’s wine list opens encouragingly with Baudelaire’s poem “L’Ami du Vin” from Les Fleurs du Mal . Yet a less decadent place than this would be hard to imagine. There is nothing here of the loucheness of the old Le Cirque (now a private dining room), with its air-kissing blondes in Chanel suits ordering chicken without the skin. Daniel is for people who take food seriously. The restaurant, designed by Patrick Naggar, is on two levels in the Mayfair’s old lobby and former tearoom, a 1920′s interpretation of an Italian Renaissance courtyard–complete with arches, columns and a raised gallery. The walls are now creamy yellow with a limestone finish, the coffered ceilings burnt-orange, hung with an immense iron chandelier decorated with little upturned glass lamps. The chairs are red velvet and the banquettes dark blue. The tables display elaborate flower arrangements. But intimacy is not one of the hallmarks of Renaissance architecture. This room is as cold as the Frick Collection, and the pinpoints of light coming down from the ceiling do nothing to warm it up. It may impress, but it’s not the setting you’d choose for a romantic evening.

“It feels like a lobby,” my companion complained over dinner one evening, as we sat down under an overhead wall lamp that threw our faces into rather too-sharp relief. “Whatever happened to the notion of romance in a grand restaurant, to dining rooms with soft peach lighting like Cafe Chauveron?”

Forget romance. Concentrate on your food. It doesn’t get much better than this (nor does the service). At dinner, the chef sends out not one or two but three little freebie things to start you off, among them a plate of tuna tartare or a small silver bowl of creamy cucumber soup with salmon roe. It’s hard not to fill up right away on the marvelous breads: raisin walnut, garlic focaccia and crusty sourdough rolls made in the house.

“This is genius,” said my dinner companion as he tasted octopus on oiled green linguine with cilantro and fava beans. “Just four or five perfect ingredients.”

Mr. Boulud, who is from Lyons, became Le Cirque’s executive chef at the age of 31 in the late 80′s, and in 1993 opened Restaurant Daniel, which he redecorated and reopened last fall as the less formal Cafe Boulud. From there he brought his executive chef Alex Lee (who has also worked at Le Cirque and at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV in Monte Carlo) to open the new Daniel.

Mr. Boulud is a master of all elements of French cooking, whether classical or bourgeois. He is equally at home with a complex modern dish–roasted shrimp with endives braised in tangerine juice and carrots flavored with cumin–or a deceptively simple braised beef with carrots and mashed potatoes that is like nothing you’ve ever had before. He also does wonderful things with game: duck that is rare but with a crisp skin, served with a spicy fruit chutney and rutabaga purée, or guinea hen with foie gras and turnips glazed in port so they take on the aspect of a fruit. His food is never overwrought or fussy, whether it’s a chunk of cod with cockles and caviar floating in an emerald broth, or a pink, juicy lamb saddle stuffed with endive and squash, paired with a lamb chop crusted with black truffles and walnuts.

“I once tried writing restaurant reviews, but I was fired,” said one of my lunchtime friends who was stoking up on thick slices of roast veal with artichokes while trying to figure out how she would describe it. “I simply can’t find the right adjectives.”

“You must never use adjectives!”

“Especially succulent.”

As my friends and I ate lunch, we watched in amusement as trays of food, including whole roast fowl, were carted over to the eight plum-colored men having their mini-Satyricon. Perhaps it was the effect of all this excess, but my husband–who normally has a tunafish sandwich for lunch at his desk–asked for the cheese trolley. It was rolled in on wheels under a clear Plexiglas top, each cheese at its peak and each more exciting than the last. And there was no letdown with pastry chef Thomas Haas’ desserts, which include a delicate crepe folded over a filling of fromage blanc and served with a compote of berries; a warm dark chocolate upside-down cake, light as a soufflé, with kumquat confit; and an apple tart under a dome of meringue spiked like a sea urchin.

By then, it was after 3 o’clock and we were winding up with two rounds of double espressos when Mr. Parker’s table rang out with expressions of delight. For their delectation, the waiter held aloft a platter containing the whole roasted head of a pig.

At the end of the meal, along with petits fours, we were served a pile of sugar-dusted petits madeleines in a napkin, hot from the oven.

“Lest we forget,” said the writer.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s likely.

Daniel

* * * *

60 East 65th Street

288-0033

Dress:Jacket and tie

Noise level:Fine

Wine list: More than 600 selections with many rare, expensive vintages

Credit cards:All major

Price range: Three-course prix-fixe lunch $42, five-course $69; three-course prix-fixe dinner $68, six-course $90, eight-course $120

Lunch: Monday to Saturday noon to 2:30 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:45 P.M. to 11 P.M.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor