Passover, Easter, daylight savings, thaw and shiver, asparagus that tastes like asparagus: It's spring in New York. In the religious rituals of chef Daniel Boulud, that means baby lamb, ramps and morels, sweet peas and just-hatched favas. Not one but three species of asparagus. Thick white stalks from Utah that get dished up before our eyes with a flowing cummerbund of chive hollandaise. Amazing. Utah. (The fatter ones from France are still ripening.) Our little ménage à trois is honoring the season alone in the cozy lounge at Daniel, tended by a parade of well-drilled myrmidons. There are muted voices in the adjacent bar, folks peeking in as they wander toward the dining room and the throaty insinuation of Louis Armstrong judiciously modulated as if for our ears only. The jazz buff among us is impressed. "Louis Armstrong," he marvels.
We have been rude and negligent, waiting till 6 p.m. Saturday night to call for a table, anonymously of course, hoping in vain for a rain-provoked vacancy, then walking in anyway. That's why we are perched on the greige tweed sofa, sitting side-saddle to the coral lacquered pedestal tables -- gratefully perched, to be sure, getting a preview of Daniel's Bar/Lounge service that debuts today with its own menu. To cap a series of sanely measured meals in the dining room, I've sent the kitchen an omakasechallenge -- let the chef decide. We have flirted with sommelier Jean Luc Le Dû and challenged him to find a red with bouquet, roundness, and at least three or four flavors for $50 or less. "I can give you more flavors than that," he responds, suggesting the Château Bellegrave '90 at $53. (Earlier, I'd been equally pleased with a '95 Le Colombier of Château Brown at $36 and the '95 Château Marsau from the Côtes de Francs at $39, proof there are modest treasures in Daniel's seemingly inflationary list.)
In no time Satchmo is forgotten, drowned out by our ecstatic sighs, sensuous moans, and rash "omigod"s, irrepressible gasps of astonishment at the chef's razzle-dazzle: The concerto of textures and flavors in a walnut-and-foie-gras-stuffed quail with porcini, favas, and haricots verts in a teasing gêlée. Spiced freshwater shrimp with asparagus and avocado in a heady potion of curry, coconut, and orange. Rhubarb-glazed sweetbreads with spinach purée, cèpes, and crisp polenta -- a clever shuffle of smooth and crisp. Bursting pillows of herb-and-sheep's-milk-ricotta ravioli decked with morels and a fava coulis. Seared scallops in a toss of bacon lardons, girolles, and fingerling potatoes, cooked to the texture of porcini. A different dish for each of us in eight courses, arriving never too soon, never too slowly, the $120 improvisational tasting.
Midway through, the chef likes to do an old-fashioned presentation. Ours is a chunk of turbot for three in porcini'd transcendence, scattered with ramps and fiddlehead ferns. An essential swath of mustard cuts the fat of elegant chops and the rascally rich caramelized belly of suckling pig. And ethereal baby lamb, always a miracle in its much-too-brief season. We ask the so-called sommelier du fromage to select five divas from the cheese tray, then brace for the finale. Chilled fruit soups to refresh. Variations in chocolate to prolong the exquisite torture. Little madeleines still soft and warm from the oven. Tartlettes and chocolates. Virtuoso Daniel Boulud.
And aren't we clever? We've managed to escape the nagging dreariness of the dining room. Yes, that's the bad news, bruited about by even Boulud's most doting fans. "Somber. Dreary. Depressing," they tell one another. Does he know? Would anyone dare dent his pride and confidence? Canny and ambitious as he is, Boulud has an enduring sweetness and exuberance that disarms. (And he has been especially generous to Citymeals-on-Wheels, the organization James Beard and I founded to help feed the homebound elderly.) But the cruel truth is that his designers have never served him well. The klutzy original Daniel on East 76th segued last fall into a too-somber Café Boulud, though the crowds piling into his revised uptown lair don't seem to mind. One need only recall the carpet-covered walls in the early three-star days of the beloved Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne to know that cuisinary sorcery does not always guarantee mastery of design. But still . . . to think that Boulud and his Westchester Daddy Warbucks spent a rumored $10 million on this clumsily lit and pitifully accessorized hiccup of a design concept. Not that what was once the Mayfair Regent's lobby and tea room, a Jazz Age take on a Renaissance garden, lacks good bones. The grand coffered ceiling, graceful arches, and swath of gallery that ring the room cry out for decent lighting, rose perhaps, to warm the vast spaces and perk up aging epidermi. The women of 10021 do not brave the scalpel, the laser, and botox for this.
