Over Mardi Gras weekend, Lindsay and I boarded a jet plane to New York City to spend four days eating, drinking, and eating and drinking. We hit up 15 establishments in an 86 hour marathon, all of which were examined with a pigeon's eye. Over the next few weeks, the restaurant and bar visits will be reviewed in the following boxing related groupings: Heavyweights, Welterweights, and Lightweights. We start this series with the Heavyweights and a look at two of the big boys of the New York dining scene, Marea and Daniel.
Marea is Michael White's Italian answer to Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze's Le Bernardin. Marea focuses on the seafood culinary traditions of the Italian peninsula. The restaurant's walls are wrapped in woods and the thin veneer of yellowed shell covered stone giving off the ambiance of dining in a sunken chest. A quick wait in the bar produced a classic martini, which was delivered to our waiting table.
An amuse of cured sea trout with fried trout skin and caviar was only marred by the streak of reduced beet juice streaked across the plate which resembled the bloodied skid marks of a fish dragged across the white deck of a fishing skiff. But it jumped in the mouth with the clean taste of the cold ocean and the pop of salty caviar. Exquisitely rustic bread followed, along with a spicy olive oil.
Next up, a delicious blend of marine and land in the pig trotters with sardines. The two elements united by a bright and fresh salsa verde, proving yet again the pig is a uniter, not a divider. Then a rambling, but delicious plate of calamari, sea beans, white beans and fatty pancetta. The wine, a citrusy mineral driven Sicilian white began to open up and complement food and conversation.
Now onto the pasta courses, where this meal begins to hit some rough seas. The fusili with octopus and bone marrow was drowned in a wine heavy tomato sauce obscuring both the octopus and the bone marrow. In fact, I could find scant evidence of the latter, and no evidence of the former in the dish. Corkscrew pasta and red sauce is great, but it wasn't a Tuesday night home cooked meal. The gnochetti however was simply outstanding. The shellfish stock fortified sauce draped over the pasta like a bespoke suit with the chilis and rock shrimp serving as well-chosen accessories.
Inconsistencies showed up again in the main courses. Red snapper with brussel sprouts, hazelnuts, pomegranate and sunchokes would have been great had the fish not been horribly overcooked. Overcooked fish is one thing, this fish was dryer than Britain's attempt at humor. However, cuttlefish with capers, tomatoes, escarole, and olives all enveloped in a livornese sauce was delicious and hearty enough to make me want to order a lusty Italian red. Unfortunately, the waiters, captain, and sommelier were nowhere to be found.
Desserts were a shipwreck. The bombolini, little puffy doughnuts, were poorly executed, their interiors dry and tough. The sauces which accompanied them were too sweet by half. Rounding out this failure was a coffee crumble that seemingly was on the plate solely to show off the pastry chef's technique. I get what they were trying to do, coffee and doughnuts re-imagined, but it missed by a nautical mile. At least that dessert had some flavor, the other one on the table, a hazelnut praline with ice cream managed to be a dessert which inspired a round of twenty questions. Is that chocolate? Maybe the hazelnut is over there, nope. What is that lemon? Maybe? Could it be mint? Do I taste freezer burn? Subtlety is one thing, mystery another. Both are a woefully inadequate way to end a meal.
But really the most shocking thing about Marea was the state of the restroom. The bathroom at Marea would have been a sign of a great party in college. Paper towels tumbled out of the trash bin and the floor was dotted with other trash. Maybe it was an off night, but for the hottest new high end restaurant in New York, more than a little was left desired.
"I remember as a kid watching the fireworks on Fourth of July. There was always one firework that made a loud noise as it took off, traveled high, and then failed to explode," Lindsay said as we left. There was no need to finish the second part of her statement.
There is a theory of celebrity that you should never meet celebrities in real life. In real life, celebrities stop being celebrities and nearly always let you down. They are shorter, less interesting, and more human - the faults hidden by their celebrity in full display. Case in point: our meal at Daniel. By all accounts Daniel Boulud is a chef's chef. Although he has multiple restaurants, he spends a good amount of this time at his flagship Daniel, which has three Michelin stars and four from the New York Times. As a mentor, he has helped hundreds of chefs reach their potential. He is an effusive and hospitable French chef who has made food better in America. I have wanted to eat at Daniel for years, and we finally got our shot with a 9:15 pm reservation.
