Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere
NEW YORK--A new chef, a reinterpretation of time-honored favorites and the addition of seasonal menu items are among the changes underway as the venerable dining institution 21 Club in midtown Manhattan spruces up for spring.
The famous main dining room, with its eclectic display of bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling, the fabulous signature cocktails, voluminous wine list, the best burger in town and the celebrity sightings are all intact. What's new is the fresh approach taken by 21's new Executive Chef.
Executive Chef Sylvain Velpique has ambitious plans after taking the helm at 21.
Sauteed jumbo Shrimp with Chablis
Dwight The Wine Doctor with Robert Wagner
Steak Tatare is a mainstay on the 21 Club menu
The 21Burger is hands-down the best in town!
The scrumptious Pommes Souffles, a unique specialty of 21
Wine service and the wine cellar at 21 are a focal point
"The first order of business was freshening up some of the favorite menu items, like the steak tartare. I've also taken a seasonal approach by introducing some new menu items that are locally sourced and reflect the bounty of this area."
General Manager Theodore "Teddy" Suric, who took the reins of the iconic eatery last year from legendary GM Bryan Mcguire, is maintaining its high standards, while making improvements that will reflect the demands of a new generation of discriminating diners.
Lobster Butternut Squash Bisque with lobster knuckles and brussels leaves with grilled shallots was next, accompanied by Clendenen Family Vineyard 2011 Chardonay, "The Pip" from Santa Maria, CA. This winemaking region of southern California is one of the undiscovered gems of California wine and this Chardonnay is a marvelous example of what can be done with delicious, sun-kissed fruit and careful handling through the temperature controlled cold fermentation process and careful aging in new and seasoned French oak for balance and flavor. This wine has the elegance of a Chablis with the real fruit "bite" and well-incorporated acid so distinctive to California Chardonnays. Lobster Bisque is one of the benchmark dishes I seek out in a fine restaurant and 21 Club passed the test with flying colors!
The Steak Tatare, one of 21's most celebrated dishes, was the first to get a makeover. The presentation now is a copious portion of chopped prime aged steak with mesclun greens and toast points on the side, topped with a quail's egg. A glass of Talley Pinot Noir 2011 from the Arroyo Grande Valley was the perfect accompaniment with its bold flavors of juicy black fruit and an undertone of dark minerals, reflecting the taste of the high-quality beef.
Within minutes of the packed lunch service, diners were treated to their first celebrity sighting, the great actor Robert Wagner, entertaining a party of family and friends. After sipping a glass of Chablis, Wagner was overheard saying to the Maitre 'd, Christopher Smith, "the steak tartare is fantastic!" This was the ultimate endorsement.
Lunch at 21 is not a hurried affair, although service is prompt and courteous. Attentive waitstaff is at your elbow, but unobtrusive, serving 21's fabulous assortment of house made breads and sparkling or still water at the moment of seating. Settling into the restaurant's signature 21 Perfect Manhattan cocktail, it was time to dive into the extensive menu and wine list. Cornmeal crusted Crab Cake with jalapenos, dill butter, celery ribbons and micro greens got the afternoon underway in grand style.
Sauteed shrimp with a fabulous Les Fourmeaux Chablis Premier Cru (also deemed "fabulous" by Robert Wagner) was the first course, followed by Fois Gras Terrine with grilled plums, toasted brioche, hazelnuts and cherry licorice sauce. Chateau Cantemerle 2008 from the Haut-Medoc, Grand Cru Classe got things into the serious side of the 21 Club's extensive wine list. A glass of this great French wine is like dying and going to heaven!
Dover Sole sauteed in lemon-brown butter with asparagus is one of 21's signature dishes and it did not disappoint on this visit. The fish was thick and firm with the naturally creamy butter sauce and asparagus perfectly al dente. It was time to roll out the "big guns" from 21's storied wine cellar; Vinu Alberdi Reserva 2006, a 100% Spanish Tempranillo from the Rioja and Honig Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 from the Napa Valley. Each lent a distinctive flavor when matched with the succulent sole. The Tempranillo with its silky tanins and the Cabernet with its subtle backnotes of cedar, chocolate and forward notes of blackberries, dark ripe plums and hints of cardamum and cinnamon.
First a word about the cellar itself. The wine cellar is a holdover from 21's founding days as a speakeasy in 1930. The block of 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was known as "Swing Street" and was home to more than 30 speakeasys. After the establishment was raided by Prohibition agents at the behest of firebrand columnist Walter Winchell, the owners hired an architect to install a complex labyrinth to hide illegal liquor from prying eyes. The former "hootch" cellar is now the home of the famous 21 Wine Cellar, with its stash from the private collections of the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and President Nixon. A few bottles of Prohibition Gin remain as a reminder of the cellar's infamous past.
Grand Marnier Souffle with a large snifter of the eponymous liquor was the conclusion to a fabulous meal before an impromptu introduction and photo session with Robert Wagner, one of my personal favorites!
Inside the Wine Cellars at 21 Club