There aren’t many Michelin-starred restaurants in New York that offer a private dining room and another for dinner for two or 20 as well as one that gives you a bird’s eye view into the kitchen’s magic. And, still, there are two other spots here for times when you just want to stop by for cocktails and appetizers or add a sweet ending to an evening with a nightcap and dessert.
You can, however, find all this at Restaurant Daniel, celebrity-chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous French-inspired restaurant on Park Avenue. No matter the occasion, Daniel never disappoints.
It was with this conceit in mind that Daniel was designed, and when it opened its doors in 1993, the restaurant offered its guests different dining options. Twenty-six years later, it’s still doing so. Executive chef Jean-François Bruel says that by offering different dining options to their guests, Daniel forges relationships with them. The restaurant and its staff are there to “always be close to the customer,” he says.
Bruel adds that it is important for him and his staff to know what the customer’s vision for the evening is so they can make it happen. “Is it to party with friends, celebrate an occasion, enjoy an intimate dinner for two or a business dinner for many?” Time also comes into play. He and his staff stay attuned to the customer’s timetable and take note of which guests want to linger and not have their courses rushed and who needs to be at a concert or play, and, therefore, have their food timed so they get there on time.
A Storied Background
Like Boulud, Bruel grew up on a farm outside of Lyon, France and where, under his mother’s guidance, he first developed his love of cooking. Before coming to New York, he had trained under French Master Chefs, including Georges Blanc, Paul Haeberlin and Michel Guérand. After working with Boulud on his first trip to America in 1996, he returned to work for him again and, in 2003, Boulud named him executive chef at Daniel.
He credits Boulud as his mentor and, like him, Bruel has an unerring talent for creating traditional French-inspired dishes with the best of American and international ingredients. The menus at Daniel reflect this. They’re also designed with dishes not found on other menus, Bruel says, such as abalone, snails or a particular cut of fish or meat. And always, there are dishes for the more adventuresome diner as well as those who prefer the familiar.
A menu, he says, should have a good balance of ingredients and build on the flavors, with a progression from mild dishes that pair best with white wines to those more heady and best with reds. There must also be a balance of richness and ideal portions. The last couple dishes on the menu are the richest, he says, “but still should not leave the guest feeling heavy. Full, but not too full.”
Boulud was one of the first chefs in New York to embrace a seasonal menu, using fresh, local produce and products as much as possible. Bruel relishes doing the same, changing his menu every season. Even then, he says, during a season’s menu, he’ll add something new, depending on what vegetable is coming in or at its peak. Or he might change how a vegetable is prepared, adjust the menu for protein or replace a dish’s garnish. For a chef, he says, spring is the favorite. “It is the most exciting, with the first of the vegetables, like fava beans, young carrots and greens coming in.” Look for these as well as crayfish to be on his seasonal spring menu.
The Cheese-Focused Menu
And always cheese. No matter the season, Bruel will include three to four dishes with cheese as one of the ingredients or as a menu item as he did this past winter featuring Jasper Hill Creamery’s Moses Sleeper, layering it with black truffles.
Some cheeses, he says, he’ll add for their saltiness; others for their depth of flavor or the sweetness of their milk. For example, he says, a Blue cheese brings out the meaty taste in beef. One of his favorites to cook with is Ossau Iraty, a sheep milk cheese from the French Pyrenees. “I like it for its deep flavor that is just perfect,” he says. “It does not overpower a dish, but it is strong enough to bring something.” In addition, he says, it shaves easily over a dish, melting slightly as in his cannelloni with sweetbreads and porcini. Another favorite is smoked Ricotta. “We use it in many dishes,” he says. “It brings a great texture and a light, smokiness,” such as in his gnocchi with smoked Ricotta.
Just as there are dining options at Daniel, so, too, are there menu ones. From à la carte to a three-course prix-fixe before 6 p.m. to a four-course prix fixe and a seven-course tasting menu at dinner as well as a dessert menu crafted by executive pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira, named James Beard “Outstanding Pastry Chef” in 2017. And, of course, optional wine pairings, selected by Head Sommelier Raj Vaidya from Daniel’s world-class wine cellar, are always available.
Now no true French restaurant would be complete without a cheese course on its menu, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one. (The cheese course can be ordered as an appetizer or before or after dessert.) Then, there’s Daniel’s famed cheese cart, which The New York Times called “one of the finest four-wheeled vehicles in New York.” Overseeing its cheese selections for the past 23 years is head fromager Pascal Vittu. A native of France, Vittu developed his taste of cheese at a young age while spending summers at a family member’s dairy farm, which sold its milk to a co-op that made Salers, Cantal and Blue d’Auvergne. Before Boulud tapped him to join the team at Daniel, Vittu worked in some of the top French restaurants in Europe.
On any given day, Vittu presents 25 different cheeses on his cart. Like a flavor wheel, the cheeses range from mild to pungent, with Vittu making sure that all members of the cheese family are represented: hard, blue, goat, aged, fresh (those cheeses that have been aged briefly like St. Mark from Vermont), natural rind and washed rind. Only yogurt and fresh cheeses that have no rind or aging, such as Faisselle, Brousse, Feta and Mozzarella, are left out, he says, because “the French mainly consider them more of a drink, an aperitif, a dip or a recipe ingredient.”
The cheese cart, he admits, is “an eye-seducer” whether he’s rolling it in front of guests in the main dining room or making his round in the lounge. Vittu sees cheese as a way to extend an evening’s enjoyment, and his cart as a way to demystify the world of cheese and its many pleasures.
