My Lunch at Daniel
Friday, October 1, 2010
It’s been years since I sat down to lunch at noon and spent the entire afternoon at the table, slowly, dreamily, eating (and drinking) the day away. After today’s languid five-hour meals at Daniel, I wonder why I got out of the habit.
The idea for this lunch grew out of another long lunch, when Daniel Boulud and Colman Andrews boozily started reminiscing about the French food of the seventies. It was a halcyon time, the beginning of nouvelle cuisine, when young chefs were throwing out all the rulebooks. It was also the time when Daniel was starting out, working with French masters like Michel Guerard and Paul Bocuse.
And so, this “retour aux annees ’70,” an homage to all the great French chefs of the time. It was also, said Daniel slyly, an attempt to lure Colman (who has just written a book on Irish food and a biography of Ferran Adria), back to France.
As a seduction, I’d say it was entirely successful. We started with whole foie gras wrapped in a peppercorn jelly; the soft, rosy livers shining merrily inside their dark wrapping, their sweetness underlined by the prickle of the peppers. We drank an extraordinary sauternes, a ’62 Coutet (with its original price - $4 - still stamped on the bottle).
Back in the seventies you couldn’t pick up a food magazine without reading about the the truffle soup that Paul Bocuse made for Valery Giscard D’Estaing. A golden dome of puff pastry rose dramatically above the bowl. Daniel changed the recipe, creating a textural treasure hunt; every time you stuck your spoon through the pastry into the intense game broth, you came up with some wildly different texture. Now it is a bit of quenelle that dissolves in an instant, now a chewy little nugget of truffle, now a soft pillow of liver.
Georges Blancs frog’s legs, heady with parsley and garlic and served in a puddle of clarified butter, were so invitingly fragrant that it was impossible not to pick them up and eat them right down to the bone. The Raveneau Chablis (2004), was not only the most perfect Chablis I’ve ever tasted, but also the perfect wine for this dish, the acid cutting right through the butter.
Why did I forget what a shock it was the first time I tasted the Troisgros salmon? Eating this lovely little square of fish in its sorrel sauce, I suddenly remembered that moment, in Roanne, remembered thinking that I had never really tasted salmon before. Thinly sliced and barely cooked (and only on one side), it was, for me, the doorway to sushi. Eating it, slowly, thoughtful, I began to wonder what fish might taste like raw. It was then – and is now – the epitome of simplicity, and utterly satisfying.
Next we had an extraordinary tart of cepes and innards, an Alain Chapel dish from 1974. Even more appealing, at least to me, was the tender little kidney on the side; it looked like a rose just beginning to bloom, with a flavor so gentle it was hard to remember how kidneys usually taste.
As those plates were being removed a trio of large ducks was paraded about the room and then carved with great fanfare. The carcasses were put though an enormous duck press and the blood went into the sauce. The meat was deep red and deeply flavorful, with the primitive and faintly metallic tang that comes only from blood. The wine with that, a Domaine de la Grange des Peres 2000 impressed me more than the fancy 1990 Volnays served with the previous course.
Then there was a rare cheese Le Timanoix, a caramelized fig tart and a spectacular cake that Gaston LeNotre invented to honor the Concorde in 1978 (although with its mass of chocolate curls it looked more like an homage to Shirley Temple). They were both great, but even greater was the Boal Madeira from 1865. Think about it: We were drinking wine that was made while the Civil War was being fought.
And that, of course, is one of the great things about food. It is one sure way to remember the past. And as this lunch reminded me, the seventies are worth remembering.