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Amid Delmonico’s Gilded Age Splendor, Diners Party Like It’s 1899

A rude wind sweeps down the empty streets of the Financial District on a recent Monday night. Apart from the stray spray of tourists who ignore  the Bull and take pictures of the Fearless Girl instead, the neighborhood is dead. In that sepulchral stillness, zipped up in the body bag of night, Wall Street has assumed the ageless character of a corpse. Scrubbed of filth and action, she is timeless. In her presence, New York has reversed through time, her growth has crept back downtown, farmland has reclaimed the upper reaches, the rich have become richer and the poor poorer until we have ended back in the Gilded Age.

There is perhaps no better proof of terminal capitalism’s violent nature than the fact that when the markets close, and after the bars disgorge their last potbellied patrons, wrists weighed down by compensatory timepieces, Lower Manhattan heaves a seismic sigh of relief. Wall Street in the moonlight is an urchin of singular beauty, quiet and wide-eyed and heartbroken.

Alienist
The current Delmonico’s location

There is, of course, one light that remains burning well into the night. The beacon belongs to the Zelig-like Delmonico’s, America’s first restaurant and for many years its best. Delmonico’s has pop-a-moled in and out of existence since 1827, when it began as a pastry shop run by two Swiss brothers. Contrary to rhetoric and appearance, the singular building which one enters at the corner of Williams and Beaver streets today, a wedge of eight stories in a Renaissance Revival style with marble columns rumored to have been salvaged from Pompeii and which regulars regularly rub for good luck, is not the original location. A few doors away at 23 William Street, that first attempt burnt down, along with everything else, in 1835. It’s now luxury condos.

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Delmonico’s in the”The Alienist”

Delmonico’s current building dates back to 1890. It was designed during the brilliant but shortened career of architect James Brown Lord, who expired in 1902 after a snake oil salesman from Chicago named Elden De Witt  insisted on undertaking a loud renovation next door to Lord’s 54th Street home. This, according to a lawsuit of minor fame, ruined the constitution of the delicate genius, who died at age 43. The current iteration of Delmonico’s dates back only to 1998. Having survived the Gilded Age, Delmonico’s closed during World War I, then was yanked back to life in the 1930s, under the guidance of Oscar Tucci, who originally called it Oscar’s Oldelmonico. But after Tucci closed the doors in the 1970s, the space stood empty for years. That changed two decades ago when the space was purchased by a happy quartet of Croats, including the soccer star Ferdo Grgurev, which goes by the name Ocinomled Ltd. (That’s Delmonico’s backward.) Or at least they were a happy quartet of Croats until 2017, by which time, as Judge Gregory Wood wrote, quite wittily, I think, “The relationship between them has now gone to pot, devolving into this acrid stew which, after long simmering, has now come to a boil.” It was an issue of the misuse of Delmonico’s steak sauce, among other complaints, that tore them asunder. Now who knows who owns the place? As I rub the Pompeian columns, who cares? Delmonico’s is an idea more than a building. Nevertheless, this welter of now-people and then-people, and the mess of their passions, and the mass of their stories, is an apt embodiment of what history offers us as we peer back into it.

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Delmonico’s Chef Charles Ranhofer, c. 1902

Sitting on a couch near the coat check under the gaze of an oil portrait of Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s most famous chef who manned the stoves between 1862 and 1896, my dinner companion knows the complications of history. He’s a tall man, closing in on his sixth decade, whose spritely eyes twinkle in the low light. He wears a plain gray suit of a slightly darker hue than his hair and, between the floral carpet and rosette wallpaper, reads as an outline of understatement. He is Simon Baatz. A Londoner by birth but an American by choice, Baatz is a professor of American history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author, most recently, of The Girl on the Velvet Swing. The book — which concerns one of New York’s most important Gilded Age architects, Stanford “Stanny” White; his rape of a sixteen-year-old chorus girl named Evelyn Nesbitt; and his subsequent murder by the wealthy, mentally unstable playboy who married her — was published earlier this year. It joins a raft of recent and near-term works fascinated with the last decades of the 19th Century. But the allure seems not to be the years — which spanned almost exactly Ranhofer’s time at Delmonico’s — in general. Rather we are held rapt by how unbridled wealth and relative lawlessness of an adolescent city formed an incandescent guillotine that cuts through history today.

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Celebrating Lincoln’s birthday at Delmonico’s

Baatz’s subtitle, “Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” might just as well have been appended to Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, from 1994. That book, a terribly pedantic but strangely compelling historical novel, features Depravity! Power! and Forensic Psychology! The story isn’t true, but it is true-ish, and the pages are peopled with before-they-were-famous characters like a young Teddy Roosevelt. In the book, much of the action takes place here — or here-ish — at Delmonico’s. “It is often difficult, I find, for people today to grasp the notion that one family, working through several restaurants, could change the eating habits of an entire country,” writes Carr’s protagonist, John Schuyler Moore, in one of the novel’s many Wikipedian passages. “But such was the achievement of the Delmonicos in the United States of the last century.” Yadda yadda yadda. When it came out, The Alienist was a New York Times bestseller, and it has been enjoying a revival after TNT gave it the prestige drama treatment. And not to gild the lily, but one must also mention that Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, the Aaron Sorkin of the very rich, is at work on a new drama based on the Gilded Age, called I think, Gilded Age. That will premiere in 2019 on NBC. And then there is the Gilded Age comedy — yes, one exists — Another Period on Comedy Central. The Gilded Age is back, baby!

