My Lunch at Daniel

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.

(pictures follow)

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  • QUIRZE says:

    ruth laureano from barcelona
    i am very happy of your aricle about chefs froom france of nouvelle cusine
    i know well bocuse, senderens, troisgros, george blanc, nandron, francis garcia, and dead misterious alain chapel.and monsiuer PIC DE VALANCE
    i am worked in pierre orsi in lyon in 1981 and 1982, aqnd my father and i during 5 yeears go to france to eat , is a gastronomic trip, so i know very well these chefs and i have a lot cook books from they signed
    i have more souvenirs beautiful about these chefs and restaurants and people.from
    i know well ferran and juli soler also
    i follow you on twitter
    i want to work here inj ny in a spanish restaurant or catalan food if you know any person who need chef end news
    my email:
    speak french english and spanish and catalan
    +34 659471687
    regards from barcelona

  • After reading “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples”, I started to follow your journal blog, and just can’t seem to get enough! Thanks for such great balance between food writing and biography (and sometimes a bit of mystery:)…I was wondering if there was any way of finding out more in regards to some things that really interested me in “Comfort Me with Apples” ?

  • P.S. Congratulations on becoming Editor at Large and writer at Random House!!! I am sooo excited for your novel to come out as well as your cookbook!

  • Looks like you had great time. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    Ms. Organicgrapefruit: Just ask me what you want to know about Comfort. I’ll tell you, if I can.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    Quirze: I don’t know anyone looking for a Spanish chef, but if I hear of anything, I’ll send them your way. Have you tried the obvious places: Casa Mono, Tzikito, etc. ?

  • Wow what a meal, and the wine from 1865 how exciting!! I have never been to Daniel but heard only fabulous things as my parents have been there several times, and as I showed my husband this post he said oh yay I have been there.., for his best friends graduation from law school… So looks like I need to get myself over there!!!

  • Not sure if this is a good place to ask, but I dont have twitter. Making swiss pumpkin recipe on Friday night. Have been wanting to for years and finally was was able to get an organic pumpkin and gruyere. Just wondering is there a way to replace the chicken broth with something else? Have a vegetarian in our midst. The non -chicken broths are kind of weird and synthetic to me. Any ideas?
    Thanks to whom ever replies.

  • xt67 says:

    Hi Ruth,
    I’ve read three of your books and I am currently on my fourth (I love them all). I am a second year grad school student and I hope to write books as beautiful as yours someday (I also want to eat as well as you have). 🙂 I am currently reading Comfort Me With Apples and I love the part where you said that having scrambled eggs with truffles is what you imagined sex tasting like. I loved that. I’m so happy that you have a blog, too. I am one of your biggest fans. Thank you for sharing all your wonderful stories and recipes. I look forward to reading more.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    Jessica: My original recipe did not call for chicken broth; I just filled the pumpkin up with half and half. (I was 21, and convinced that my friends and I would all live forever.) In an attempt to make a more reasonable recipe, to lighten it a little, I made the change to chicken broth, but it’s truly great wtih all that cream. You could certainly substitute milk.
    If you do, please let me know how it comes out.