Take One: Daniel's
Daniel's halibut with pink peppercorn sauce
The one thing I truly dislike about Daniel’s is that it forced me to reorganize my mental ranking of Buffalo-area restaurants. Like Rob in the book (and movie) High Fidelity, a major event (a breakup for him, a fillet of halibut with pink peppercorn sauce for me) provoked a reorganization of a previously workable system (his records, my recommendations). Even restaurants I had yet to visit, but had slotted based on popularity and perceived quality, had their positions adjusted. Why? Because Daniel’s sauces are the stuff Top Five contenders are made of.
Daniel’s is a small restaurant in Hamburg, just over a dozen tables inside a white cottage house on a nondescript slice of Buffalo Street. With more than three decades of professional cooking experience, Chef Daniel Johengen is a known figure in local food circles, and Daniel’s itself has been open for more than twenty years. But Johengen and Daniel’s seem averse to amplification, even if they’ve long had the fresh, local, simple focus that get lots of lavish praise of late. After nearly ten years of living in Buffalo, I hadn’t even known the restaurant existed.
The understatement extends to the decor and operation—white tablecloths, white trim, and white walls with subtle prints inside large white matte frames. When fully seated, Daniel’s feels like an elegant Thanksgiving dinner for a very large family, with tables spread through different rooms generating a variety of micro-environments. If music was playing, our table didn’t notice. The waitstaff are thoroughly informed on the day’s specials, the portion sizes, and the particulars of the wine list. There’s also a less-is-more quality to the service.
It took a bit longer than we’d have liked to get our menus, and a hungry companion had to ask after bread. We were told the bread would arrive with our appetizer, when it would be more useful. The waiter was right: warm, house-made croissant-style bread can pick up a lot of lemon, caper, and garlic sauce, and add another texture to a plate of perfectly crispy soft shell crab and fresh pasta. By contrast, the other appetizer—prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with goat cheese and glazed with port wine—was perhaps too much of a soft-and-sweet thing.
After that came the salads and, believe me, Daniel’s cares a lot about salad. There are three on the standard menu—the short list of about a dozen items that Daniel and his customers have agreed need to stick around—and three more on that night’s “additions.” But the numbers aren’t what show the care; it’s the cohesive through-lines of flavors, supported by the freshest ingredients available.
Take the house smoked trout served on a bed of greens wilted slightly from a mildly sharp, but creamy, citrus vinaigrette, ringed counter-clockwise with apple slices punctuated with a few walnuts. The slight fat of the trout, preserved and pushed forward by the smoke, formed a three-part harmony with the slightly bitter greens and tart apples. It’s not molecular gastronomy; it’s smart pairing. Daniel’s Salad, a standard, does something similar, if simpler, with three snappy greens, pears, and pungent gorgonzola suffused with mild walnut oil vinaigrette. From the “additions” list, a fresh beet salad combined hard-boiled eggs, minimal mushrooms, asparagus, and a prominent champagne flavor in a mustard vinaigrette. Three salad plates left the table picked so clean, they seemed already rinsed.
My guests ordered two menu entrées: filet mignon wrapped in bacon and basted in Roquefort butter and red wine sauce, and veal tenderloin and lobster, presented in a crescent of alternating slices, with lobster sauce. I chose the aforementioned halibut, which came with bits of lump crab and arugula underneath that pink peppercorn sauce.
Daniel’s is a saucy place: they make them all from scratch, and while they’re not overly heavy with them, the kitchen’s not afraid of ladles, either. Our table agreed that our plates had impeccable sauces, mixed with the balance of the whole plate in mind. It’s an older style, more consistent from bite to bite, but not light. Without their sauces, the veal, lobster, and fillet all displayed a fine feel for tenderness and moisture retention. The halibut had a citrus-tinged, flaky finish of its own, but was meant to swim through its companion sauce.
There wasn’t much room for dessert, but they make them on-site, so we sucked it up. A chocolate, maple, coconut, pecan tart, served with vanilla ice cream and (of course) chocolate and caramel sauces, was the night’s only measurable disappointment, overwhelmed as it was by the toasted and caramel components and a slightly over-baked crust. A chocolate timbale with chocolate ganache and a remarkably delicate almond tuile cookie with chocolate and raspberry sauces demonstrated just how simple and great homemade vanilla ice cream can be when paired with something adventurous.
With three of us ordering matching meals from the full-priced menu and a glass of wine each, our bill came to nearly $250. For lighter dining Tuesday through Thursday, a fixed price menu offers a starting course, entrées, and dessert for $32. Escargot in fresh pasta sheets, horseradish-crusted salmon fillets, pork saltimbocca, and the same cookies and sorbets as the standard menu stand out.
Daniel’s holds a special spot in my Top Five Restaurants list. Like many a rare, great album, it’s just as strong and remarkable for what has been stripped down and left out. What’s left is a direct appeal to your appreciation for quality food, cooked and served by a dedicated team that likes things just so. It belongs in your regular rotation.
174 Buffalo St., Hamburg
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer who lives and cooks in the Elmwood Village.