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Delmonico’s c. 1896, as seen in “The Alienist” on TNT

I have invited Baatz here to find out why, right now, we’re so damn obsessed. But as we walk through the dining room, perhaps 70 percent full and not just by spot-’em-from-a-mile-away finance types but what look to be a real mix of in- and out-of-towners of sundry nationalities and varied age, the answer seems obvious. “I mean, look at the restaurant,” says Baatz, gesturing to the glowing chandeliers, the oil paintings depicting scenes of conviviality that line the walls like strong suggestions to have a good time, and the white tablecloths laden with heavy-handled silverware and big-belled wineglasses. And that is just what is in our line of vision; I, like Baatz, know that above us are Delmonico’s famed private rooms. Here and there, up and down, had once eaten all of America’s great men, from Mark Twain (who coined the term Gilded Age) to Abe Lincoln to Charles Dickens.

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1868 First Ladies Luncheon Delmonico’s

If once Delmonico’s was on the cutting edge of American cuisine, it is no longer. If anything, the menu — heavy as a Bible and as leather-bound as a gimp — is the back of the blade. That’s not a knock. Edges need spines just as rectos need versos. Here one finds the expected recitation of classics: a seafood plateau, a shellfish chateau, Maryland crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, and, of course, a sizable selection of steaks and chops. It’s standard steakhouse fare, an indicator of Delmonico’s vast influence, and the snatches of the restaurant’s history are worn but lightly. There are the oysters Jim Brady — fried and topped with a champagne, cream, and pancetta mixture — that the Gilded Age’s prodigal son Diamond Jim Brady preferred when he dined here with his mistress, chorus girl Lillian Russell. That sort of fuck-the-cardiologist eating is woven through the menu’s DNA. One of the four steak sauces on offer is the Newburg Sauce, a gout-inducing invention of Ranhofer’s made with lobster, cognac, and cream. Ditto Chicken a la Keene, a creamy chicken concoction whose birthplace is contested but for which Delmonico’s makes a credible claim. And, there on the dessert menu, one finds Baked Alaska, which originated here in 1867 to celebrate the purchase from Russia of Alaska. It is telling that the name of the current chef — Billy Oliva, who has led the kitchen for the last decade — is nowhere to be found, not on the menu, not on the website, nowhere.

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Delmonico’s Menu 1899

The food is solid, stolid, built to last. It’s unremarkable in a way that is not at all unenjoyable. The sea bass Baatz orders arrives, artfully placed in a bowl the size of a hubcap with a generous curl of lobster alongside it and skin as crisp as a sunbird. The crab cakes, he says, “melts in my mouth.” The OJB, alas, rest there as heavy fried pucks, but the boneless rib eye — the so-called Delmonico’s steak — comes exactly as one orders it, with a nice char that seals in the rendered fat, and brushed with butter and more beef fat on its glistening crust. Look, you’ll probably die if you have more than one in a three-month period, but fuck, it’s delicious. Mostly, though, what one consumes at Delmonico’s is a connection — however tenuous — to the past. This temple of the Gilded Age still glimmers fetchingly, seductively.

There’s something quaint and almost wholesome about the luxury here. Especially when compared to the more outré contemporary feeding troughs of the oligarchs — to places like the Grill and the Lobster Club and the Pool Room — dinner at Delmonico’s feels both virtuous and gay. And it’s hard to disagree with Baatz’s answer about our fascination. If this is what the Gilded Age was, no wonder we like it. But of course, like everything seen through the looking glass of time, beware the distortion. For this is what the Gilded Age looked like only to a few.

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Delmonico’s Dining Room

The story told in The Girl on the Velvet Swing warns against the sanding of history’s rough edges. It is the tale of how one man’s success at catering to the tastes of the Gilded Age demigods gave him cover to drug and rape a child and how, more troublingly, after a brief period in the wilderness after his murder, his reputation was revived in the mid-century. Now, viewed solely through his work, from the Bowery Savings Bank to the Washington Square Arch to the Metropolitan Club, is heralded as a paragon of virtue. Those marble facades are bones of the Gilded Age, bleached but still cursed.

Dismayingly, the book couldn’t be more timely, not just for how it describes how great men act with impunity but for how close we teeter to another Gilded age. As Baatz reminds me, if we hanker for a return to the days of unbridled wealth, when men stuffed themselves with foie gras and steak while children starved in unheated tenements just blocks away, we needn’t hanker much longer. “There’s tremendous prosperity in this country, but the prosperity isn’t spreading out,” says Baatz. He tucks into the Baked Alaska, a burnt orb of meringue enshrouding a scoop of banana ice cream. “We’re headed right back into another Gilded Age.” He pauses to lick a tuft of meringue that clings to his lower lip, lets out a sigh that is half pleasure and half resignation, and says, “Bon appétit.”

