The Sharing of Pleasures

Last night my wife Leslie and I, along with two friends, attended one in a series of ‘Vintage Dinners’ organized by the Zagat guides — this one held at New York’s legendary French restaurant, Daniel. Daniel Boulud was the chef at Le Cirque in its glory days, and now parlays his brand of culinary wizardry under his own aegis.

As with all the Vintage Dinners New York’s top  Chefs have reproduced a menu representing classic cuisine from the 19th century. I paste the menu at the end for those interested in the extraordinary culinary adventure in which we participated.

We were seated communally at a large banquet table, because that was the fashion of the time. Strangers became convivial, mirth was abundant, groans of gastronomic contentment punctuated the air at regular intervals. Dishes we just don’t experience today were presented with ingenuity and yet with the chef’s personal interpretation and panache. It was a visual feast in terms of presentation and table settings as much as a culinary and gastronomic one.

Between the frog’s legs and the Trou Creole ‘Sazerac’ we heard a few words from Michael Batterberry, co-author of ON THE TOWN IN NEW YORK which details the history of  food and wine in New York from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution of late. He reminded us of some things that are fascinating.

For one, popular mythology has it that Le Pavilion in the late 1930’s was New York’s first foray into French-style restaurants (the word ‘restaurant’ comes etymologically from the French word meaning  “to restore”). This myth is off by almost a century. When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution to overwhelming adulation, anchored in the harbor was a three-masted schooner whose captain was John Delmonico. Observing what he considered to be the unimpressive catering facilities available in New York (assessed against the general hullabaloo surrounding Lafayette’s visit), he recruited his elder brother (from their native Swiss canton of Ticino, ironically the Italian part of Switzerland) to join with him to launch the world of continental grande cuisine in New York circa 1828. Delmonico’s became the standard setter for superb French cuisine in New York for that century, and resonances of its fame still linger. Close to its original site, a Delmonico’s has been resurrected in New York once more.  It’s enduring success, fame and impact shows once more how differentiation works. Not only did they establish a new form of cuisine in the United States, but they were ‘racy’ enough and brash enough to have a woman cashier as a way of ‘ringing up’ attention (something then akin to having a Playboy Bunny in her Bunny regalia in Church today)

If you look at menus from that period it seems to be an overwhelming superabundance of dishes. But back then dishes were laid out on the banquet table and you had what was essentially a sitting buffet. So you just sampled tidbits, often combatively, with those with the longest arms often scoring the most choice morsels.

It was the Russians in fact who introduced the serving of courses, where waiters served from one side and cleared from the other around 1810. Allegedly, the Russian Ambassador to France introduced this style to Paris around 1850 and it then became the rage. As the French adapted Italian cuisine, refined it and made it their own, so too they co-opted this style of service which is now associated with French epicurean classicism. Again, ‘imitate then innovate’, ‘adapt then improve’, ‘understand the box before stepping out of it’ are all good maxims, whether applied by the Japanese in electronics or the French in table service.

Finally, the procession of courses were symbolically to match the course of evolution. Soups came early, as life came from the water. Then came the fish and other creatures of the sea. Then fowl, birds, moving on to game and meat. And dessert, which was human whimsy, delicious human improvisation and celebration, capped the meal.

Pleasures that deploy artistry, that bring people together, that create piquant memories, that help us linger and share laughter and bonhomie…there is much to be said of them. They don’t require the brilliance of Daniel’s however. The real lesson is learned if we take that spirit, that capacity and that openness to joy with us and drizzle our own lives with wonderful, if more modest experiences. A good loaf of bread, wonderful music, garden fresh vegetables, a succulent and lovingly prepared main course, a bottle of wine if you’re so inclined, people to share laughter and delight with. As poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “It is in the dew of little things that the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” Little or big, savor it all.

We need to participate in creating our own enchantment…and sharing it.

MENU

MISE-EN-BOUCHE

Bacon Wrapped Oysters with Cayenne on Toast with Champagne Soutiran “Cuvee Daniel” Brut NV

POTAGE

Winter Root and Cabbage Soup with Foie Gras Royale, Ham and Chestnuts with Emilio Lustau “Jose Luis Gonzalez Obregon” Amontillado Sherry


HORS D’OEUVRE

Chaud-Froid: Chilled Squab Breast Glazed with Sauternes Veloute, Warm Tort with Squab Legs, Liver and Foie Gras

RELEVE LEGER

Lobster Tail, Sauce Americaine, Spinach and Black Truffle with Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Jacques Bavard, Burgundy 2006

RELEVE DE POISSON

Pike Dumpling Stuffed with Frog’s Legs, White Wine and Watercress Sauce

TROU CREOLE “Sazerac”

“Peychaud’s” Bitter and Rye Whiskey with Absinth Granite


ENTREE CHAUD

Whole Poached Calf’s Head with Green Olive, Veal Quenelles, Tongue, Sweetbreads, Cockscombs, Fried Quail Egg, Black Truffle, Sauce Espagnol with Gevrey Chambertin, Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret, Burgundy 2006


PIECE DE RESISTANCE
Whole Roasted and Pressed Duck with a Port Wine Red Currant Sauce, Turnip Charlotte, Spinach Subric, Pommes Dauphine with Vin de Pays des Bouches-du-Rhone, Domaine Trevallon, Provence 2001


DESSERT FROID
Coconut-Passion Fruit Ice Cream Bombe with The Rare Wine Company Boston Bual Madeira

PIECE MONTEE

Vanilla Cream Puffs with Crisp Angel Hair Caramel

DESSERT CHAUD

Warm Pistachio and Chocolate Souffle with Vanilla Sauce

MIGNARDISES

Lyon’s Fried Beignet