The day had arrived. I was going to Restaurant Daniel on New York’s upper east side, one of four three-star Michelin eateries in the big city, not to mention the recipient of the oh-so-coveted four-star New York Times rating. It doesn’t matter whether you are a foodie or not… dining at Daniel is a pretty big deal. And I was lucky enough to have the chance to go.
And so I went.
And I was… taken by surprise.
Disappointed is far too harsh a word, for that is not what I felt. Rather, each $5 bite and $10 sip propelled me to think long and hard about the cost of culinary excellence. Furthermore, it challenged me to sketch out my own dining ideal and put it up against such a revered restaurant as Daniel.
To begin, Restaurant Daniel is not my dining ideal.
Ushered by two servers to our seats, my boyfriend and I were given instructions on dining at Daniel. They began, “Have you dined at Daniel? No? Then there are a few things you might want to know before we begin…” For example, “Please notify us if the pillow on the seat between you two would benefit from being removed. We want you to be comfortable.”
Comfortable. Comfort. Hmmm… these are not exactly the words I would use to describe Daniel.
The angular note about the pillow alone seemed to preface the ‘event,’ also known as dinner, quite appropriately for what followed. What struck me at first was the silence. No music played. All that could be heard was the fast shuffling of feet that belonged to what seemed like dozens of servers who were continuously crossing one another back and forth—though, eating an early five o’clock supper before the opera, only a few tables were occupied. In the faint distance there was some quiet chatter, though it seemed largely related to business. The few couples that peppered the room were quite silent, wearing rather tired, listless stares on their faces.
The food was divine. The wine was fairly priced (an amiable 2001 Bosquet des Papes at $90 befriended our meal). But when you are paying top dollar, even that isn’t enough.
The thing is, dining at Daniel, it felt as though many working there had finally ‘made it’—they had reached the apex of their career. What it seemed to lack, though, whether by consequence or mere coincidence, was gravity– that silent fuzzy ingredient that communicates everyone was part and parcel of Daniel, passionately maintaining its raison d’arte. Rather, it seemed as though they were more or less there because it was Daniel. Maybe it was even fellow diners that exuded that notion. I understand that is possibly unfair, it may have simply been the time of day, the servers we encountered, the mood I was in, my inflated expectations. Nonetheless, as a highly rated, highly priced experience, shouldn’t it be nearly flawless from food to wine to service to ambience? Isn’t that the point of ‘arbitrary’ restaurant guides, anyway? A faint, approximation of estimating the standard of a restaurant before dropping beaucoup bucks?
Every perfectly prepared bite of slowly baked dover sole I consumed felt a little empty. I couldn’t taste the purpose. I was not at ease, nor was I intellectually stimulated. I was doted on perhaps a little too much, as a little fleet of five tended to our table, always within earshot, making an intimate conversation impossible, which, in my opinion, is the foundation of any memorable meal.
In the air hung awkwardly even proportions of invasive detachment, zealous impassion, insidious restraint, and non-intuitive book-smart brilliance. They could carry food and wine questions full term without conveying the pregnant aire of unadulterated enthusiasm that fills the void between knowing…and knowing.
So ultimately, a restaurant such as this begs the question: what dining experience is worth hundreds of dollars to you? Are there any that make the cut? That you would do again? What does it look like? Is there a hierarchy of importance? Food, then wine, then service? Ambience, then wine, then food? Expediency, then service, then cost?
For me, I realized it looks something like this: wine, company, food, ambience, conversation, music and service—all quite similar in proportions. A good restaurant, in the end, is like well-balanced wine. When all the tannins, acid, fruit, and oak harmonize, each complimenting the other, the effect is riveting—spellbinding, really.
It’s difficult for me to criticize. Especially when a restaurant is so praised by close friends and co-workers. And, to be clear, the food and drink is certainly not where my criticism falls. They say, though, that the mark of a good chef, is he or she who leaves one in want of more. But at the end of the day, whether in a bad economy or not, an expensive meal is merely expensive if it leaves you in want of more of the inedible parts, which are as crucial as the salt and pepper that pulls the dish together.
I know people who find Daniel to be the end-all, be-all. And for good reason. This is clearly subjective. So what about you? What’s your dining ideal? What was worth it? What wasn’t worth it?