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This Week’s Five Best Food and Drink Events in NYC – 3/30/2015

April is on the horizon, and it looks like marginally better weather is, too. Get your month started right with these events.

Perfectly Paired Series — Tasting Tour of Belgium, Belgian Beer Cafe, 220 Fifth Avenue, Monday, 7 p.m.

Make your Monday seem more manageable with Belgian beer. Kicking off a new series of tastings, this event educates guests about different styles of Belgian brews and pairings like cheeses and sriracha. Sommeliers, chefs, and other beer pros will lead the discussion and talk about proper pouring technique. Tickets are $45.

Antoine’s at Delmonico’s, Delmonico’s, 56 Beaver Street, Tuesday

Famed French Quarter favorite Antoine’s is sending a few special menu items to New York’s own old-school treasure in celebration of Antoine’s 175th anniversary. The famed financial-district steakhouse (which is 178 years old this year) will add Creole-inspired dishes like sherry-laced alligator bisque and grilled pompano with lump crab meat, with plenty of traditional steaks and lobster Newberg available, too. The offer runs from March 20 through April 4.

A Taste of Fifth, The Grand Prospect Hall, 263 Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.

Taste around Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue dining scene when its hottest spots are all under one roof. Participating businesses include Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn, Gorilla Coffee, and The Chocolate Room, plus 40 more. Tickets are $55 — $20 of which goes to a local charity you choose from a list of participants.

Marc Vetri: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri is taking a trip up the turnpike for this conversation on pasta. Double Dare alum Marc Summers hosts the discussion, which dives into food science, how to make dough, and proper sauce and condiment pairings. $30 tickets are available through the venue’s website.

Make Your Own Easter Basket Workshop, Chocolate Works Upper East Side, 1410 Lexington Avenue, Friday through Sunday, noon

Geared toward kids and kids at heart, this event allows guests to make their own Easter baskets or create chocolate-covered matzoh in celebration of Passover. Chocolate bunnies, candy, eggs, and toys will all be available for decoration; face-painting and lollipop decoration will also be available at additional cost. Tickets start at $15.

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Why We Love Hamburgers: New York’s Earliest Burgers

Local chain Joy Burger turns out a modern-day burger, possibly one of 7,000 places in the city that do.

As the name suggests, the hamburger originated in Hamburg, Germany, perhaps late in the Middle Ages, when mincing techniques usually used to make pork sausage were applied to beef, which was formed into patties and most often eaten raw as a sort of steak tartar, according to Richard J. Hooker in Food & Drink in America (1981).

Or did it? As Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont point out (Eating in America, 1976), if you buy a hamburger in Hamburg, it’s called an “American steak.” (They go on to acerbically note, “The fact that ‘hamburger’ has given rise to senseless words like ‘cheeseburger’ is one of the many signs that betray the increasing degeneration of the American language.”)

But where did it start if not Hamburg? According to a story that’s hard to pin down, vendors along Manhattan’s Lower West Side waterfront sold hamburgers — sans bun — as early as the 1820s to homesick German sailors. Many of the ships that visited the piers around what is now Chambers Street at that time were from Germany and other North Sea countries, and it makes sense that food vendors would greet German ships with familiar food.

Other stories also suggest a New York origin for the cooked hamburger patty as we know it. Charles Ranhofer, celebrated chef of Delmonico’s, listed a Hamburg steak on an 1870s menu for 11 cents (other stories, perhaps apocryphal, suggest the item may have been on the menu as early as 1834). Josh Ozersky (The Hamburger, 2008) traces recipes for patties that look an awful lot like hamburgers back to an English cookbook published in 1763. So perhaps the cooked hamburger patty is an idea that occurred spontaneously in several places.

Next: Buns arrive, maybe first in Upstate New York

In this 19th century, this Delmonico’s had an important place in hamburger history.

Hamburger stand, Alpine, TX, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee/Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

By the 1880s, hamburg steaks appeared in several American cookbooks. Later in the same decade, pursuant to the wildfire popularity of sandwiches in America, a bun was applied to the hamburger for the first time, making the hamburg steak plus bun a truly American invention. According to Andrew F. Smith, writing in Hamburger: A Global History (2008), four states claim credit for creating the bunned burger:

Texas: Invented by Fletcher Davis at his lunch counter in Athens, Texas, 1880s
Wisconsin: Charlie Nagreen in Seymour, Wisconsin, 1880s
New York: Frank and Charles Menches, Erie County Fair, New York, 1885
Connecticut: Louis Lassen, New Haven, Connecticut, 1890

In the interim, many innovations have ensued to create the delectable dish we cherish today. White Castle created the first fast-food hamburger — steamed rather than fried — in Witchita, Kansas, in 1921, taking the trademark appearance of the chain’s castellated stores from the Chicago Water Tower, by legend the only building left standing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Big Boy chain was initiated in Glendale, California, in 1937, offering a lusher fried-rather-than-steamed burger. It was the first place to offer the iconic “combination” of burger, fries, and shake for a fixed price. After that, fries and burger were never sundered, even by onion rings.

