Thursday, January 28, 2010
Hands Down, the Greatest Vegan Meal to Date
After work I went to the gym determined to, in the immortal words of Woody Hayes, get the hell kicked out of me. I have a month left on my Equinox membership so I am going to take advantage of it until I am forced to stick with NYSC full time. With the motivational words of Joe Namath and Coach Hayes ringing in my ears I hit the gym hard for 40 minutes of rigorous cardio. Dog tired, and drenched, I gingerly walked back into the immaculate locker room when I noticed a nasty gash on my shin that was bleeding into my sock. No pain, and no clue how and when it happened - love it, totally amped up on adrenalin! OK, I’m a little sick, but I was stoked my legs felt like rubber after my circuit training (bike, treadmill, elliptical, repeat).
Walking home I was traversing 52nd Street and as I passed the familiar collection of jockeys on the iron stairwell I was reminded that my first Christmas card last year was from the one and only, most famed New York institution, '21' Club.
'21' is a former speakeasy famous for their hidden wine cellar, antique toys hanging over the bar, legions of patrons from presidents (beginning with FDR) to Hollywood Royalty (Bogart and Bacall got engaged at table 30), and impeccable class. All class. Although '21' suspended their tie requirement for gentleman, I wouldn't dream of being so disrespectful to this historic jewel. I ducked into the bathroom to put my tie back on. Even the bathroom in '21' exudes class, dignity and history. The attendant, Robinson, has faithfully stood sentry there since, appropriately enough, 1989 (when I last weighed my goal weight). Robinson greets each visitor in his crisp white jacket, and tie, and at 68 years old has a passing resemblance to Scatman Crothers. His father and uncle stood in the same bathroom going back to the 1940's. Also known as the “Rev,” he is always up on the latest current events, and greets you as if you are the president of the United States (his favorite customer was President Reagan). Holding my jacket while I affixed my tie I thought of all the real gentleman, captains of industry, and the biggest celebrities in the world who Robinson waited on, and I felt really privileged!
I stopped into '21' on impulse. I figured I would have a seltzer, maybe some vegetables and write about the ambiance – my favorite place to sit down in all of the City. I love the dark wood paneling, red leather chairs, fireplace, and classic oil paintings - plenty to write about, though nothing really about the vegan quest (so I thought), but it is one of my favorite places in the city.
I sat down at a table next to the bar. Steve the bartender delivered my seltzer and a menu. Without opening it I said, "I have quiz, no meat, no fish, and no dairy." With that the menu was taken from my hand, and a firm, "OK." Now, there was no hemming and hawing, and no, "What about this or that?" or "Um, can you give me something to go on? What can you have?" None of those pedestrian questions found at lesser restaurants. This is '21!' The customer said what he can't have, and '21' went into action. Next to visit my table was the other bartender Tara, "We have a vegetable platter." "Done." I reiterated, "no butter," but that was an insult since I already said no dairy. This is '21,' they know what the hell they are doing. I expected just some grilled veggies as per usual at a restaurant without vegan dishes on the menu, and I would sit back, enjoy the ambiance and thank God I live in NYC.
As I munched on their signature snack - a silver tray of mixed nuts, and green olives - the server came out. Clearly, this server was a total imbecile since he brought me the wrong dish. Not just any wrong dish, this moron brought me a plate of filet mignon with two plump pieces of lobster claw meat! Before I can scold him he announced the arrival of my vegetable platter...I blinked repeatedly...I could hear the crickets out on 52nd St. "Uh, really?" I stammered. The server had a wry smile that clearly seemed to say, 'I can read your mind dumb ass, and you sir, are the dolt here!' And he would be right!
Before me on this "vegetable platter" was an impeccable presentation of Grilled Portabello mushrooms, with truffles, and toasted pine nuts – which at first glance looked like a sumptuous filet. On either side looking like pink lobster claws were Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Beet Farro with onion and corn juice all on a bed of sautéed eggplant, zucchini and black garlic 'Ratatouille.' And reading my mind once again, I was told, "And, no butter, we left it in the kitchen for us," he said with a wink. I was dumbfounded and thrilled.
I was afraid to cut into this dish of beauty. I had to take a picture. At the next table were a half dozen beautiful young ladies appearing to be fresh out of college (it is great to see a new generation who can appreciate such an institution like '21.'). I asked if one of them had a camera, and the efficient, charming, raven-haired Liz, jumped into action. Of course I had to explain my vegan quest which they all found fascinating and offered encouragement. When I mentioned the no booze aspect, however, it was too much for the tall blond sitting nearest me to handle. “No, way!” They sound just like I did so many months ago when Heather Mills brought this crazy idea to me. I had to chuckle.
The photo I took of my meal is too dark, but trust me, it was gorgeous. I returned the favor and snapped a photo of the budding socialites with a promise to post on My Vegan Quest.
Being one of those nights when it was just good people all around, there was lots of intermingling. A couple at the bar commented on how good my dish looked. Tara chatted with me about her diet. Steve was chatting with another customer explaining my quest - "He’s halfway through, lost 35 lbs already, and another 40 to go!" "Wow"! It was small town NYC, and I loved it. Actually, on the new scale at the gym that evening I was 37 lbs lighter.
I chatted with others longer than I should have, so I quickly sat down to dive into this masterpiece. For once in my life, I was able to judge a book by its cover.
This was one of the tastiest meals I've ever had, and far and away the best meal these past 3 months. The mix of flavors was symphonic, and if I try to break down each ingredient I will just muddle this already unnecessarily elongated post.
Just take my word; it was out of this world! I could not figure out how a 100% vegetable dish, with no dairy, could be so rich, and tasty!
Dessert was some tea, and a bowl of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Just a near perfect evening.
Within 30 minutes I did not feel like I was at the world famous ’21,’ rather in a relative's home! Word of my vegan quest, and progress, filtered to the stern looking floor captain - Michael - who quickly asked if I was working out. I am coming from the gym now, I said. "Do you do cardio?" Yes. "How long?" Tonight, 40 minutes. "OK, that's very good." Again, people love to impart their knowledge about diet and health, and I appreciate every person who has taken the time to give me their two cents.
New York City has plenty of outstanding vegan restaurants, and most all regular eateries will have something acceptable on their menu, but when you go to a place like '21' you are not expecting anything remotely vegan. At a class place like this you'd expect some veggies thrown together for the annoying, tree-hugging vegan. Not so. Not so by a long shot.
Tonight's meal was unbelievable! The setting, perfect! One of the best experiences I've had. The only thing that would have made the evening truly perfect would have been someone joining me, but I will leave it at that...it appears from some unpleasant emails I have received that I should have tied up some past loose ends before writing about my current, um, "friend." I sometimes forget I am not writing in a vacuum.