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CLAUDIA KOUSOULAS
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Our Dinner with Daniel


This is a story about food; one we've been dining out on for months. It's also a story about two ordinary people, suddenly dropped into their dream come true, and nothing bad happens.

We're new to the food business. In real life we are a couple of urban planners who are too busy but at the same time, a little bored, who love to cook and eat. From a casual conversation, we find ourselves reviewing cookbooks on-line and with the help of home computer-created stationary and business cards, we've become Appetite for Books. It's fun. We have an excuse to write and cook, we exercise our opinions, and we get to keep the books.

Hoping to add a little professional icing to this cake, we went to New York City for a class in food writing at the New School. While we were there, we thought we'd try to interview two chef/authors to add another paragraph to our reviews of their books. We e-mailed Daniel Boulud (of Restaurant Daniel and Cafe Boulud) and Francois Payard (of Patisserie Payard) asking for just ten minutes.

When we arrived in Manhattan, we bought ourselves lunch at the less expensive Cafe Boulud. This was one of those perfect lunches, three courses immaculately served with every detail from the sauce on the plate to the art on the walls harmonized like a string quartet. Then cabaret singer Bobby Short walked in for his lunch--between him, the perfect spaetzle, and the Madison Avenue shop windows full of clothing you see only in magazines, we were at the core of our own superficial universe. Eighty dollars later (we're public employees, not dot-com millionaires, money is an object), we introduced ourselves to the maitre d' who apologized--Chef was ten blocks away at Restaurant Daniel. They insisted on telephoning him. Would our schedules allow
us to see him now at the Restaurant?

Our schedules? We rushed down Madison Avenue to Restaurant Daniel where we were more than a little intimdated by the forty foot ceilings and acres of drapery and napery. We were greeted by charming people with charming accents and taken on a tour of the dining rooms ("By the way, the Bee Gees are lunching here today, over in the corner), a tour of the kitchens ("Smell this truffle") and given an hour with the Chef ("A bottle of water and three glasses. Oui Chef."). We talked about his inspirations, his old book, his new book (we madly took notes) and then,

he invited us to dinner.

We groveled, we grinned, we thanked him profusely, and nearly collapsed once we got to the sidewalk. Our lives had turned into something from the pages of Gourmet Magazine.

Meanwhile, we still had to visit Payard, and since we were hot (roll those dice, Mama needs some foie gras!), we ran ten blocks back uptown to Patisserie Payard. This jewel box of a cafe is everything a pastry shop should be, even the fittings look good enough to eat. The pastries are masterworks, architectural confections of cake, cream, and chocolate. We swooned over chocolate creme brulee (why didn't we think of that?) and a genoise cake silkscreened with a chocolate skyline of New York. After our tour, interview, and tasting we are huge fans of Payard and have learned that professional kitchens are crowded, full of great equipment, and have very slippery floors (no, we didn't fall).

At that point we both needed a nap. Back at the hotel we called our husbands and tried not to gloat. One was having a pork chop for dinner, the other, microwaved hot dogs. And since we were not quite sure that we were guests, that is, just given a table on a busy Friday night, or - guests, we also reminded ourselves that we have credit cards and that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Are we really his guests? Never mind, we have credit cards and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How much could it cost? The banks that hold our mortgages would have to understand.

After some relaxation exercises and excessive hair fussing, we headed back uptown, reminding ourselves that many people had worked their way out from under credit card debt, and we would too. At the restaurant, amid cell phones, pashmina, and attitude, we say "Umm... Sandy and Claudia. Daniel told us to come at 9:30." Boom, we are whisked to a corner table, given our own server who proceeds to feed us--foie gras (twice), langoustines, crab, monkfish, pheasant, venison, and truffles. We are being fed the menu, all of it. As she serves each dish she bends slightly at the waist and says "Madame has..." and proceeds to describe the six things on each plate that make a single serving. There were gelees, confits, mousses, terrines, potage.

We've adopted "Madame has" as our new mantra. Whenever bosses are being  bosses, or children won't brush their teeth, we close our eyes and internally repeat "Madame has." It helps. We can't help a slight twitching smile in the midst of daily frustrations that melt away with the memory of sea scallops served with mushrooms and potato puree in a sauce perigordine.

Of course, what made this food taste really great was the slow realization by the diners around us that we hadn't ordered, we were being served, that we had been given about twenty dishes, and that Daniel himself had some out from the kitchen to see if we were enjoying our meal. Jealousy can be better than salt.

We had dessert. Six different desserts. Plus tiny, warm madeleines swaddled in a starched white napkin and dusted with powdered sugar. We couldn't finish them, but we were tempted to slip one or two into our purses. Sure their melting flavor would be gone in minutes, but they would be like pilgrims' relics. Our own little chips of bone and locks of hair to revere.

Then dinner was over and we prepared ourselves for a bumpy landing back on earth. After some satiated lingering, we asked our server if we might have our check now. "No you may not" she answered. "You are guests of the chef." We somehow managed enough rudimentary math to figure a tip, floated over to the coat check, and stumbled out onto a rainy sidewalk. The cab might as well have been a pumpkin coach.


Oh yeah, the next day we went to our class and even met another cookbook author, but there was no foie gras involved. 

©2000 Claudia Kousoulas
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