Spring was approaching and my dinner guest decided to have a last go at mallard before the season ended. Distinctly gamy and slightly liverish, the bird’s flavor was superb. Its texture was something else again but, a solicitous captain informed us, “That’s mallard.” That—at a whopping $18.25—may be mallard to him but isn’t mallard as I’ve known it. If I’ve ever had a completely satisfactory meal at THE “21” CLUB, I don’t remember it. Still, the old speakeasy at 21 West 52nd Street so utterly transcends the sum of its parts that life without it would be almost inconceivable. Erratic as the food and service may be on occasion, “21” is one of the world’s great institutions and possibly the only place on the planet where the ingestion of creamed chipped beef does as much for the amour propre as does ownership of a Rolls.
The uniqueness of “21” derives as much from its clientele as from its inherent amenities, which are many and varied. The longtime haunt of movers and shakers in every field of endeavor, this is no place for the timid, the uncertain, the budget-minded, or the gauche, who, in any case, seldom manage to penetrate a filtration system of which the mechanics are altogether mystifying (can double-knit suits actually be detected over the telephone?) but wondrous in their efficacy. Although not a club by strict definition, it is in effect precisely that, and until one is granted tacit membership—which may be at once or never, depending on one’s relative admissibility—its hallowed precincts can be a good deal less than comfortable. For the initiate, however, “21” functions more than anything else as a Jacuzzi for the ego.
The restaurant hasn’t changed discernibly since I last reported on it five years ago, or, for all I know, since it was launched as a haven for the parched in the early days of the Volstead era. The famous cast-iron jockeys still lend their colorful presences to the facade of the old brownstone, the chauffeured limousines still double-park outside the entrance, and Frederic Remington’s cavalrymen still gallop across the walls of a spacious lounge fitted out with comfortably clubby furniture. The murky main dining room downstairs, with its enormous bow-shaped bar, its vintage New Yorker drawings, and its memorabilia-festooned ceiling, remains the apotheosis of the Ivy League rathskeller, and the women I take to dinner still prefer it to the better lighted, rather masculine ambiance of the two public rooms upstairs. The menu—with its “Couvert Charge: 1 50 Per Person,” “Calf’s Liver Grille, Bacon,” “Appetizers and Salades,” and “New Beets au Beurre”—is as schizoid linguistically as ever, and the cuisine runs a gamut from typical club grub to elaborate Frenchified treatments of some of the rarest and costliest viands to be found in the western hemisphere.
Given the problematic state of Iranian affairs at this writing, who’s to know whether fresh beluga caviar will be available by the time this communiqué goes to press? Even had the stuff not been priced at thirty-two dollars the ounce at “21,” I would have considered the question academic not long ago, when the restaurant’s celestial fried mussels made the choice of any other starter unthinkable. Now, however, it’s my doleful obligation to report that the mussels were a distinct disappointment on two recent tries. In lieu of the lightly crisped, marvelously flavorful plumplings of yore, specimens of a pathetic scrawniness had been swaddled in gummy breading and fried in tired fat to the brownness of mahogany.
On the brighter side, both Malpeque and bluepoint oysters ($8.50 and $5.50 the half dozen, respectively) were luminously fresh, brimmingly plump, and altogether satisfying. Dungeness crab, seldom found fresh hereabout, tasted as though it had come straight from the sea, and an old house standby, mushrooms la Daum (which is to say, sliced and sautéed with minced onion and julienne strips of tongue, finished with a swirl of béarnaise sauce, and served over toast), was savory. Other first-course options, unsampled recently but enjoyed in the past, include prosciutto with melon; three varieties of smoked fish: salmon (perennially excellent), whitefish, and brook trout; mussels marinière; and Icelandic matjes herring. Two other starters worth bearing in mind this month are cold asparagus vinaigrette and baby soft-shelled crabs, which are lightly floured and sautéed in butter.