Then along came McDonald’s, and lots of other chains, which also changed the face of burger retailing, still an ongoing process. And nowadays, New York is ground zero for hamburger innovation, spawning patties of novel composition and wreaking newfangled changes on an old favorite. Our city is clearly now the best place to be in the world if you want to enjoy hamburgers, and lots of them.

How many eateries are offering burgers in the city at this moment? If you ask Menupages, you get 1,158 hits; my guess is that the true number is seven times greater, based on previous extrapolations using Menupages data. So let’s say around 7,000 places serve burgers today out of a total of 50,000 restaurants in the city. If someone can make a more accurate estimate, please do!

The very name of Depression-era homegrown hamburger chain Hamburg Heaven suggests the Germanic origins of the burger. The last branch closed recently.

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10 Iconic Foods of New York City, and Where To Find Them

Ultra-creamy New York cheesecake may be the world’s richest dessert.

Hotbed of culinary fusion, NYC is not only a repository of cuisines from around the globe, but the place where many important dishes originated, if not by pure invention, then as uniquely compelling adaptations of things that flew in from elsewhere. Here are the city’s most important, and best-tasting, gastronomic inventions.

10. Cheesecake — This creamy, calorific dessert has been made in America since colonial times — in fact, Martha Washington recorded three cheesecake recipes in her personal cookbook — but these were usually whipped up with fresh curds, something like Italian cheesecake. The invention of the Jewish style of cheesecake depended upon two factors — the discovery of cream cheese (which occurred in the Catskills sometime in the 1870s; it later, rather absurdly, became associated with Philadelphia), and the presence of Jewish immigrants in New York City. Founded in 1950 in Downtown Brooklyn, Junior’s quickly became a famous purveyor of cheesecakes, and theirs remains the best. Junior’s, 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, Brooklyn, 718-852-5257

9. Lobster Newberg — Ship’s captain Ben Wenberg brought a recipe for cooking lobster he’d supposedly discovered on one of his voyages to Delmonico’s in 1876, and showed it to owner Charles Delmonico. It was immediately incorporated into the menu as Lobster Wenberg, but when the proprietor and captain got into a fistfight later in the year, Delmonico changed the name of the dish to Lobster Newberg by reversing the first three letters of Wenberg (the dish is now often misspelled “Newburg”). This luscious concoction features multiple crustaceans swimming in cream, cognac, sherry, and cayenne pepper — which may indicate where Wenberg had been sailing to when he discovered the recipe (New Orleans). Delmonico’s, 56 Beaver Street, 212-509-1144

8. General Tso’s Chicken — OK, this dish frequently sucks, but you can’t deny its astonishing influence. The stir-fry of breaded chicken tidbits mired in a thick sweet sauce with a few extraneous toasted chilies is the most famous Chinese dish to have been invented in this country. It was named after 19th-century military strategist General Tso Tsung-tang, who, like Chairman Mao, was associated with the province of Hunan. The dish was first mentioned in The New York Times in 1977, and appears to have been formulated by chef Peng Jia at Peng’s, an upscale Midtown Chinese restaurant typical of the time, but he may have been inspired by an earlier dish called General Chin’s chicken that had appeared in the late ’60s during a Hunan craze in New York City. Chinese Musician, 151 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-2413

General Chin’s chicken may have been the forerunner of General Tso, seen here as made at the Cottage (33 Irving Place, 212-505-8600).

7. Eggs Benedict — This epic dish has defined brunch for many decades, an agglomeration of poached ova and Canadian bacon on an English muffin splooged with a very French hollandaise sauce (only in New York!). It was the creation of the legendary Oscar of the Waldorf — who also invented the velvet rope as a crow control device — and first served at the Waldorf Hotel in the 1890s, supposedly with a shaved truffle on top. Since the hollandaise is often the iffiest part of the concoction, I recommend going to a French restaurant to enjoy the dish — or somewhere where the sauce is not just curdled yellow goo. Tartine, 253 West 11th Street, 212-229-2611

6. Fried Chicken and Waffles — What seems like an irrational juxtaposition of two venerable dishes (African-American bird, Dutch pastry) is actually quintessentially New Yawk. It was invented in Harlem at Wells’ Restaurant in the 1940s. Apparently, the jazz club and restaurants was busiest at 2 a.m., when the choice of whether to eat late supper or early breakfast was resolved by this combination, which makes complete sense only at that hour. But the appeal of the dish continues even though Wells’ is long gone, a brilliant marriage of sweet and savory. The biggest problem today is the waffles, which are often made from an artificially flavored mix. Stray fact: Thomas Jefferson may have brought the first waffle iron to the United States from Europe in the 1790s. Doug E.’s Fresh Chicken and Waffles, 2245 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, 212-368-4371

5. Manhattan Clam Chowder — The original name for Manhattan Clam Chowder was apparently Coney Island Clam Chowder, and it appears to be an Italian-American invention. Go to the sainted Randazzo’s in Sheepshead Bay and it certainly seems so, the rich red broth rife with rubbery but flavorful bivalves in an entirely Sicilian sort of way. But sample the product at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and it tastes positively Creole, with its minced onions and green peppers. You really don’t have to choose; you can eat it both places. Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-615-0010; Oyster Bar, Grand Central, 89 East 42nd Street, 212-490-6650

Once there were a dozen clam bars in Sheepshead Bay; now there’s only one.