Usually guests leave it to him to make their selections, Vittu says. If so, he “assesses the situation.” “What wine was drunk during the meal? Did they have a long tasting menu? What are their tastes?” Complementing the acidity of the wine like white wines with the lactic acidity of the cheese makes for a good pairing, he says. For reds, he says, you don’t want this lactic acidity to clash with the tannins of the wine.
White wines, he says, can handle most cheeses. Crisp and fruity Sauvignon Blancs pair well with goat’s milk cheeses, where the richer whites, like chardonnay pair best with richer, creamier cheeses, including Epoisses de Bourgogne and Kunik.
Surprisingly, Vittu will often suggest a beer to accompany cheese, especially after a long, multi-course meal with matching wines. “The beer allows guests to refresh their palate,” he says. A favored pairing of his matches a wheat beer with Hooligan, a washed rind, cow’s milk cheese from Colchester, CT, and a two-year-old Mimolette, a cow’s milk cheese from North pas de Calais, France.
To be sure French cheeses are well represented in Vittu’s selection. ´Epoisses de’ Bourgogne, Maroilles, Saint-Nectaire Fermier, two-year-old Comté and Beaufort d’Alpage are just a few of the French staples that appear on his cart. However, with the rise in American cheese artisans, Vittu enjoys offering these as well, such as Oma, a washed cow’s milk cheese from Greensboro, VT; Slyboro, washed with cider goat’s milk cheese from West Pawlet, VT; Kunik, a triple cream, mixed goat/cow’s crème fraise from Warrensburg, VT; and Sweet Dream, washed rind goat/sheep’s milk cheese from Westfield, VT.
Along with cheeses from purveyor Savencia, headquartered in France and the U.S., Vittu uses Jasper Hill Farm, Lazy Lady Farm, Uplands Cheese, Cato Corner Farm, Cochran Farm, Woodcock Farm and Nettle Meadow Farm.
Keeping on top of the world of cheese means Vittu is always alert to new cheeses. He’ll often do a taste-testing of a new cheese with Vaidya to see how it pairs with wine as well as occasionally assist Bruel in developing a new cheese recipe. One such effort resulted in Bruel’s three-cheese-stuffed ravioli, an incomparable combination of Beaufort d’Alpage, Comté and Fontina from the Aosta Valley in Italy.
A Dinner to Remember
Then there’s Daniel’s annual cheese dinner. After much cajoling from those in the cheese world as well as from Daniel’s patrons, Vittu held an all-cheese dinner with Roland Barthélemy, a renowned cheese authority on both sides of the Atlantic. The deal was that, for the dinner, Barthélemy would choose 20 French cheeses and Vittu, 20 American. The event consisted of a three-course cheese dinner prepared by Bruel, wine pairings by Vaidya, buffet tables arrayed with the cheeses for tasting and time allotted for discussion, rating and the sheer enjoyment of sharing an evening with cheesemakers, experts and fellow cheese lovers.
The dinner was such a success that it is now in its third year. Like the first two, 2019’s will be held in October with Vittu, once again, as host.
As important as the food, wine and service are to a restaurant, never dismiss its decor, Bruel says. “Dining is like a voyage experience, transporting the diner to a different place for the evening. The nice setting of the table, glassware, flowers, layout of the floor — the whole decor — make it very special.”
For example, Daniel’s main dining room’s elegance is a respite from the rushed pace of the city, with its soaring coffered ceiling, neoclassical architecture, custom-designed Bernardaud chandeliers, artwork by Manolo Valdés and lush greenery
by L’Olivier Floral Atelier. The old-world European charm of The Bar and the relaxed elegance of The Lounge offer settings a bit more comfy and intimate. For a much-coveted unique dining experience, there is The Skybox, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the kitchen from a glass-enclosed table for four. Rounding out the options is the refined, private dining space of The Bellecour Room. Named after the historic town square in Boulud’s hometown of Lyon, and with windows facing East 65th Street, it’s a perfect setting to celebrate a special occasion.
Last year, Food & Wine magazine named Daniel as one of the 40 most important restaurants of the past 40 years, citing it as “one of the most elegant dining rooms in the city and one of the more memorable French-fine-dining experiences in the country.” And that is but one of the countless awards bestowed on the restaurant and Boulud. Of them all, Boulud says, he is proudest of the Legion d’Honeur because “it is the highest honor you can get as a French citizen to promote and serve your culture with your craft/achievement.” In the U.S., he says, it’s all of his James Beard awards. (Ten in all, including “Outstanding Chef” and “Outstanding Restaurateur.”)
For all of his awards and achievements, including authoring seven cookbooks, hosting a TV show and operating 18 restaurants worldwide, Boulud has never lost his love of cooking — nor his commitment to his staff, suppliers, customers and community. Restaurant Daniel hosts events and supports many charitable organizations throughout the year, he says, most notably Citymeals, which delivers meals to needy seniors, and Ment’or, which focuses on culinary education and excellence. “For the last 20 years,” Boulud says, “I’ve hosted the Sunday Supper for Citymeals, raising millions of dollars for the organization.
“My cooking mantra is seasonal,” he says, “just the way I grew up.” Though his style is rooted in the history of French cuisine, Boulud says, “It is creatively transformed by me and my team of chefs based on the place we live in and the bounty we get. Our inspiration is driven by technique, the best ingredients and the ethnic culture we encounter.”
Boulud’s restaurants are a blend between tradition and evolution, he says, creating something new for guests each time they visit. “After 25 years, we are still built on the same foundation of excellence, but our offerings are evolved and modern. We don’t want to stay still, but don’t want to grow/change too fast, either.”