Sometimes a meal is served with something extra that makes it truly memorable. During a recent visit to The Leopard at des Artistes, not only was my dinner superb from start to finish, it was accompanied with a warm glow of nostalgia. The restaurant is located in the former Café des Artistes, which before it closed in 2009, was one of my favorite places for glamorous atmosphere and lovely food.
Established in 1917, Café des Artistes was a stylish icon, famous for the saucy Howard Chandler Christy murals and extravagant floral arrangements. Today, I’m happy to say, Christy’s nymphs still cavort happily, welcoming diners young (who probably never heard of Café des Artistes) and old (who happily consume Executive Chef Vito Gnazzo’s passionately prepared southern Italian specialties while re-living their personal “good old days.”
My evening began with the warmest of welcomes from manager George Coteanu, followed by a glass of sparkling Prosecco and a melt-in-the-mouth amuse bouche of arancini.
Trio of appetizers
As the list of appetizers made choice difficult, my meal began with a trio that included an octopus salad. I had never before tried this particular cephalopod mollusk, which was high on my list of foods I never wanted to eat. But here it was accompanied by a silky creamy burrata that sat enticingly on a radicchio leaf and a cherry tomato and roasted eggplant salad. So I took a chance with a tiny forkful. The octopus was delicious, tender and beautifully cooked, with a salad that was perfectly dressed. Not chewy, as I had feared it would be. So now my list of foods I won’t eat has shrunk by one.
As one of the evening specials was Dover sole, my companion chose that and I ordered the veal chop Milanese with an arugula salad–with the understanding that there would be sharing. The sole arrived table-side and our server Adrian removed the bones and presented it with a flourish.
The precious fish was light and delicate, a feast for the taste buds. The veal chop was also delicious, but the sole was over-the-top great.
Although my appetite and that of my companion had been thoroughly sated, there was no way we would skip dessert. We chose two, again for sharing: a traditional zabaione with fresh mixed berries and a chestnut semifreddo with chocolate.
Once again Adrian arrived table-side with a burner, copper pan and whisk and the ingredients for a traditional zabaione, including egg yolks, sugar and Marsala. Preparing this dessert takes skill, not only with the whisk, but also the knowledge of when to remove the pan from the flame. Otherwise, and I know this from experience, a potentially great dessert can turn into a version of scrambled eggs.
Adrian prevailed and a the airy Marsala-scented mixture was poured onto fresh berries and voila! Perfect zabaione. So two sublime desserts complemented two perfect meals.
(Needless to say, the wines accompanying dinner were also beautifully matched. The Pecorino that I drank with the burrata, at Adrian suggested, is a new favorite, which I would order as soon as I returned home.)
Two desserts are better than one.
During dinner, I noticed that there appeared to be a large number of “regulars” who greeted staff members by name and even waved to other diners. When I asked Mr. Coteanu if this was usual, he confirmed that many of the residents of the Hotel des Artistes often dined at the restaurant.
How wonderful, I thought, to live in the magnificent 18-story building with the splendid Gothic-style facade featuring charming gargoyles of painters, sculptors and writers. And then to enjoy the restaurant as if it were a private club. (I later learned that the building’s list of famous residents included Noel Coward, Norman Rockwell and Isadora Duncan.)
When it was time to leave, we reluctantly said “goodbye” to everyone who had made us feel as if, we, too, were members of this particular club, promising to return and taking with us memories of a very special New York evening.
The Leopard at des Artistes is located at 1 West 67th Street, New York, NY, 10023. Telephone: 212-787-8767 http://www.theleopardnyc.com/