Of the soups I’ve tried lately a somewhat unorthodox but very appealing chicken gumbo came off best, closely followed by a richly flavorful jellied oxtail consommé and a full-bodied minestrone. The gumbo, made with a consommé base and thickened only with okra, lacked the down-home zing and muskiness of some I’ve had in humbler surroundings—including a Houston drugstore and a Hudson River coal barge—but, taken on its own very elegant terms, was a real winner, with myriad chicken dice and bright baby okra pods adrift in a properly viscous stock.
Although seldom seen in markets or on menus, terrapin, an epicurean staple of the Diamond Jim Brady era but an endangered species in many regions today, is perhaps the sole variety of game available in these parts year round. To the best of my knowledge, “21” is the only restaurant in town that serves it in any form but soup. I stopped by the restaurant a couple of days after putting away a copious portion of terrapin Maryland to ask Sheldon Tannen where he procures the critters. Tannen, who operates “21” in partnership with Jerry Berns and Peter Kriendler, informed me that most of them come from New Jersey these days. “They’re delivered live by the barrel,” he went on to say, “and are boiled with herbs, spices, and wine. Then the cooked meat is preserved in wax-topped jars and refrigerated until it’s ready for use. For both terrapin Maryland and terrapin Baltimore we add terrapin eggs whenever we have them.”
My portion of terrapin Maryland had contained an abundance of the chickpea-size eggs along with a rich cream sauce and a stiff lacing of Sherry. Properly cooked, the meat of the turtle breaks down into thin strands somewhat like the separated beef of the Cuban dish ropa vieja. Both the terrapin preparations served at “21” are thick, mushy affairs that lack the clear definition and textural contrasts of, say, a ragout of veal or lamb. Both are heartily flavorful dishes, though, and would be worth trying if only as precarious vestiges of an American gastronomic style that flourished during the nineteenth century and fell into irreversible decline around World War I. The restaurant’s version of terrapin Baltimore, incidentally, is made with brown sauce and brandy. The composition of neither dish coincides precisely with the views of some authorities I’ve consulted, but the dubiousness of the nomenclature in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the edibles.
The same can’t be said, I’m afraid, for the veal Marengo served at a recent lunch, which bore little resemblance to the dish as it is classically done—or to anything else, for that matter. Topped with what appeared to be commercially prepared baby food, the production in its entirety was less than a joy to behold, although the cubed and sautéed veal itself was delicious once the offending sauce was removed. Both the grilled striped bass and sautéed bay scallops sampled on the same occasion were more than acceptable but less than inspired. The performance of our captain wasn’t altogether inspired, either: His familiarity with the menu was awesome in its nonexistence, he advised one of us that there would be an hour’s wait for a dish normally produced in minutes, and he countered a request for Malpeque oysters with the announcement that bluepoints were available, too.
From a purely culinary point of view, “21” is most rewarding when the least is demanded of it. In my experience such unprepossessing offerings as steak tartare, cold roast meats, grilled calf’s liver, roast chicken, and the vaunted “21” burger (a status symbol that sells at dinner for $12.25, unmounted) have been consistently outstanding, whereas the more pretentious dishes tend to go awry on occasion. And although the management scours the ends of the earth for rare comestibles of the highest quality, the restaurant’s simpler fare is probably a safer bet than some obscure viand subjected to the kitchen’s notions of haute cuisine. In any case, one doesn’t go to the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, or the Superbowl for the cuisine: One goes to “21” because it’s “21.”
Except for Sundays and major holidays (and Saturdays during July and August), The “21” Club is open daily, with continuous service available from noon until midnight and with an abbreviated supper menu in effect from 11 P.M. until closing. All service is a la carte, and, though J. P. Morgan’s dictum on the cost of yachts is probably applicable in this context, entrées, for the record, average about $15 at dinner and not appreciably less at lunch—unless one makes do with such plebeian selections as scrambled eggs or chicken hash. With a half bottle of Saint-Emilion (a very agreeable Château Pavie ’71), a recent no-frills dinner for two came to about $100, cover, tax, and tips included, whereas lunch for three with a Corton-Charlemagne ‘76 ($42) somehow ran up a tab of nearly $160, although restraint was exercised in every department but the wine. Speaking of wine, the cellar at “21” is legendary and comprises one of the world’s great libraries. Six rooms, of which the largest seats 120, are available for private functions and should be booked as far in advance as possible. Casual dress is taboo, reservations are de rigueur, and the telephone number is 582-7200.