The Blanc de Blancs was cold and the velouté was hot. At 5:30 on Wednesday night, the dining room at Restaurant Daniel, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, welcomed back its first guests since March 13. There were only five occupied tables in the entire restaurant, and yet, according to city rules, it was at capacity. After having our temperatures checked and hands doubly sanitized—the second time with towelettes at the table—my Air Mail confrère Michael Hainey and I settled into our seats directly across from one another at our four-top. Not quite six feet of distance, but close enough.
A sparse assortment of silverware was laid bare over linen—a decorative plate is technically just another virus-attracting surface—and the centerpiece consisted of a hunk of a QR code printed on a sheet of paper and ensconced in a wedge of plexiglass. When scanned by an iPhone, it summoned the menu. Adieu for now, canard à la presse served tableside in its own bloody sauce: chef and proprietor Daniel Boulud has dressed things down considerably, temporarily reimagining his temple of fine dining into “Boulud Sur Mer,” a play on Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the seaside village on the Côte d’Azur. “You couldn’t travel to France this summer,” said Boulud, stopping by to greet his guests in his starched jacket, a steel-gray canvas face mask, and fresh-out-of-the-box Comme des Garçons Play high-top sneakers. “So we’re bringing it to you.”
There were only five occupied tables in the entire restaurant, and yet, according to city rules, it was at capacity.
It’s been a long time since we’ve tasted food that has earned three stars from The New York Times and two from the Michelin guide. Despite our decades of fine-dining experience, it felt foreign and luxurious to waffle over a menu stocked with such delicacies. Pâté en croûte with fig-raisin chutney, fennel pollen, pickled radish, and tarragon mustard, or striped bass marinated in herbes de Provence and finished with lavender oil? And perhaps sasso chicken with a fricassee of garbanzo beans, fennel, and tomato confit? Meanwhile, a coupe de champagne has never tasted so crisp, so sweet, so … hospitable.
Even a more “casual” Daniel is not devoid of theater. With the help of architect Stephanie Goto, the neoclassical columns and molding have been offset with panels covered in Hermès Feuillage wallpaper. Potted plants and exotic greenery from society florist L’Olivier lend a Riviera vibe, as do the servers’ marinière shirts, which were accessorized with the best-tailored masks on the market. (We’re still looking for the source.) Distance was maintained by all, and while one could, in theory, fret about the potential for airborne virus particles to land atop a sliver of striped bass, my concerns receded with each sip of Chablis. (I can’t say the same for Michael, an admirably vigilant creature, who wore his mask for much of the evening.)
The servers’ marinière shirts were accessorized with the best-tailored masks on the market.
Despite valiant attempts to do so, this is not the kind of experience one can easily translate to the sidewalk. How can the delicate scent of saffron compete with a belch of taxicab exhaust? New York City, even in its seasonally depressed state, is still distracting. Outdoor dining best serves those in search of sustenance and a scene, not a food-driven feast for the senses. Still, this did not deter the Boulud loyalists who stalked the Web site Resy for a sidewalk table. As far as makeshift terraces go, there are worse blocks to install one than 65th Street between Madison and Park. On Wednesday night, it was full of well-preserved couples of a certain age who may have scheduled even more plastic surgery than normal during lockdown. They talked, they laughed, they drank, they waved to friends from behind plexiglass partitions.
It was a sharp contrast to the rarefied atmosphere inside Daniel, where our compatriots included a solo gentleman in a lamé suit celebrating his birthday, along with a few youngish couples in search of, well, one of the few cultural experiences that one can get in the city these days. For safety’s sake, avoid lingering over Armagnac. An hour and a half or so is enough time to remember what it feels like to be human again. To eat in a way that’s sensual, intimate, transportive, memory-generating—the opposite of what we’ve been doing for so much of the pandemic. Really, it’s the reason we spend $123 on dinner, per person, in the first place. Well, that, and the madeleines.
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail