For more than 23 years, Daniels proved itself a remarkably consistent fine-dining restaurant, earning the patronage of loyal customers and the highest marks from critics. Last year, Daniel Johengen, the eponymous chef-owner, sold the place. When it reopened in December, fans wondered how the restaurant’s heart transplant would change its character. At a recent meal I found luxurious cuisine and first-class service at Daniels, with a few adventurous twists. ¶ I had never been to Daniels before I found myself parking behind the converted house in Hamburg. I did take guests who had dined there a couple of years ago, with glowing memories. The new owners, Henry Matuszewski, Annette Winder and chef Scott Donhauser, most recently of Butterwood Sweet & Savory, were intent on keeping Daniels’ best features.
That starts with the intimate, understated dining room, which includes a service bar barely larger than an airline drinks cart. It continues with the servers, kept on from the Johengen era, a smart move. They were polished, thoughtful and swift individuals, acting as a team. There’s no cocktail menu; the server said he would make whatever we liked. Remembering the mint growing alongside the building, we asked for mojitos. They were a delicious balance of sweet, sour and herbal elements.
First came an amuse-bouche of watermelon gazpacho. It was tasty fun, fruity and sweet-spicy with a smoky chipotle note, accented with toasted, crunchy cumin seeds. It was far from the Francophile cuisine that dominates the menu, signaling that there was a new chef in town.
Yeasty rolls, warm from the oven, arrived next. We pulled them apart and applied butter.
The menu has many dishes from the old Daniels, like the escargot appetizer ($12), duck breast with pear puree and raspberry ($27) and lobster tail poached in vanilla butter ($42). New dishes include the rack of lamb from Matuszewski’s former restaurant, Daffodils ($48).
For appetizers, we ordered grilled prawns with truffled salsify and sauce Basquaise ($13), foie gras with drunken cherries, maple foam and chanterelle bread French toast ($15), beet parfait ($10), oysters with pickled horseradish relish and Key lime sorbet ($16), a seasonal salad ($9) and a soft-shelled crab scampi ($13).
For entrees, we asked for the duck breast, lobster tail, a ribeye steak with black truffle cream and mushroom risotto ($36), and a special of butter-poached halibut with beet risotto ($32).
The soft-shell crab arrived dressed in lemon butter sauce with capers, atop house-made fettucine. The shellfish was a pleasure, well crusted yet juicy, the sauce velvety and piquant. We mopped the plate swiftly.
Three accurately cooked jumbo shrimp were charred slightly on the grill, perched on enriched salsify puree, and interspersed with chile-forward sauce Basquaise for a successful dish.
The half-dozen oysters were fresh and briny, topped with coarse pickled horseradish relish. Its crunchy, vinegary heat overwhelmed the delicate raw seafood, though it might have been welcome in a smaller dose. The accompanying dish of Key lime sorbet was refreshing but clashed with the relish.
The seasonal salad, built on baby spinach, included an engaging assortment of shaved fennel, candied walnuts, poached pear, blood orange segments and blue cheese, anointed with spiced plum vinaigrette. The beet parfait had whipped chevre and crunchy pistachios, but the beets were chewy and I couldn’t detect the peach in the white peach balsamic dressing.
In a departure from the usual appetizer treatment of foie gras as the star of the dish, Donhauser offered an ensemble number that posited goose liver as the meat in a miniature breakfast platter. Lightly seared slices arrived on a foundation of French toast with maple foam and bacon crumbles, topped with an over-easy quail egg and accompanied by braised sour cherries. The witty concoction was engaging and delicious.
Cat’s duck entrée featured a perfectly seared breast with the fat rendered to a crunchy crust. It worked well with the pear puree underneath, and snap peas were a fresh accent. The raspberry sauce on house-made pasta seemed out of sync with the rest of the plate, but this was still one of the night’s favorites.
My steak was accurately cooked and well-crusted. The black truffle sauce was a luxurious mushroom cream over the steak, studded with dark fungi fragments. Petite carrots were well-cooked, firm yet tender. Mushroom risotto was well-cooked too, even if the flavor felt redundant.
Liz’s lobster was two shelled tails, perfectly poached and sliced, around angel hair pasta, with tender poached asparagus. I liked the vanilla-butter sauce but stopped after a couple of bites. Generously applied to the pasta, too, it could be overpowering before the plate was clean. “Too much,” Liz said.
Kevin’s halibut was a hit. A butter-poached slab of flaky fish on pink beet risotto, topped with spinach and almonds. “Deceptively simple,” he said, enjoying contrast between nutty greens, savory, lush fish and sweet beets.
I had mixed feelings about dessert (all $9). A basil ice cream scoop on the strawberry-rhubarb tart tasted good, but rimmed with frost, it was too hard to get a spoon through it without crushing the tart. The filling was too sour, and the garnishing strawberry had a brown spot. The “bread pudding of the moment” took a swing at peanut butter and jelly, and missed.
More happily, “Snickers” was a fudge brownie topped with peanut butter ice cream and caramel sauce, with chunks of nut toffee, an upscale deconstruction done well. The almond cookie was a trough-shaped confection loaded with scoops of vanilla ice cream, then copious squiggles of raspberry sauce and chocolate sauce. It looked like a food fight but hit the spot.
My meal at Daniels was classy fine dining with a few surprises, a few disappointments and expert service. If Daniels has lost a step in transition, it must have been really something, back in the day.