In what has become an annual tradition, each January my son and I celebrate his birthday with a meal at one of the city's premier restaurants. Usually that means a pretty hefty bill. Last year it was Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian's Lambs Club where awkward service disrupted what promised to be a delicious meal. A year earlier, a visit to Chef Gordon Ramsay's The Maze proved not only to be an outstanding meal, but also included an impromptu tour of the kitchen and a bag of homemade chocolates. That blew my son away. This year, after much deliberation, we opted for a classic New York institution - Delmonico's - in the Financial District.
I was a little nervous about this choice since my son, who just turned 13, picked a spot that is old school without a super hot celebrity chef at the helm. My first impression, old school or not, is the wonderful service. Our hostess made my son feel very welcome which made me happy. Walking into the dining room you get the feeling that you are stepping back into the "Roaring Twenties." A giant mural bringing you back to a time of flapper girls and tuxedoed men. You almost expect Clark Gable to walk through the door. While most diners were well dressed, many of the men were not wearing jackets. But I would suggest wearing one.
Ahead of our visit, I had been warned by a few people that we were entering a tourist trap. And while there were some tourists, there were also young men trying to impress their ladies tucked away in the corners of the formal dining room. Other tables were filled with Wall Street types where money did not appear to be much of a concern. There were also some regulars who seemed to know the waiters on a first-name basis. The room was filled with laughter and the sound of champagne glasses clanging, and in the middle of it all, two guys from Brooklyn.
The first thing you notice when you sit at the table is the Delmonico seal plastered prominently on the plates. These are not for eating, but impressing, and it works. While the room might be timeless, the menu could use some "Carbone" treatment to elevate its classic dishes. Although none of this seemed to matter to a 13-year-old who declared his crabcake, "the best I've ever eaten." We gorged ourselves on shrimp cocktail and thick slabs of house cured bacon served with a somewhat funky octopus patty.
As a main course, I ordered the 1876 Lobster Newberg. The dish was originally named after wealthy sea captain, Ben Wenberg, who boasted he had found a new way to prepare lobster. As the story goes, Charles Delmonico liked it so much that he added it to the menu as "Lobster a la Wenberg." But after the two had a falling out it was renamed "Lobster Newberg." The dish amounts to a deconstructed lobster smothered in a creamy red sauce with lots of parsley. It is served with a few scattered asparagus spears and delicately sliced carrots. A piece of toasted bread is placed in the center to sop up all of those juices. It is a truly decadent dish. My son ordered the Delmonico Steak which to this day serves as a status symbol and is copied by some of the best restaurants in the world. The boneless ribeye is truly a fabulous cut of meat. It's served with a caper sauce and a slab of melting butter on top. Having tried the Delmonico at the Lambs Clubs (Yes, he's a lucky kid), my son boasted that this version was even better. You can order the full 18-ounce steak, or a half steak with seasoned fries, which turned out to be more than enough.
I'm not usually a big dessert guy, but I must say I was taken in by the allure of Baked Alaska, a dish Delmonico's is credited with creating, and it was literally the only thing my son talked about in the days leading up to our meal. It starts with a slice of walnut cake topped with a scoop of banana gelato that is surrounded by a ring of apricot sauce. I tried as discretely as possible to have the waiter deliver it with a candle on top to cap off our little birthday celebration. You wouldn't believe how my son's eyes lit up as this perfect little dessert, puffed up with tiny peaks of toasted meringue, was brought to the table with a glowing candle on top. To me that was worth a million bucks.