Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Movin’ On Up: ’21′ Lets Loose

On the Second Floor

The “21″ Club first opened as a speakeasy in 1929, with shelves behind the bar that collapsed if you pushed a button, dropping their contents down a chute into the sewers when the place was raided. It quickly became the spot for the rich, talented and powerful, as Robert Benchley famously put it one rainy evening, to “get out of a wet coat and into a dry martini.” With its model airplanes, bric-a-brac, beer steins, cowboy art, guns, leather chairs and cigars, “21″ is like an overgrown schoolboy’s playroom, with a genuine patina.

Now “21″ has gone from basement shenanigans to opening a dining room for grownups on the second floor. You can find the Upstairs up one flight, behind a closed, unmarked door; it’s a small and hushed room, away from the hoi polloi of the bar. You don’t need a password to get in, just a reservation. Here just 32 customers can dine on elaborate four- and five-course prix fixe dinners with specially chosen matching wines. In this setting, a shot of bourbon is most likely to show up in a demitasse with hot cider served alongside rare roast squab. The beef is dry-aged Kobe. The “club” is made with foie gras on tiny triangles of toast with crushed apple, garnished with a small paper cone filled with tendrils of French fries and black truffles. It comes with a small cup of duck consommé. “Soup and a sandwich,” says the waiter as he sets it down.

The original clientele at “21″ would have thrown back a few shots of whisky with their steak and happily left cigarettes burning in their ashtrays while they ate their dinner. What, one wonders, would they have made of all this? For the most popular food downstairs is still as much a schoolboy’s dream as the décor: good old-fashioned American dishes such as chicken hash (Joe DiMaggio’s favorite dish) and the infamous best-seller, the “21″ burger with “21″ sauce-ketchup with a kick, invented for the journalist

Heywood Hale Broun, a notoriously heavy drinker who was once described by George Kaufman as looking like an unmade bed.

Erik Blauberg, the chef at “21,” has cleverly straddled the fence between the old and the new since he came here in 1995 (and he will, in fact, make a customer pretty much anything he or she asks for). But it’s great to see this talented, inventive chef given a chance at last to flex his creative muscles.

Much of the food he’s turning out is terrific. However, they need to do something about the room: It’s decorated with lovely soft-focus murals of 1930′s New York by Wynne Evans, but it’s solemn, stiff and too bright. The staff stand at attention like palace lackeys with their hands behind their backs (they really should be wearing powdered wigs), and the long, detailed descriptions of every dish they set down can make you cross-eyed. Guys, lighten up! This place used to be a speakeasy, after all. Turn down the bulbs on the chandelier, put some candles on the tables and-I can’t believe I’m saying this-pipe in some music, 30′s jazz perhaps. The room’s too small to be so quiet. I’d rather hear George Gershwin than the businessmen at the table across from me complaining that one of their female colleagues was not a “closer.”

The kitchen sends out three different hors d’oeuvres for each diner: a whimsical display that may include a doll-sized serving of short rib on mashed potato (waiter, bring me a jumbo portion, too!), a Parmesan crisp the size of a quarter with truffles inside, or a dollop of sweet-and-sour eggplant wrapped in a sliver of prosciutto.

After tasting a miniature “Oreo cookie” made of black toast filled with caviar, the French fries smaller than matchsticks and the baby casserole layered with an inch or two of lobster, cauliflower and spinach, you begin to wonder whether the kitchen is staffed by Lilliputians; only their tiny fingers can do such busy, detailed work.

The rich consommé that comes with the foie gras “club” is sensational, laced with porcini oil and scallions. A cold terrine of red mullet arrives at the bottom of a shallow white bowl dotted with baby clams and caviar; a waitress pours in a hot, dark bouillabaisse sauce that melts the aspic. The sauce is excellent, but the mullet is dry. Poached turbot with “hand-picked” Dungeness crab comes with perfect basmati rice, and the wild salmon has an intense flavor that can hold its own even with the tangerine sauce, black olives and cabbage.

“21″ has over 20,000 bottles in its cellar, and many wines are available by the glass or half bottle. But flipping through the list, I found little under $50. So we threw ourselves upon the mercy of Patrick Kortbus, the room’s manager and sommelier, who didn’t try to steer us out of our budget, but came up with a light red for $60 that went with all our dishes (a wine he described portentously as “round in its fruit with a hint of earth”).

Perhaps it is the hint of earth that brings out the best in them, but most of Mr. Blauberg’s game dishes are outstanding. The lavender duck with cinnamon is as tender as butter. So is the spit-roasted venison and the squab, which is served with a wintry garnish of parsnip and pear purée, diced potato and quinoa. The rabbit, however, is interesting but overworked, one of those dishes that bears so little resemblance to its original self that you’d have to think hard before you figured out what you were eating. Two tiny cast-iron casseroles arrive, one with the rim sealed shut with a ring of pretzel dough. The waiter lifts the pretzel ring off the casserole and sets it down in the bottom of a deep plate. He piles up brown and white discs of meat in the middle of the plate and garnishes them with root vegetables. It’s a lot of work for a rabbit that ends up being pretty tasteless.

At the next table, Mr. Kortbus-bottle in hand-is talking to a young couple. How do I know they’re on a budget? When Mr. Kortbus recommends a wine that he says “has full fruit with a taste of the earth …. “

After the third course, I went downstairs to the bathroom. Along with the sound of hearty masculine laughter, the aroma of cigar smoke wafted up from below. Tiffany boxes were piled in the hall, and strains of Sinatra singing “My Way” came from a party in one of the private rooms. The bathroom attendant was full of stories: “So I asked the lady, ‘Would you like some hand cream?’ She told me, ‘No, thanks’-she said ‘it might dull my diamonds.’” Back upstairs, where the smell of cigars was erased by the faint smell of room deodorizer, I settled down to dessert. The chocolate platter includes a fine dark chocolate cake, a chocolate sorbet that tasted burnt and a chocolate sandwich. The tapioca is creamy but a little chewy, perked up with passion-fruit sorbet and grapefruit. A green apple confit with hibiscus syrup and sour cream sorbet would be even better if the apples weren’t cold from the refrigerator. Pomelo citrus soufflé is outstanding, light and nicely acidic.

Mr. Kortbus’ voice floats over from a table where he’s pouring out glasses of a gold-colored wine. He speaks of it with all the tenderness of someone describing a loved one. “It has a beautiful, residual sweetness with a wonderful, slow fermenting.”

Mr. Blauberg has found a splendid place to showcase his talents. If the food and the atmosphere were a little less overwrought, this could be a great restaurant.