There are restaurants that project an aura beyond the circles that frequent their tables and a few that roll with the wheel of time to participate in both past and present, their former pre-eminence sustained by a tenacious if faded splendour. Scarpetta belongs to the former category thanks to its celebrity chef Scott Conant and its outposts across North America. Delmonico’s is an exemplar of the latter type of restaurant, its name recalling grand old New York as few can. Despite changes in management and the closure of several uptown branches, Delmonico’s old palace on South William and Beaver Streets has been open since 1837. One of the first authentic restaurants, in the French sense, in New York, Delmonico’s has hosted Astors, Vanderbilts, along with celebrities like Charles Dickens. Its most famous chefs, Charles Ranhofer and Alessandro Filippini, published influential cookbooks in their day, and books about the restaurant abound. (This year Barry Werth’s Banquet at Delmonico’s: The Gilded Age and the Triumph of Evolution in America was published by the University of Chicago Press.)
In an attempt at understanding contemporary plutocracy by immersing myself in the unctuous surroundings of America’s 19th-century merchant princes, I had dinner at Delmonico’s last Saturday night. My first impression of ostentatious luxury was replaced by the realization that the restaurant was (sparsely) populated by its B-team clientele; the Wall Street lenders who lunch on expense accounts were evidently away for the weekend. I don’t know what other constituency can afford Delmonico’s nowadays – the restaurant is extravagantly expensive. Steak at forty-four dollars, lobster at forty-seven. When the average monthly food stamp benefit per person in New York state in 2010 was $150.63, a nearly fifty dollar arthropod – regardless of the butter and brandy it swims in – will make you squirm. As a man who had occasion to question finery in the face of the destitution and destruction of the First and Second World Wars, Stefan Zweig wrote in his autobigraphy, ”But what is culture, if not to wheedle from the coarse material of life, by art and love, its finest, its most delicate, its most subtle qualities? [...] By what right could one judge these people? Was it not the most natural thing that, living, they sought to enjoy their lives?” And so Lobster Newberg it was, albeit only for one special night.
The dinner began with a Caesar Salad adorned with a poached egg, gremolata, and white anchovies: a straightforwardly satisfying start to the meal. My fellow diner had the Lobster Newberg next. Bathed in a butter and brandy sauce and arranged over asparagus and a pillow of puff pastry, this legendary dish was bland and unimpressive at forty-seven dollars, although the portion was generous. Did it taste good? Surely, but you know what they say about meeting your heroes in person… I ordered the “Vintage All Natural Rib Eye” Delmonico Steak; it was the best steak I have ever eaten. Served with nothing but a tangle of fried onion rings by its side, it was succulent, outstandingly tender, and impeccably seasoned. Oozing umami, it required no sauce or salt, no tableside tinkering or second-guessing. The kitchen had prepared it precisely as it ought to have been eaten and I was only too happy to do my diner’s duty. I had a side dish of summer greens with pancetta and roasted red pearl onions that was straightforwardly satisfying, although in my opinion the pancetta tasted more like bacon than its unsmoked Italian counterpart. All of this was washed down with a Manhattan, a bracingly stalwart companion for the steak, although champagne would have been more historically accurate. (Fiscal austerity prevented such authenticity.) The meal ended with a Baked Alaska, yet another original Delmonico’s creation, which did not arrive flaming as I had mistakenly thought it would. Crisp and marshmallowy meringue gave way to banana gelato and a base of walnut cake, acidulated with apricot jam. Rich and delicious, it was a reassuring restaurant dessert – too complex for home but familiar enough for anyone to enjoy.
As a pioneering restaurant that introduced so many dishes into the American culinary canon (including Chicken à la King), Delmonico’s history also foreshadows future fashions. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, in the mid-19th century the restaurant had its own 220-acre farm in Brooklyn to supply whatever the market lacked. It seems that Delmonico’s was on to local sourcing and urban agriculture over a century and a half before it became a major culinary trend. Another notable fact is the restaurant’s establishment by Italian brothers from Ticino in Switzerland. The hegemony of French culture meant that any successful luxury restaurant would have to serve French food, so like Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque closer to our own days, the Delmonico brothers hired a French chef to cater to New Yorkers’ desire for haute cuisine. Today la cuisine classique has been usurped by a renaissance of Italian fine dining in New York, which is why my dinner at Scarpetta the night after my meal at Delmonico’s served as such an interesting contrast.
Not too far from the High Line at West 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, Scarpetta is a light-filled atrium of a dining room preceded by a dark bar. Known for its seafood fritto misto and its pastas, this Scott Conant restaurant was derided by a cranky Giorgio Armani in 2009 when he wrote an entry for one of the New York Times’ blogs. (He complained that Scarpetta’s esteemed spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico were overdone and served with too much sauce; I can assure you that neither of those accusations have been true any time I’ve eaten the dish.) The San Remo cocktail, made up of Carpano Antica vermouth, elderflower liqueur, Campari, and Maker’s Mark bourbon, is a perfect summer drink – in and of itself worth another visit according to my table mate. This fellow diner was a seafood expert, and she found her fritto misto underwhelming given that it was basically fried calamari and vegetables, although I nevertheless enjoyed it in its simple elegance. My olive oil braised octopus with saffron potatoes, green garlic, and celery leaves was excellent. The octopus was soft and flavourful, with the heaviness of the fish and golden potatoes leavened by the freshness of the celery. The sea was followed by flaxen land: I had the cavatelli with rabbit ragu, porcini, and arugula, which was very good. The spaghetti al pomodoro were excellent, although my fellow diner thought that Maialino’s Bucatini all’Amatriciana would have won a duel between the two.