THE LEOPARD AT DES ARTISTES2/25/2013
1 West 67th Street
New York, NY 10023
From the 1910s until just recently, Cafe des Artistes was a magnet for the moneyed and the famous (though of the Harper's Weekly variety, not the Us Weekly variety). Much to the dismay of New York's society-set, in 2009, the owners, then in their 80s, closed the doors. Cafe des Artistes since re-opened as The Leopard at des Artistes, and other than now having an Italian menu, is virtually identical. The murals of nude female bathers, painted in the 1930s by Howard Chandler Christy, then a resident of the Hotel des Artistes. are still where they always have been, the lighting is still dim, the guests are still rich, the food is still superb.
My gray-haired parents, whom I went with this evening, felt right at home among the other diners, the average age of which floated on one side or the other of retired. Having no grandchildren and no sailboat docked on Long Island, I was the odd man out. To be sure, this is not a restaurant seeking to lure the customers of WD-50 north from the Lower East Side with new twists on classic dishes. No, The Leopard serves classic dishes in a decidedly non-hipster fashion and it does a very good job of it. While there is no "dress code" at The Leopard, no male patron was without either a tie or a jacket. No one was wearing jeans. There was more than one brooch. We ate on an off night and although the dining room was never more than a third filled, I was surprised at how loud it was. Rest assured, you won't be whispering over your plate.
The Rents chose to split a bottle of wine while I stuck with beer. Wines at The Leopard range from a reasonable $30 per bottle to more cost-prohibitive $3000 per bottle with an average price somewhere around $75. The Rents chose a $30 bottle. While we looked over the menu, a selection of breads arrived as well as a delicious mushroom arancini (rice ball) for each of us.
For an appetizer, I chose the Rabbit Braised in Tomatoes and Gaeta Olives, served with grilled polenta. It was amazing. Because it's so naturally tender, rabbit is like veal without the guilt. The sauce was tart without being overwhelming and the rabbit was almost creamily smooth. The grilled polenta was okay, but I didn't feel that it added very much except to be a cute garnish. Shrink almost always orders mussels when she sees them on a menu and as the classic Mpepata of PEI Mussels arrived at the table in front of her, this night would prove no different. This Italian version of steamed mussels, in a peppered broth that almost tastes curried, was as delicious as it smelled. In a less austere environ, no one would have hesitated to pick up a half-shell and, using it as a spoon, drink the remaining broth like so much soup. Here, we could only look on with dismay as the wait staff cleared the bowl from the table, an inch of broth remaining within. Dudeman's appetizer was the Grilled Octopus and Celery Potato Salad. While we all liked it, I felt that it was the least engaging of the three starters. You have to be in the mood for cold octopus-potato salad and this winter evening, it wasn't really doing it for me. Maybe in the spring at lunch?
Grilled Cuttlefish was Dudeman's entree selection, served with a vegetable caponata (think eggplant ratatouille). The vegetable caponata, which had just a slight bite of balsamic vinegar, was delicious but by no means the star of the show. Cuttlefish, a relative of squid and octopus and similar in taste, can easily become a slab of rubber fighting your knife at every turn. Not here. It cut like butter. Shrink opted for the Pan-Seared Venison Loin in Red Wine Juniper Sauce, served with mashed celery root and braised swiss chard. The venison was, quite simply, perfect. It melted on your tongue and wasn't even the slightest bit gamey. The red wine juniper sauce gave the meat a magnificent blend of sweet tanginess and spice. The dish's only flaw was with its sides, which were mediocre at absolute best. The mashed celery root was like bland mashed potato and the braised swiss chard, which I thought was spinach, was no better than something I might have cooked up at home on a lazy Wednesday night. My entree was the Potato and Chestnut Gnocchi in a braised lamb ragout. It was by no means bad, but it was the weakest of the three. Maybe this was because it was pasta and I'm a meat guy. Still, the smokey chestnut in the gnocchi worked well with its lamb meat sauce. Perhaps my bias comes from the fact that it was the most comfort-foody of the entrees and The Leopard's setting doesn't create the atmosphere of serving comfort food (at least not comfort food that looks like comfort food). I'm not going to say that it was anything but delicious and filling, because it was both. But maybe next time I'd get the swordfish. Speaking of being filling, all three dishes were large. None were cheap, but you didn't leave feeling like you were just paying for three waiters to hover around your table filling wine glasses. The Leopard gives you a good amount of food.
Shrink and I ordered dessert. Dudeman abstained. The desserts were a pleasant way to bookend the evening, but were by no means mind-blowing. My Mascarpone Pannacotta, with its citrus zest and seasonal citrus fruit was very mild and literally smoother than silk. If you don't appreciate subtlety in your desserts, if you want them to sugar blast your tongue into next week, you should skip this. On the other hand, if you want your dessert to wind your meal down with some grace... Shrink therefore chose the Warm Chocolate Lava Cake. She likes her dessert to ooze warm calories dusted with confectioners sugar and a hint of mint across her plate. It came with a small scoop of vanilla gelato. Everyone got coffee.
Three appetizers, three entrees, two desserts, two beers, a bottle of wine, three coffees, tax, and tip came to $300.
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