Why, the journalist in the dinner party asks as he finishes his green turtle soup au clair, while one waiter removes the oyster trays from the table and another opens a bottle of amontillado, would the murderer cut the throats of his two victims if he already had strangled them? Because, answers one of the two police detectives who also are enjoying the meal, he needed to see, or at least smell, the blood. When the aiguillettes of bass done in a creamy Mornay sauce arrive at the table, the discussion has turned to the victims’ eyes and how they apparently had appealed to the palate of a bird or rat. As unappetizing as the conversation may be, the food is too good for any of the guests to resist devouring course after course.
The scene, from a chapter of Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel The Alienist, is fictional, as are the diners and the murders they are investigating. But the chef (Charles Ranhofer) who prepares the meal, the restaurant owner (Charlie Delmonico) who greets the characters at the door and leads them to their table, and the restaurant itself, occupying a block of Manhattan’s 26th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, were real in 1896, the year when the action is set.
By that time, as Carr notes in his prelude to the chapter, Delmonico’s, guided by members of four generations of a family over the course of six decades, had altered the eating habits of an entire country. Previously, writes Carr, “American food could generally be described as things boiled or fried whose purpose was to sustain hard work and hold down alcohol—usually bad alcohol.” Charles Dickens would have agreed with that assessment. Following his first visit to the United States, in 1842, he described this country’s cuisine as “piles of indigestible matter.”
Until its Prohibition-induced closure in 1923, Delmonico’s would occupy nearly a dozen Manhattan addresses, as many as four different ones concurrently. In the 1830s, when brothers Giovanni and Pietro Del-Monico (later changed to Delmonico) first opened their restaurant, in the financial district, a list of this country’s fine-dining establishments would have included one selection: Delmonico’s (which, incidentally, has no connection with any current restaurants bearing the name). The list in this issue (“America’s Finest Dining,” page 117) includes 57 restaurants. Why 57? Because just prior to our press date, in early January, the 58th choice, Café de Paris in Omaha, Neb., closed. It was unclear then whether the owner, Yugoslavian-born and French-trained Ivan (pronounced ee-VAHN) Konsul, had shuttered the restaurant permanently or temporarily. The former circumstance would be most regrettable, for when Konsul, an engaging and sometimes intimidating character, arrived in Omaha in 1970 (drawn there by a fondness for the television show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom), he introduced a traditional Continental cuisine and a formal and flawless brand of service, just as the Delmonico family had done in New York.
As it was with Delmonico’s, the way to best enjoy Café de Paris was to acquiesce to your tuxedoed host and his chef. Regular patrons knew not to request a wine list. Instead, after ordering their meals, they would wait for Konsul to return with a bottle and say, “Something to try. Very nice.”
At one time, Delmonico’s was the only American establishment where you could find a wine list. The restaurant also introduced, or at least popularized, a number of items—lobster Newburg, chicken à la king, baked Alaska, eggs Benedict, Delmonico steak—that became, and in some cases remain, menu staples. And in 1868, Delmonico’s changed Dickens’ opinion of America. During a banquet in his honor, which included more than 30 dishes and much wine, he recanted his earlier criticisms of the country and its food, and announced that his repudiation should be added as an appendix to any of his novels that referenced the United States. PS: Just kiddin’, America.
Like Dickens when he first encountered America, Willa Cather did not initially take to Nebraska when her family moved there from Virginia in the 1880s. Decades later, in an interview with the Philadelphia Record soon after the publication of O Pioneers!, Cather recalled the state as being “bare as a piece of sheet iron.” Homesickness led to a loss of appetite, and, she said, “I made an agreement with myself that I would not eat much until I got back to Virginia and could get some fresh mutton.”
If only Cather and Konsul had been contemporaries. He would have served her venison and declared, while folding his hands behind his back and sniffing at the ceiling (as he was wont to do when a guest would temerariously ask about the quality of a menu item), “Once you have my venison, you will never tolerate anyone else’s.” Such a scene of course would have to be fictional, but the statement, as Café de Paris’ patrons know, would be true.