4. Hamburger — The first hamburgers were reportedly served along the city’s Lower West Side docks in the 1820s to German sailors homesick for the port they came from — Hamburg, on the North Sea. These ground-meat pucks (it is not recorded whether they were first made with beef or pork) were served naked, but at some point in the years that followed, a bun was applied, making the hamburger as we know it an American phenomenon. In fact, when I first arrived in the city, old-timers still referred to them as “hamburgs” — and you can still hear that term today. We live in an explosion of hamburger love, so I’ve chosen an old-fashioned one to showcase: no brisket, foie gras, brioche bun, or exotic cheeses. JG Melon, 1291 Third Avenue, 212-744-0585

3. Pastrami and Corned Beef Sandwich — Those who arrive in New York City for the first time are often happily directed to Katz’s Deli, founded in 1888 and dating to the German (and German-Jewish) heyday of the Lower East Side. The multiplicity of beef brisket presentations is amazing in itself, but load up a sandwich of smoky pastrami and briny brisket on rye or a club roll and experience cured-meat nirvana. The pickles are free (choose a combo of half-sour, sour, and pickled green tomatoes), and you don’t need anything else except for a can of Cel-Ray soda. (That means skip the limp, greasy fries. Believe me, you don’t need the calories.) Katz’s Deli, 205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246

2. Coal-Oven Pizza — New Yorkers have been inundated with pretentious pizza parlors that trace their pedigree to Naples (if you’re ever visited, it looks an awful lot like Brooklyn). But the pizza as we and the world know it and love it — the lush, multi-person, shareable pie — was invented in New York at Lombardi’s. Go to one of the city’s original coal-oven parlors (Patsy’s, John’s, Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano) to experience the Gotham invention in all its glory. The 200 degrees hotter these ovens burn when compared with wood makes a big difference in the texture of the crust. Don’t, whatever you do, go to the franchise locations spun off by any of these places — the product is inferior in every way. John’s Pizzeria, 278 Bleecker Street, 212-243-1680

The coal-oven pie at John’s, with sausage that comes from Faicco’s, just down Bleecker Street

1. Hot Dog — The hot dog arrived in Coney Island from either Vienna (hence, wiener) or Frankfurt (hence, frankfurter), and immediately caught on. Sold from carts, and later a storefront, by Feltman’s German Gardens, the all-beef “tube steak,” as it was facetiously called, went from popular to wildly popular when Polish-Jewish immigrant and Feltman’s employee Nathan Handwerker took the hot dog in hand and popularized it to the world. In the modern era — and partly due to hard times — the weiner has become more desirable than ever, with Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at the center of its contemporary popularity. The natural-skinned, all-beef frank is still the city standard, while most of the country suffers through inferior, puffy, mystery-meat “ballpark” franks pulled from the refrigerator case of the supermarket. Miraculously, you can still get them whence they first disembarked. Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-946-2705

Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

 

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Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens! The Five Best Food and Drink Quotes From His Books

Say hello to Charles Dickens on his 200th birthday, a man known for his appreciation of food, who was regularly feted at the best restaurants in the U.S. when he passed through on book tours. In New York he was a regular at Delmonico’s, where a special banquet was held in his honor in 1868.

Predictably, he had a special way with words when it came to describing food and drink. Here are Fork in the Road’s five favorite Dickens gastronomic passages.

1. “‘There is no such passion in human nature as the passion for gravy among business men. It’s nothing to say a joint won’t yield — a whole animal wouldn’t yield — the amount of gravy they expect each day at dinner. And what I have undergone in consequence,’ cried Mrs. Todgers, raising her eyes and shaking her head, ‘no one would believe!'” –Mrs. Todgers, who ran a dingy boardinghouse in a commercial part of London in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

2. “I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody’s coming to take the pie away.” –Pip, after giving the stolen food to the Convict (Abel Magwitch) on the moor in Great Expectations

3. “Those Were Drinking Days, and most men drank hard. So very great is the improvement Time has brought about in such habits, that a moderate statement of the quantity of wine and punch which one man would swallow in the course of a night, without any detriment to his reputation as a perfect gentleman, would seem, in these days, a ridiculous exaggeration.” –the narrator in A Tale of Two Cities

4. “‘Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.

“‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.

“‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?’

“‘What, the one as big as me?’ returned the boy.

“‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck.’

“‘It’s hanging there now,’ replied the boy.

“‘Is it?’ said Scrooge. ‘Go and buy it.'”

