‘21’ of a Kind

It was a legendary place to be long before you ever thought you knew where you were supposed to go. Before everyone began craving tapas and tirami su, or ever heard of a fruit named in honor of passion; before the pilgrimage of Jews to Chinatown for what they unknowingly called “chinks”; before outsiders realized that Le Cirque’s famed pasta primavera wasn’t actually on the menu; before Ian Fleming’s revelatory declaration of “shaken, not stirred,” ‘21’ beckoned with curved red banquettes, steak tartare, and martinis as breathtakingly dry as George Sanders’s putdowns of Anne Baxter between bites at a table there in All About Eve. Going to Paris for the weekend was never “hot.” It was just something you wanted to do at least once before you died. Like boarding the Orient Express. Like throwing three coins in the Fountain of Trevi. Like lunching at ‘21.’

How did its desirability become so ingrained? Not by its looks. Though changing its celebrated setting would be as unthinkable as stripping Sardi’s of celebrity caricatures or Sheetrocking the Eiffel Tower, ‘21’ has always been a diorama of male insecurities, pompous and silly, yet yearningly wish-fulfilling. Hey, guys, here’s the alumni club of the university you didn’t graduate from, combined with the frat house whose letters you never got to wear. Ladies, if you ever bemoaned his lack of participation in redecorating the den, here is the likely scope of his taste: big wingbacks, Frederic Remington paintings, framed cartoons, lots of brass, bronze, and dark wood, along with every toy truck and sports souvenir he ever wanted. Plus a bar.

Scroll back across years of microfiche and discover critic after critic declaiming that few ever came here hankering for the food. Until its recent tweakings, this was a surf-and-turf house upgraded with crème brûlée. The wine cellar was another story. Many are the oenophiles who spent the better part of an evening ignoring their guests while reading the wine book. And many are the neophytes who stared at checks for almost as long – except for them it was less in awe than in disbelief. You could have bought your way into a fraternity for less.

There really was only one reason to visit the cast-iron jockeys of ‘21,’ but it was an unassailable beaut. No restaurant in America could boast the staggering mix of Bill Paley power and Babe Paley society. Society – remember when people gave a crap about it? When women died for Jacqueline de Ribes’s gown and Gloria Vanderbilt’s pageboy? When success meant living one floor above Ahmet and Mica, and Roxanne Pulitzer scandalized every palmed beach by going to bed with a horn?

Now scores of women want whatever Kate and Amber are wearing and follow Oprah’s diet. The biggest tower apartment in the San Remo belongs to Bruce and Demi. Unless you look upon Suzy’s column as a latter-day version of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, society is as pointless as Cinerama. Especially since it’s much more fun to get off on celebrity. Celebrity is more pervasive, more diverse, and so much more accessible.

That’s the ‘21’ Catch-22. Since the parameters for gawkability have relaxed, so many places (and cheaper ones) now qualify for prime-time viewing: Balthazar, Nobu, Four Seasons, Orso, 44, Asia de Cuba, Patroon, Pravda, the Odeon, Le Cirque, Chez Es Saada, Indochine. And that’s just a shortlist. Frankly, pick any good restaurant, and chances are you’re gonna spot celebrities. How simple it is when sitcom stars, divorce lawyers, microchip moguls, and makeup artists have the same marquee value in a gossip column as Payne Whitney.

Given these numerous venues, you are now no more likely to see any of the Forbes 400 at ‘21’ than you are to see handsome midwestern change-of-life blondes. Women who’ve intensely studied all the knot variations in the book Scarf Magic, sitting with their “happy”-print-tie-wearing husbands. And they’re sure to say, “Hey,” since it is an odd policy of the house to seat new parties next to other patrons, regardless of how many other tables are empty. It is a testament to his impeccable discretion, however, that when your unexpectedly French waiter arrives, he treats you as if you were the only party in the room.

To me, Jean at ‘21’ is one of the great waiters of the world. He has that enviably precise balance of familiarity and distance, humor and restraint, insouciance laced with respect. When he turns on his heels with a trayful of martinis, nothing shivers. And if steak tartare were as popular as hamburger, the absolutely stunning, caper-studded, mustard-spiked version he brings to the table would be reason enough to ensure lines out the door. Jean prepares it himself at the table. Unfortunately, it is the only thing he makes.

Because with the diminished wattage of the clientele, the food at ‘21’ can no longer be beside the point. And if all you ate was the aforementioned tartare, chef Erik Blauberg’s densely rich wild-mushroom-and-truffle risotto, a dozen Malpeque oysters, and the most wonderful baked Alaska anyone’s ever set aflame, you might leave ‘21’ convinced that he can fulfill the house’s needs better than playboy Porfirio Rubirosa ever satisfied any of the bored heiresses he seduced here.

If you order anything else, however, excepting desserts and a bouillabaissian pumpkin soup with shellfish, expect boarding-school fare. That such blandness should still predominate is all the more befuddling because the quality of the main ingredients is impeccable. The shrimp are huge and succulent, the gravlax like the coral in David Webb’s window. Every single meat dish arrives looking so all-Americanly good. The veal chop is ravishing. The roast duck perfectly cooked. The mixed grill promises to be more invigorating than 400 cc’s of testosterone.

Then you bite down, and it’s like Invasion of the Flavor Snatchers. Granted, the filet is its least gamy cut, but how can venison taste just like lamb, whose flavor is almost identical to the rabbit, which could have fooled us as chicken except that the wood-fired organic bird is even paler. Bass, snapper, swordfish – all indistinguishable except for the overcooked accompaniments. Is there no spice rack in the kitchen? No marinade? Garlic, lemon, salt? Ketchup, even? Nothing going on with the shrimp, nothing at all. Caesar salad is fair, but so is Soup Burg’s. The game broth is like College Inn low-sodium broth. Everyone stares at the “classic Senegalese” soup because no one believes it really isn’t cold milk and parsley. Grilled rib-eye creates a bit of spark, but only because it actually has a passing scent of steak. Pork chops are impenetrable, though the apple-cidered yams are great. We hate to do this to Jean, so we spit out the chicken hash when he isn’t looking. Adding up how many Big Macs you could buy for one $24 ‘21’ burger isn’t fair. But that’s because the former has more personality.

It’s a hell of an expensive alternative to Serendipity 3, but I could go back to ‘21’ for the desserts, those delightful chocolate s’mores with chocolate-peanut-brittle ice cream, the crisp pineapple dumplings, a real two-fisted (if Jean wasn’t looking again) apple pie with great crust and maple-walnut ice cream. The rice pudding deserves to follow the chicken hash, however, and the chocolate soufflé isn’t worth the wait.

Is there even one irrefutable reason to come here anymore, then? Yes, if you regard it as part of the history of New York, in the same way that we visit Fulton Fish Market or Chinatown, row across the Central Park lake, or walk across the Intrepid – all anachronisms that remind us of how things once were. But with a tariff this hefty, is dining at ‘21’ still something you must do once before you die? Perhaps you should know that American Airlines is currently offering special weekend rates to Paris during February and March of $289 round-trip. Chicken hash or a walk in the Bois de Boulogne? Sure is a tough call.

The ‘21’ Club, 21 West 52nd Street (582-7200). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $13-$21; entrées, $25-$39. All major credit cards.

‘21’ of a Kind