IF you haven’t dined at Daniel in the last four and a half months, you haven’t dined at Daniel.
You may have had food as impressive in its precision — and as gloriously wanton in its luxuriousness — as it is today.
You may have had Daniel’s charmed and charming service, which at times seems more like sorcery, the attendants swirling in and stealing away almost imperceptibly, set into motion by nothing more than the subtle raising of your eyes (they notice it) or the mere contemplation of craning your neck (they sense it).
But you experienced all of this in a tritely romantic setting that was dated from the very instant of the restaurant’s debut in its current location 10 years ago. Pastel, frilly and feminine, the décor at Daniel brought to mind the lining of a prim octogenarian’s underwear drawer.
Not anymore. After a late-summer sprucing-up so extensive it was more transplant than lift, Daniel has a swaggering metallic shimmer in place of that simpering rosy glow.
The main colors chosen by the chef Daniel Boulud and the designer Adam Tihany, whose firm was also responsible for Per Se’s décor, are more neutral: silvery gray, chocolate brown. The lines are sharper. As a result the neo-Classical bones of the place — those Greek-style columns and arches that skirt the main dining room, a miniature Parthenon of pleasure — stand out in a way they didn’t before.
Daniel was always fancy; now it’s genuinely gorgeous, too. And that’s almost reason enough to reaffirm the four stars the restaurant was awarded by William Grimes in The New York Times in 2001.
But the contemporary French menu and the service make their own contributions, usually measuring up to the extremely high standards the restaurant has established.
All in all Daniel remains one of New York’s most sumptuous dining experiences. And while it yields fewer transcendent moments than its four-star brethren and falls prey to more inconsistency, it has a distinctive and important niche in that brood, a special reason to be treasured.
Among the handful of elegant restaurants that maintain the rituals once synonymous with superior cuisine and cling to an haute French style, Daniel is the most straightforward, the one with the fewest tics or tweaks. It’s the truest link to the past.
Le Bernardin has its microfocus of seafood. Jean Georges has its mission of lightening French cooking, finding alternatives to cream and reductions. Per Se does its bombastic strut, with discourses on ingredients that are equal parts tutorial and sonnet.
Daniel is the least peculiar, the least narrow and the most universal member of this exalted clan, to the extent that “universal” can be applied to any restaurant charging $105 for three courses. That’s a lot of money, and not just in lean times.
But you get a lot for it. In fact there are moments during a meal at Daniel when you may well wonder why it isn’t more expensive, given how much staff is required for service like this; how much pinpoint labor must be lavished on dishes with so many facets and such stunning physical architecture; how much cooking goes into the amuse-bouches alone; how much plotting goes into the ceremony.
At restaurants considered much less exclusive, you could spend only $30 less on a similar amount of food, and you wouldn’t get anything approaching Daniel’s bells and whistles. These flourishes make you feel that you’ve slipped into a monarch’s robes, if only for a night, and turn an evening into an event.
Take note of the dotted circles, a visual motif woven into the restaurant’s new design. They’re on the welcome mat outside. And on the carpeting inside. And on the china, the cotton damask napkins and even the plush, thick paper hand towels in the restrooms.
They tell you just how attentive to detail Daniel is determined to be, and the food immediately underscores that, every dinner commencing with a triptych of amuse-bouches that toy with a single ingredient: sweet potato one night, brocco
On my most recent visit the ingredient was beets, and to the left was a Lilliputian beet salad with horseradish and candied walnut. To the right was a domino of beet-cured hamachi with an exquisite texture and a ruby gloss.