–from A Christmas Carol

5. “The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

“‘Please, sir, I want some more.'” —Oliver Twist

 

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Delmonico’s: Ye Olde School Restaurant

Delmonico’s can never live up to its history or its hype. The creation of Swiss brothers John and Peter Delmonico, the restaurant was founded on William Street in 1827 as a pastry shop selling “small cakes” (probably cupcakes). It soon turned into a dining room with six tables, then hopscotched around William Street until the Great Fire of 1835 razed the entire block—and most of the young city with it. A much grander restaurant arose at the smoldering corner of William and Beaver streets in 1837. By that time, the menu had ballooned to 11 pages, including 47 different veal dishes.

Delmonico’s is considered the city’s first real restaurant, replacing the table d’hôte dining rooms, eating houses, and coffee shops of earlier generations, embracing French cuisine while many Americans were still wearing fringed leather jackets and carrying flintlocks. The further history of the restaurant is too complicated to recount, but suffice it to say that various iterations of Delmonico’s moved steadily northward (at one time, there were four), even though the present location—the same as in 1837—has been home to one evocation or another for 151 discontinuous years. Most recently, the Bice Group revived the brand in 1998, returning the décor to something like its 1891 state—the year the current building was constructed.

A pair of white columns flank the front door, said to come from the ruins of Pompeii. The interior, however, is splendidly Victorian: coffered ceilings, dark mahogany paneling, massive chandeliers featuring dozens of tiny lampshades, and chairs that look like they once graced a fin de siècle bank office. The only drawback is a series of paintings imitating Monet that depict historic Delmonico’s diners in pastels, making you feel like you’re dining in a third-rate museum. Having plowed through hundreds of accounts of Delmonico’s over the years, I decided to see how the modern restaurant squared with its history. My method was to test those dishes that Delmonico’s made famous long ago.

Many were concocted under the direction of its most illustrious chef, Charles Ranhofer. Lobster Newberg is perhaps his most august creation, and the story is almost too well-known to recount. Returning from South America, ship captain Ben Wenberg told the chef about a dish he’d tasted overseas featuring lobster in a sauce composed of butter, cream, sherry, and paprika. Ranhofer knocked it off and named it after his informant—until Wenberg got into a fistfight one night in the restaurant and had to be ejected. The name was soon changed to Lobster Newberg by reversing the order of the first three letters.

The contemporary rendition ($49, now spelled “Newburg”) remains impressive: meat from a pair of pink crustaceans (Ranhofer’s original recipe called for six) parked in a long shallow plate, with a wallow of Technicolor sauce that enhances the clean taste of the lobster. Bubbling in a small crock, the Delmonico potatoes ($12) were creamy and crusty, but really no richer than you’d get in any steakhouse. Better was the newfangled crab-stuffed mac-and-cheese, tasting more of bacon than crab—a predictable menu inclusion on the part of current chef William Oliva, who needs to not only preserve antique dishes, but strike modern poses, too.

Another old warhorse called chicken à la Keene is named after financier Foxhall P. Keene. Yes, this is the same pimento-flecked chicken à la king found in every school lunchroom, with white sauce resembling library paste. Oliva’s version ($28) has been rather gracelessly updated with wide pappardelle, an assortment of exotic mushrooms, and far too many peas rolling around the plate. It’s like something you might invent at home from things found in the fridge. Much better are the oysters Diamond Jim Brady ($19), a half-dozen specimens paved with lardons and crucolo cheese—a modern dish, to be sure, but one that seems old-fashioned.

In the days when there was enough prime meat to go around, a handful of restaurants could cherry-pick the most tender and well-marbled cuts, which boiled down to porterhouse, rib-eye, and what is sometimes known as the New York strip—a top loin steak slightly further forward on the animal’s shoulder than the other two. What constitutes a Delmonico’s steak—invented well before beef butchering was standardized—is now a matter of controversy, but it was one of those three cuts. The restaurant now serves a boneless rib-eye, and it’s a beauty—an elongated mass of pink flesh, charred on top and bottom, the fat so good you won’t be able to resist gobbling every trace. Served with shredded, breaded, and fried onions, and priced at $44, it should be shared with a friend. The probable alternative is gout.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

New York City Martini Crawl

The best thing about a gin martini is how bracing it is—invitingly ice-cold and silken, the juniper wallop of the gin smoothed out by a glug of vermouth. Plus—if we’re being honest—it’s guaranteed to get you tipsy. But the current fascination with classic cocktails has, for the most part, neglected the martini. Maybe it’s because a two-ingredient drink doesn’t offer much opportunity for mixology fireworks, like homemade bitters and obscure liqueurs. Or maybe its very popularity makes it unappealing—Sex and the City, as one of my friends noted, ruined the martini glass.

I recently did a martini crawl through our fair city, sizing up the state of the most classic drink. General lessons learned: Martinis, these days, are as big as a bucket, and served very, very dry. Hendrick’s gin is very popular with bartenders, perhaps because of its premium price tag, though not actually well suited to a martini. And for the love of God, someone get some good olives. But it’s not all bad news. A martini is like a gray suit: Everyone’s got one, but everyone wears it a little differently.

