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A Modern Master

Thomas Matthews
Posted: March 24, 2000


A Modern Master

Daniel Boulud aims high -- restaurant Daniel is a $10 million wager that he can create the best French restaurant in America.

The Burgundian-born chef comes from a long line of restaurateurs. His career in America began nearly 20 years ago, taking him to stardom first at Le Cirque and most recently at his own Caf Boulud. Last year, he built a luxurious new restaurant in the Park Avenue space vacated by Le Cirque. Daniel has already become a magnet for wine collectors, visiting chefs and regulars from the Upper East Side who don't think twice about dropping $140 for Boulud's eight-course tasting menu.

The dining room, a large square space surrounded by a low, balustraded mezzanine, is both monumental and rather bland, with muted colors, soft washes of light and decorative touches that suggest Italy but don't belong to any particular period or style. The context enhances the comfort of the table, and puts maximum focus on the food. In its refusal to be locked into a definable character, the luxurious ambience echoes both the modesty and the ambition of Boulud's cuisine.

Boulud cooks French food, of course; his heritage and his training are too deeply rooted in its traditions for him to escape. But he uses haute cuisine as a tool more than a template. Boulud is not trying to recreate some classic era. His menu unites the past seamlessly with the wide-open opportunities of the present.

A dish of thin slices of raw scallops topped with sea urchin and osetra caviar napped with a light oyster velout accented with lemongrass offers a symphony of silky textures and counterpointing flavors that are part French, part Asian, part American chowder and entirely harmonious. The extraordinary desserts of pastry chef Thomas Haas maintain the high levels of imagination and intensity.

Sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du has assembled a broad, international wine list perfectly pitched to Boulud's food. An extensive selection of red and white Burgundies enhances the delicate flavors; muscular California reds (including verticals of cult stars Bryant Family and Shafer Hillside Select) and mature Bordeaux (a vertical of Chteau Latour reaches back to 1920) match the powerful dishes.

Alas, execution doesn't always match the concepts. Dishes are occasionally marred by overcooking or underseasoning. The wine list could use better selections by the glass. More fundamentally, I have a sense that the chef could take more chances. Although his current menu offers both harmony and purity, it rarely surprises. But despite its shortcomings, the high points vouch for the venture's potential. When Boulud begins cooking with the confidence his talent warrants, restaurant Daniel will achieve its place in the pantheon of American dining.

-- T.M.

Restaurant Ratings

Address 60 E. 65th St., New York 10021
Telephone (212) 288-0033
Fax (212) 396-9014
Web site www.danielnyc.com
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club
Wine Spectator Award Best of Award of Excellence

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