By Rory Winston
"The taste is in my mouth a little," responded Abraham Lincoln in 1860 regarding his intentions to run for President. The comment was made shortly after he gave a speech at Cooper Union. Few are aware, however, that the most likely sensation still lingering on the esteemed candidate's palate was the afterglow of a meal he recently indulged in while dining at Delmonico's, a restaurant that preceded the use of the word 'restaurant' in the United States by nearly a decade. "But," as Lou Jacobi said in Irma La Duce, "that's another story."
There are no lack of stories when it comes to the oldest culinary institution in New York – one whose guest list includes everyone from both Roosevelts, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Nikolas Tesla, Napoleon the Third and J.P. Morgan. Growing in tandem with the financial district that remains its home till this day, Delmonico's is one of those establishments where the menu reads like a historical saga and each dish is accompanied by an anecdote as memorable as the experience.
Remember Lobster Newberg? What if someone told you it was actually Wenberg, a wealthy sea captain who fell out with the owner and had his name bastardized thanks to a tiff shortly after introducing the piece de resistance in 1876. Although the succulent lumps awash in brandy cream may have benefitted from Chef Ranhofer's reinventions in the late 19th century, the caviar topping and crisp triangle of fried bread accompanying the dish hardly justify expunging the name of the creator. And what of Chicken a la King – which was in reality Chicken a la Keene – created by the aforementioned chef after being subject to the rant of a horse breeder, Keene, who had dreamt of a pimento-studded cream sauce? Though today's variation on the 'dream theme' benefits from foie gras and truffle, Delmonico's is the only establishment that still pays tribute to the namesake. But weather it's Eggs Benedict – named for the finicky Delmonico's diner with a penchant for nuances – or it's Baked Alaska, created to celebrate the purchase of the given tract of land from the Russians, Delmonico's is more than culinary tradition; it is the place where many of those traditions originated.
Walking through the Pompeian pillars flanking the entrance, one is immediately drawn into the mahogany paneled world of the 1800's, complete with oil paintings, frosted windows, and carpeting thick enough to muffle the sound of the attentive waiters. Biting into legacy means a juicy rib eye Delmonico's steak, charred to perfection and presented with a robust onion ring for a halo. As for how the idea for holding one of the finest wine cellars of the city came about, well, that came about when Chef Alessandro Fillippini was working for the Delmonico Brothers and… But that's another story. •
56 Beaver St
New York, NY 10004