Before embarking on this binge, I caught up with Alex Day, a barkeep at Death + Co. “A martini is all about texture—smooth, über-cold, velvety texture,” he says. And the best way to get that, he notes, is a gentle stirring—not shaking. Ice crystals in the drink are an obvious gaffe. He finds that assertive, clean London dry gins, like Beefeater or Tanqueray, make the best martinis, and uses Plymouth for a softer concoction. And finally: “You’re not making a cold glass of booze. You’re making a martini. Use vermouth!” (After one too many glasses of pure gin, I say Amen to that.) Day recommends a 3-1, or even a 1-1, ratio of gin to vermouth—but to get a martini that wet, you’ll have to request it.

In my imagination, Delmonico’s (56 Beaver Street) would be the perfect place for a martini—purported birthplace of lobster Newburg and baked Alaska! It would be full of suits eating steaks and drinking martinis—quiet, wood-paneled, leather-seated, 170-year-old perfection. In reality, we tromped down to the Financial District only to discover John Mayer caterwauling over the sound system, CNBC on the flat-screens, and a small troop of businesspeople getting very drunk. The bartender, straight out of New Jersey, flipped her long, brown ponytail to the side, and pondered our order. “We got Tanqueeerraaaay. . . .” I asked her to make it how she likes it best, and she went for the Bombay Sapphire, combined it with the barest dash of vermouth, shook the mixture vigorously, and served it with three fat green olives in an enormous glass ($12). It was harsh, and too strong. By the time the glass was empty, Journey was singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I think.

Next, we weaved our way over to Harry’s (1 Hanover Square), a warm, subterranean steakhouse and bar in the India House building, a private club where captains of industry have lunched for almost 100 years. At Harry’s, the TVs were set to ESPN, and a bald bartender who looked like he might moonlight as an ultimate fighter asked if I liked Hendrick’s. Whatever you think’s best, I told him. A good slug of the gin, a tiny bit of vermouth, shake-shake-shake, olives identical to the ones at Delmonico’s, and we were splashing into our second middling martini ($11.50) of the night.

Hendrick’s is sometimes called a “new-generation gin,” one that relies less on juniper and citrus, and more on newfangled botanicals like rose and cucumber. Day says he has “loads of respect for it, but it ain’t my first choice in a martini.”

What atmosphere Delmonico’s lacks, Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street) nails—the white-aproned, black-tied bartenders, the low ceilings, the dark wood bar, and the sense of the ceremony of drinking. Reservations are nearly impossible, and the bar gets crowded after about 7:30. So, like your very agreeable grandmother, settle in for an early-bird martini. At 6 p.m. on a recent Monday, the bar was already crowded, but not so packed as to be unpleasant. I eavesdropped on two pretty girls trading waitressing horror stories and some beefy, be-suited men (“Pete, you’ve gotta see the new scotch they’ve got. It’s a peat monster!”), while the bartender, who had recommended Hendrick’s, calmly stirred my garden-variety martini ($13) with a long silver spoon.

If you want to spend a fortune on a martini, there are plenty of places that will oblige, but unsurprisingly, it won’t guarantee a good drink. At the new Crosby Hotel Bar (79 Crosby Street), which is outfitted in multicolored stripes reminiscent of a clown college, patrons dug into expensive mac-and-cheese while the bartender recommended—surprise!—Hendrick’s, and proceeded to stir it up with a drop of vermouth and charge $22 for it. My friend ordered an $18 cosmo just for the sheer horror of it.

Uptown, The St. Regis (2 East 55th Street) offers more atmosphere for your buck, and fantastic people-watching—one fellow in particular, his blond hair rippled back like a Ken doll, seemed to be actually wearing a cape. The martini here was excellent—although for $21, it had better be—a frigid, refreshing mix of citrusy Beefeater, plus a large dose of vermouth, stirred. For the first time, I understood how a martini could have a silky texture.

For about $10 less, Employees Only (510 Hudson Street) makes an identically perfect specimen, although served in the presence of hipsters, not counts. Beefeater gets stirred with a generous amount of vermouth, and served in a large coupe glass with a centimeter’s head room—making it possible to carry the drink across the room without slopping it all over, or being obliged to lower your head to the glass and slurp from the trough of alcohol before picking it up.

But for value and scenery, Jimmy’s Corner (140 West 44th Street) prevails. At this worn-in Times Square joint, $6 buys you a martini that probably hasn’t changed since the bar opened nearly 40 years ago. It’s tiny by today’s standards, and concocted with Fleischmann’s, the first American-made gin, founded in 1870. Served nice and cold by the gruff lady bartender, it tastes like, well, gin. The bar’s walls are jammed with black-and-white photos of boxers, and the long, narrow space is thronged with regulars. A handwritten sign on the wall politely suggests, “Let’s not talk politics.” Now that’s civilized.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com

For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FOOD ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Fall Guide: Our Retro Dining Picks

When fall rolls around, the song “Autumn in New York” gets stuck in my head like a movie soundtrack. Sentimental, yes, but it perfectly evokes the reason we love our city, with its mixture of joy and pain, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness. Like the song says, “Greet autumn in New York/It’s good to live again.”

