Before every meal served by Daniel Boulud, New York's longest-reigning four-star chef holds a staff meeting with his entire crew. This one is taking place in the garage of investment banker Bruce Wasserstein's East Hampton estate one hour before 60 guests arrive for a $25,000-a-plate Democratic Party fund-raiser. Since the guest of honor is President Clinton, the grounds are crawling with Secret Service agents in full monty: earpieces, buzz cuts, and high-powered rifles. Every pot and pan brought in by Boulud, every truffle, medallion of tuna, and bottle of Mondavi Special Reserve 1982, has already been searched and hand-patted by the presidential security detail. Even the cold cuts used in the sandwiches that Boulud and his team are wolfing down before the guests arrive have gotten the once-over from an eager German shepherd, the republic's last line of defense against a terrorist mortadella attack.
The pressure is on, yet Boulud is the picture of Gallic cool, impassively chewing on his sandwich and listening as his catering director runs down a service checklist that is as complex as an NFL pass defense. Two squadrons of six waiters, each waiter carrying two plates, will simultaneously be dispatched to the dining room. The meal must move along at the accelerated pace known as "presidential service" -- i.e., as soon as any one diner at a table completes a course, the waiters are to take that as a signal to remove every diner's plate. That way, the president is assured that the dinner won't drag on forever. The corollary is, of course, don't linger over the lobster.
Boulud swallows a last, huge bite, looks around the garage, and cracks a tight-lipped let-me-at-'em grin. He ends the meeting with a huddle-breaking "Let's kick ass!"
That's exactly what they do.
The menu is classic Boulud, simple, powerful flavors in a well-orchestrated progression: Long Island lobster, seared tuna wrapped in pancetta, a medley of lamb accompanied by a zucchini flower filled with eggplant confit. There are no leftovers -- a group of Secret Service agents and White House staff loitering near the kitchen see to that -- and in the end, the weary president and First Lady stop by the kitchen for a chat with Boulud. Hillary makes small talk about his cookbook, while the president, a notorious chocoholic, lavishes praise on the chocolate cake served for dessert. Clinton laughs when someone on the kitchen crew lets slip a sotto voce "Hail to the chef."
Daniel Boulud, 43, is no stranger to feeding presidents and kings, not to mention show-business royalty and titans of high finance. For years, they've been crowding into Restaurant Daniel, his small but high-powered establishment on East 76th Street. Basically, since the doors first opened in 1992, it's been reservation "by recommendation" only. Charlie Palmer, chef-owner of Aureole, sums up what almost every chef I spoke to thinks about Boulud: '"If I could eat only one meal, I would probably go to Daniel. He is about powerhouse taste, maximum flavor."
Now Boulud has re-created his jewel of a restaurant (which was closed in August) on a much grander scale eleven blocks south, in the lavishly restored former Mayfair Hotel at 610 Park Avenue. The Mayfair has been converted to luxury condos -- Nautica's David Chu reportedly just paid between $10 million and $12 million for two adjoining apartments, and Wayne Gretzky and Naomi Campbell are said to be about to close on their own new spaces -- and it happens to be the former site of one of Boulud's great triumphs: as chef at Le Cirque.
The price tag on the new restaurant, more than $10 million, is the highest amount ever spent on a single dining space in the city. And the fact that the new Restaurant Daniel is three times the size of the old Le Cirque, where Boulud labored for restaurateur-impresario Sirio Maccioni, and cost twice as much as the new Le Cirque, only serves to heat up the already simmering Oedipal tension between Boulud and his former mentor.
"On 76th Street, the box was just too small," observes Boulud's bracingly direct business adviser Lili Lynton. "Daniel's ambition was not satisfied simply having a society place."
Boulud's high-stakes gamble is even more singular in this era of upscale food entrepreneurs -- men like Drew Nieporent, Danny Meyer, Ken Aretsky, and, of course, Maccioni, who are skilled at working the dining room while leaving the cooking to others. Daniel is a restaurant that has been built from the chef, and the kitchen, out.
Although boulud is a French chef, schooled in a trio of Michelin three-star restaurants, the new Daniel is definitely not a "French restaurant" with spindly Louis Quinze chairs and poofy Second Empire tchotchkes. It is a lush, ornate, Venetian-Byzantine-Deco fantasy. In the words of the designer, Patrick Naggar, who has an intriguing Sephardic, French, and Egyptian heritage, it is "a deconstructed Renaissance painting": the gold of Giotto in a Deco cocktail bar, the checkerboard pattern on all the rugs reminiscent of Piero della Francesca, velvet and damask wall hangings that suggest the garments in a settecento painting. "What I have asked myself in building this room," explains Naggar, "is, can you combine history and modern comment in a great restaurant? I think you can."