Shape Shifter

The Fine Dining at Daniel's Is Transformed Into A New Kind of Fabulous.

THOUGH HE LIVED 200 years ago, that sly old lawyer and gourmand Brillat-Savarin still lectured us long and hard about the differences between the pleasures of eating and the pleasures of the table. "At the end of a well-savored meal," he records in The Physiology of Taste, "both soul and body enjoy an especial well-being ... the imagination flowers and clever phrases fly to the lips."

One can only imagine what great pleasure Brillat-Savarin would have found, what clever phrases might have blossomed, were he to spend an evening with the menu at Daniel's.

Originally, Daniel's was a lovely, elegant spot to dine for those who wished to linger, perhaps to savor an experience or spend a luxurious evening in the company of the beloved or the soon-to-be beloved. Possibly one might have entertained the lost beloved, but no one ever brought them unless they wished to return to the roost, were thoroughly repentant, and picked up the tab. Because Daniel's was a special-occasion restaurant, a place to dine in the venerated European fashion, spending hours celebrating the pleasures of the table.

While Daniel's still maintains its impeccable stature as a fine dining venue, it has recently developed some noteworthy new facets as well. A complete remodeling has transformed the once dark and formal dining rooms into a bright and deeply romantic contemporary venue. Most importantly, the heralded return of executive chef Michael Veres has restored the integrity of the original dinner menu, and brought some inspired additions in the form of a new lunch and brunch menu. And, voilà, Daniel's has repositioned itself as a contender on the rapidly expanding restaurant row on River Road.

The most potent change afoot at Daniel's is the addition of an ambitious brunch, lunch and bar menu. The bar menu, in particular, is a welcome addition since it provides the opportunity to drop in on less formal pretense and still sup in a glorious fashion.

In particular, the "flights of food" are impressive. Covering a lovely range of items from smoked seafood cake with lemon-caper vinaigrette to phyllo-wrapped duck with cherry relish, each sample is a world unto itself. Prepared with the care that goes into all of Daniel's offerings, these flights are innovative and well worth exploring. If you are just nibbling, try three different selections ($8), or settle in with five ($11). Should you be traveling in a crowd, try all nine ($18).

Don't hesitate to mix and match them with the available wines by the glass. You can order a "splash" of wine so you can orchestrate your own flights of wine. If you haven't given Daniel's a try in a while, you might drop in for a glass of wine and a flight of food and see how your whole world view can shift after such a small plate.

Brunch is a new addition as well and offers a reasonably priced and varied range of items. All entrées include the choice of a Bloody Mary, a glass of champagne, mimosa or fruit juice as well as coffee or tea.

We tried the Smoked Salmon Benedict ($14). Two poached eggs served with threshed smoked salmon filet and a basil hollandaise sauce constitute a delicate interpretation of a classic brunch item, served with home fries and plated with care. We found this a light, pleasing brunch offering.

On a more substantial note, the sautéed beef medallions with eggs ($16) rest decidedly on the lunch side of brunch. The tender medallions are sautéed to your specifications in a savory shallot-sherry sauce, redolent with tomato. Two eggs and home fries on the plate round this out to a hearty meal. Accompanied with a Bloody Mary, this will cure whatever ails you and start your Sunday right in short order.

Despite all these new expansions, it is especially rewarding to see that the dinner menu is still treated with the same finely tuned attention. The gracious service at Daniel's is always a transport to a time when leisure didn't require a planner, a secretary and two e-mail reminders.

At Daniel's everyone enters a meal leisurely by enjoying the warm ciabatta served with rosemary olive oil, roasted tomatoes and a goat cheese-mascarpone mix. The portions are generous, so nibble gently before you go into that good menu.

We started with the Sacchiera di Gravlax, a checkerboard of halibut and salmon gravlax garnished with chive oil, capers, red onion and crème fraiche ($10). A dramatically plated dish, the wafer thin slices of salmon and halibut provide just the right silky texture to sit with the sharp onion, capers and crunchy ciabatta. The high note of chive oil pulls the dish together.

Another exceptional appetizer is the Roasted Red and Yellow Beets ($8). The beets are roasted to a delicate crunch and served chilled with greens, a bit of frizzled pickled onion and raspberry vinaigrette. Sharp, sweet and elemental, this is a lovely meditation on the earthy rewards of autumn.

It is a difficult choice to select just one entrée from Daniel's dinner menu. Yet a good risotto is always so hard to find. At Daniel's, the Fungo Selvaggio Risotto ($20) is a satisfying discovery. A lovely showcase of vegetables, this plate features a wild mushroom risotto, folded with just the right amount of cheese. The risotto acts as a rich foil for the other items on the plate, a lovely little bundle of baby green beans and a vegetable terrine (roasted red peppers and finely chopped mushrooms, edged with slender stalks of asparagus). The plate is rounded out with grilled portobello mushroom, skewered on rosemary stalks. Drizzled with white truffle oil, each component on the plate considers and complements the others. The sheer handiwork behind such intensive preparations is a wonder to behold.

We grew so expansive we had to try the Mesquite Grilled Halibut served over tomato, basil and sweet yellow pepper ragout, with marinated artichoke hearts and a twist of capellini ($24). On this evening the halibut was gorgeous, flaky and done to moist turn. The sweet ragout and the artichoke hearts made this a simple and deeply satisfying entrée.

Even though we had eaten to our fill, Daniel's is just the kind of restaurant where you want to linger and enjoy the spell for as long as possible. After a time, the mind does turn toward dessert.

"A meal that ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye," insists that incorrigible Brillat-Savarin. When pressed to conceive of how one could possibly turn this into a politically correct modern translation the imagination staggers. Especially considering the growing masses of the lactose intolerant. Still, the idea prevails that a sumptuous meal should finish with cheese and what a delight to find Vassio di Formaggio ($8). A lovely way to wind down the meal is to nibble on the smoked gouda, brie, gorgonzola and asiago cheeses served with ciabatta croutons and water crackers.

If you've got more of a sweet tooth then be sure to try the Torta Tiramisu ($6.50). Made from a semolina sponge cake, which soaks up even more of the espresso and Marsala, this is an intensely rich interpretation of an old classic. Served in a pool of vanilla bean gelato, this is enough dessert for everyone at the table, including the beautiful one-eyed woman.

At Daniel's, owner Jeff Fuld's passion is for fine food. Lucky for us his vision is far reaching. His winemaker dinners are an affair not to be missed, and as luck would have it on Friday, November 17, Daniel's is hosting a Far Niente Winemaker Dinner. To keep the event an intimate affair, seating will be limited to 30. This is an outstanding opportunity to meet winemaker extraordinaire Larry McGuire. Exquisite delicacies promise to be unveiled: Wild Mushroom and Shredded Duck Risotto paired with both '97 and '89 Cabernets, and Roasted Veal Loin with Black Truffle Stuffing paired with '95 "Cave Collection" Cabernet are just two tantalizing items. If you want to see Daniel's at its absolute best, make sure to reserve your seat.

Daniel's. 4340 N. Campbell Ave., Suite 107. 742-3200. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly from 5 p.m. Full bar. Am Ex, Visa, DC, CB, Disc, Checks. Menu items: $6-$26. Reservations are recommended.
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