Whether you dig the plodding, self-reflective version by Frank Sinatra (with the lines “Jaded roués and gay divorcées/Who lunch at the Ritz” removed), or the more lilting interpretation by Billie Holiday, the song makes you want to travel back to their era, when development moved at a slower pace, tourism was not the master plan for the economy, and we had a better sense, as New Yorkers, of who we were—and what we wanted to eat.

So, let’s pause for a moment in our pell-mell pursuit of food fads, and look at New York dining as it once was, via 10 places that have persisted—somewhat miraculously—among the ceviches, tiny Neapolitan pizzas, and banh mis.

Put your butt down where tens of thousands have sat before you at the Oyster Bar (89 East 42nd Street, 212-490-6650), on the lower level of Grand Central Station. We’re not talking about the glitzy restaurant on the other side of the greeter’s podium, but the snaking lunch counter, where no one minds whether you order a $100 dinner or not. From a menu centered on the Yankee cooking that was once standard midtown fare, order the New England clam chowder and a half-dozen raw oysters, while admiring Guastavino’s vaulted ceiling.

Right off the bustling commercial strip of 86th Street in Bay Ridge, find Hinsch’s Confectionery (8518 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-748-2854), an ancient soda fountain that will transport you to the 1950s, with its Formica counters and Naugahyde booths. The hamburgers and fries are good in a modest sort of way, and you can get a sandwich the way it used to be—thin, cheap, and made with Wonder Bread. But the old-fashioned sodas and sundaes are the biggest draw.

In the days following the Spanish Civil War, refugees flooded Greenwich Village, and they brought their cuisine with them. Of the paella palaces that once defined the neighborhood, only a few remain. While James Baldwin hung out at El Faro, we prefer Sevilla (62 Charles Street, 212-243-9513), where the paella Valenciana can be shared by two, or even three, and the smell of fresh garlic wafts out the door like a stiff breeze scattering dried leaves. As the song has it, “You’ll need no castle in Spain.”

Once upon a time, the city was filled with Jewish dairy restaurants slinging fish, vegetarian soups, and blintzes. I remember watching in awe, when I first arrived in the city, as a couple of old codgers knocked back bowls of pure sour cream at Dubrow’s in the Garment Center, now long gone. Revisit that world at B & H Dairy (127 Second Avenue, 212-505-8065), which dates from the days when the East Village’s Second Avenue was called the Yiddish Broadway.

Imagine a steakhouse not having a choice of steaks—that is still the case at Williamsburg’s Peter Luger (178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-0500), located in a neighborhood that was thought dicey a decade ago. Festooned with beer steins that reflect its German heritage, the restaurant offers only a plate-breaking porterhouse dripping with juices, which the waiter transfers to your dish with a strange configuration of two soup spoons. The place is half-empty in the late afternoon—which is when you should plan your assault.

In Harlem’s pre-gentrification days, a cadre of stalwart women, mainly from Georgia and the Carolinas, cooked up soul-food classics in dozens of tiny restaurants. The best of those that remain is Margie’s Red Rose (275 West 144th Street, 212-491-3665), where a jukebox is filled with rhythm-and-blues 45s. A fresh batch of fried chicken will emerge in a cloud of steam and grease, and that chicken will be the best you’ve ever tasted. Everything else you expect—collards, ‘nilla-wafer pudding, smothered pork chops, and mac-and-cheese—will be there, too, with bells on.

Eddie’s Sweet Shop (105-29 Metropolitan Avenue, Queens, 718-520-8514), in Forest Hills, is over a century old—and looks it. The dark, mahogany booths and marble counter—lined with uncomfy stools that have forgotten how to swivel—somehow make the old-fashioned thick milkshakes and sundaes taste better. The ice cream is made in-house, and it’s not uncommon to see three, or even four, generations of Queens residents perching at a table, introducing the youngest member of the clan to some mountainous ice cream treat.

In the most remote corner of Staten Island lingers a Bavarian beer hall so authentic that you could drop a Kraut into the middle of it, and she’d think she was in Düsseldorf. The bar at Killmeyer’s (4256 Arthur Kill Road, Staten Island, 718-984-1202) boasts carvings more than 150 years old, and there’s a beer garden out back, where, weather permitting, you can wash down schnitzels and sausages with such arcane German taps as Köstritzer Black Lager.

Long before we fetishized paninis, porchetta, and prosciutto, we were fond of Italian-American food, with its unfettered use of tomato sauce and ground beef. Return to those days at Bamonte’s (32 Withers Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-8831), an old frame house that shakes every time a truck goes by overhead on the BQE. The eggplant rollatini and baked clams are to die for, and, as you dine, a quartet of priests may be enjoying their meal at the next table.

When Delmonico’s (56 Beaver Street, 212-509-1144) debuted in 1837, it was the city’s first restaurant. Its current location is actually the third incarnation, but it still dates to a century and a half ago. Go to enjoy some antique restaurant architecture and the 19th-century feel of the surrounding streets. This is the place where restaurant classics like lobster Newburg and the Delmonico steak were first invented—even though the contemporary menu no longer contains original bestsellers like turtle soup, bear steak . . . or beaver tail.