The ghost of a vanished tenant, fabled Le Cirque, still haunts these walls. Or is it Le Cirque's clever ringmaster we miss, Sirio the Maccioni, smooching the air above our knuckles and making us feel like Babe Paley or Scarlett O'Hara? Maybe not. Boulud's seasoned greeters, who sometimes seemed distracted uptown, sport much more style and intimacy here. And tonight they get an accidental assist from Shun Lee's Michael Tong, stalled in the entry welcoming a taggle of big spenders. How perverse that all of us happily shoehorned into Le Cirque's banquettes in the Big Blonde Hair days never minded the stunted ceilings or the dated décor -- we were so delighted to belong, to be indulged, to eavesdrop and preview next morning's Liz.
I'm guessing that Boulud meant this soaring room, the explosions of cherry blossoms, the custom-order porcelain and silver, the wanton space between tables, to persuade the fickle rich -- Diane Sawyer, the junior Bronfman, Lillian Vernon, Sirio's migratory pets, the wandering Perelman -- that it's worth the premium to eat here. (A $42 prix fixe three-course lunch, entrées à la carte at $29 to $32; or a $68 fixed dinner, with tastings at $90 and $120.) Uptown at Café Boulud, we find, for considerably less, the same supernal soups, equally sprightly salads, similar blizzards of truffle and forests of wild mushrooms, the same potato-wrapped bass, cheeky cows, and crispy pork parts.
It seems that Boulud knows something is wrong. After a dinner in mid-March, as we sip coffee and try not to eat too many chocolates, he volunteers that a theatrical-lighting expert is coming in to work on the glow. He sends a waiter scurrying to turn on floor spots behind one of the dreary brown screens that corner the inner room. "This will warm things up," he says. Alas, the light doesn't work yet. He shrugs.
Now spring has sprung, and the tap dance in the dining room is getting spiffier. (I'm hoping the captain who offered us a granité of scallops has been coached and now knows it's a gratinée.) The kitchen is hitting new highs, too. Almost anything that isn't mind-blowing is good or very good: An oxtail terrine with foie gras, black truffles, and artichokes. Exquisitely cooked skate on a bed of white beans. Spit-roasted duck with kumquats. Roasted sturgeon with fava and cranberry beans. Every day, there is a roster of specials inspired by the market. The house-baked breads are perfect, especially what one of my chums calls the "garlic bialy." Two and sometimes three or four little tidbits signal the kitchen's welcome: tiny squares of lush terrines, caponata in a fragile tart shell, truffled goat cheese and walnuts in a Parmesan-flavored wrap, poached quail egg with caviar on a triangle of toast. Fruit soups and a rhubarb carpaccio have just the acid sass I crave. The rhubarb streusel, too gentrified for me, has a boost of acid tanginess a few weeks later. The pistachio vacherin balances silken custard and crunch. Daniel loyalists and folks who care about food may decide to stop obsessing about the room and let a mature master of refinement feed their senses. Whatever he does -- old Lyonnais home-cooking, an update of a dish inspired by the repertoire of his famed mentors, or a bow to the market's bounty -- Boulud never goes too far, and never falls for the one ingredient too many.
At my last lunch, the lights are turned up a notch, and the extra wattage cheers the mood. My friend and I have just 90 minutes for lunch, we warn the hovering crew: captains in dress-for-success suits, waiters in Nehru jackets looking rather seminarian. The soup-master scores again with a velouté of new potato, leek, and garlic. Even the lobster salad, commonly a gesture to timid eaters, detonates surprising zest with its orange-pesto sauce and startlingly potent asparagus. By a perfection of cooking and product, the squab is sheer velvet, and the foie-gras-porcini-and-pig's-feet stuffing a miracle of the ridiculous and the sublime.
As I race off to my appointment, feeling rich and glamorous and indulged -- as I might if I'd been flown to Paris for lunch and back by a rich admirer in his supersonic jet -- I spy Boulud having coffee with David Rockwell. Yes, I think. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Daniel, 60 East 65th Street (288-0033). Lunch Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:45 to 10:30 p.m. Bar/Lounge: lunch noon to 2:30 p.m.; afternoon tea and desserts till 5:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. A.E., M.C., V.