Sure enough, Boulud was in the restaurant on the evening we dined, shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room. We could monitor his movements mainly because we were seated in probably the worst table in the restaurant. Next to the kitchen doors and isolated from the activity of the room by acoustic paneling on three sides, we could have been in a dining room in Hoboken. My view of the dining room was blocked by a column. (This would come into play in a bit.) Now, listen every restaurant has a worst table, but it just sucks when you draw the short straw.
Canapes were a bit boring with two featuring salsify. Once in a remoulade and as a puree. Next to them was a smoked salmon with a pickled jalapeno. A nice round of cocktails and then the real eating began. A brilliantly smooth and rich terrine of foie gras crusted in marcona almonds with glazed dates and apples came with buttery, crisp triangles of toasted brioche was the highlight of the first course. It has been said, that Boulud's greatest strength is as a master of the charcuterie arts. While I doubt Boulud made this specific terrine, his garde manger has been well-trained. This terrine was beyond delicious. By now a bottle of champagne had arrived. The Indian spiced lobster tail with yogurt was under seasoned and the crispy wonton which accompanied it soggy.
A suckling pig dish featuring the belly, a tender chop, and crispy, airy cracklings was tied together with purple potatoes and pork jus. The saddle of rabbit with rabbit sausage was forgettable. The desserts became the highlight, especially a grapefruit one that highlighted acidity rather than sweetness. Touched off with a scoop of mascarpone ice cream and an almond biscuit, it had us fighting over the last bite.
At the midway point in the meal, Lindsay turns to me and says, "Is that Thomas Keller sitting over there? It looks like him and he is wearing that scarf thing he always has on."
I tried peering around the column to no avail. But sure enough a later trip to the men's room revealed, that yes Thomas Keller was in attendance. Being in the same room as two of the nation's greatest chefs should have been enough to make this one of the most memorable meals of our lives. And maybe it could have been but while the food was all good to excellent, service was atrocious.
When you dine with the big boys, the starred spots with reservation wait lists and secret numbers, you are paying for service, setting, and ambiance as much as food. We have already been placed in the worst seat in the house with a wonderful view of a column, so two of the four criteria are already negative. Service commensurate with the pricing could have evened things out. Or even service commensurate with a dinner half this price. As it was the service we experienced at Daniel had more in common with the dismissive, aloof service style of a simple French bistro (where it is appropriate) than a focused high end restaurant. The errors, while minor in comparison to life's major problems, were glaring.
After our appetizers were finished the plates sat empty on our tables for what seemed like hours. When it happened again after the entrees, I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes later our empty entree plates were cleared. While we waited for a dessert menu, paint dried. The captain checked in once, but before I had a chance to respond to his query he had moved on to another table. Water and wine glasses sat empty, tempting me to get up and walk across the room to grab the Champagne. I regret not doing so. One would imagine that being so close to the flight path of every front of the house employee would insure efficient service, but you would be wrong. At best the service was off, at worst it was purposefully disdainful and insulting.
Here is the thing, Daniel is not a restaurant which has to care about my experience. They are the Liuzza's for Upper East Side regulars. Men and women with bank accounts larger than their apartments dine here nightly for no other reason then they don't feel like cooking. The prime reservation times are reserved for them, the best tables and waiters as well. There are restaurants like that in every city of note, including New Orleans. I don't fault them for being what they are. And perhaps they are too insulated, too surrounded by immense wealth to realize that not everyone who drops $200 a head on a meal is a hedge fund manager or an heiress to a timber fortune.
But Daniel is also a destination restaurant, owing to the celebrity of its chef. One that should be cognizant that people may travel to Daniel to eat from far away. Daniel should set a shining example of just how enjoyable a night of eating should be. You should leave Daniel wishing to go again the next night. You should wake up the next morning and pillow talk with your spouse about the meal, the dishes that you will remember for a lifetime. Forget the sting of the check, the whole experience from service to food to setting was totally worth it.
The number one sign of a great meal at any price is how long you talk about the meal after it has ended. It has been a week and we have almost forgotten all about it. The check, however, still stings with the force of a thousand bees.
Daniel, I wish we had never met.