25 March 2009

Food & Drink: Dining at Demonico's

By Elizabeth Lane

In history, literature and movies, the name Delmonico's has been synonymous with elegance, class, fine wines and decadent gourmet dining. Here, briefly, is the story behind that famous name.

Delmonico's Restaurant was one of the first continuously run restaurants in the United States and is considered to be one of the first American fine dining establishments. It opened in New York City in 1827, originally in a rented pastry shop at 23 William Street. It was first listed as a restaurant in 1830. Unlike the inns that existed at the time, a restaurant like Delmonico's would permit patrons to order from a menu (à la carte), rather than requiring its patrons to eat fixed meals. Later, Delmonico's was also the first in the United States to use a separate wine list.

The restaurant was opened by the brothers John and Peter Delmonico, from Ticino, Switzerland. In 1831, they were joined by their nephew, Lorenzo Delmonico, who eventually became responsible for the restaurant's wine list and menu. In 1862, the restaurant hired Charles Ranhofer, considered one of the greatest chefs of his day. Beginning in the 1850s, the restaurant hosted the annual gathering of the New England Society of New York which featured many important speakers of the day. In 1860, Delmonico's provided the supper at the Grand Ball welcoming the Prince of Wales. Supper was set out in a specially constructed room; the menu was French, and the pièces montées represented Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Great Eastern and Flora's Vase. The New York Times reported, "We may frankly say that we have never seen a public supper served in a more inapproachable fashion, with greater discretion, or upon a more luxurious scale."

Famous patrons included Jenny Lind (who, it was said, ate there after every show), Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, "Diamond Jim" Brady, Lillian Russell (usually in the company of Diamond Jim), Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, J.P. Morgan, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., Walter Scott, Nikola Tesla, Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales), and Napoleon III of France.

The restaurant was so successful that it soon expanded to four New York locations and eventually to other major cities. A scene from my April Harlequin Historical, HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE, takes place in the San Francisco Delmonico's. That restaurant initially survived the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire, but during the military occupation that followed, some celebrating soldiers, feasting on leftover food and wine, accidentally set the place on fire and burned it down.

Eventually the restaurant fell on hard times. In 1923 Delmonico's closed its doors for good and lost the exclusive rights to its name. No restaurant named Delmonico's today is connected to the original.

Some of the dishes first served at Delmonico's are still famous today. Lobster Newberg and Delmonico Potatoes were invented at Delmonico's restaurant, and possibly Chicken à la King, but it was most famous for Delmonico steak. Eggs Benedict were also said to have originated at Delmonico's; although, others claim that dish as well.

A chef named Alessandro Filippini incorporated many of the original recipes into a cookbook. Here's one recipe you probably won't want to try.

Delmonico's Recipes from a "Gilded Age"
An 1894 Thanksgiving Terrapin, a la Gastronome
From The Table, by Alessandro Filippini

Take live terrapin, and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes. Remove the skin from the feet, and put them back to cook with some salt in the saucepan until they feel soft to the touch: then put them aside to cool. Remove the carcass, cut it in medium-sized pieces, removing the entrails, being careful not to break the gall-bag.

Put the pieces in a small saucepan, adding two teaspoonfuls of pepper, a little nutmeg, according to the quantity, a tablespoonful of salt, and a glassful of Madeira wine. Cook for five minutes, and put it away in the ice-box for further use. Put in a saucepan one pint of Espagnole sauce and half a pint of consommé. Add a good bouquet, one tablespoonful of Parisian sauce, a very little red pepper, the same of nutmeg, and half a glassful of Madeira wine. Boil for twenty minutes, being careful to remove the fat, if any; add half a pint of terrapin and boil for ten minutes longer. Then serve with six slices of lemon, always removing the bouquet.