Culinary time travel on the menu at NY restaurants

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Vegetarians, you can stop reading now.

More than a dozen New York restaurants are launching a two-month program whose goal is to get New Yorkers to consider types of food that have gone out of favor -- beef hearts and livers, green turtle soup, even blood sauces.

The Vintage Diner Series of prix-fixe meals and drinks, prepared and presented in a 19th century style and using ingredients typical to the period, starts in January.

“This is designed to get creative juices going,” said Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat restaurant surveys and promoter of the program.

Promoters hope to change some New Yorkers’ food habits. If diners at high-end restaurants embrace the idea, it could trickle down during tough economic times, as more New Yorkers embrace cheaper cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and veal.

Zagat said high-end New York restaurants are full of diners despite the recession, but many customers are spending less.

“They are not going to be as profitable because nobody’s buying $500 bottles of wine, but one of the important parts of this (program) is there are lots of cuts of meat that have not been used for a long time, and they are delicious,” Zagat told Reuters.


Just because times are tough, the meat does not have to be, said meat wholesaler Stanley Lobel.

A calf’s liver, smaller and easier to cook, costs far more than a steer liver, he said. But when a large liver is baked slowly and tenderized, then sliced and cooked, it tastes as good as a fine steak for a quarter of the price.

“There’s two people doing business today, the very, very high-end and the very low end, and the guys in the middle are suffering,” Lobel said. “It’s something new to the diner that’s also realizing what the economy is like.”

It takes 24 hours to properly bake a 15-pound liver. Such dishes largely disappeared from America’s culinary culture as more families included two working adults and emphasis shifted to foods that were quick and easy to prepare.

Besides livers and hearts, at some restaurants diners can expect calves’ feet and shad, a herring rarely served in modern times. One can also try blood-based sauces and gravies.

Restaurants Aureole, Chanterelle, Daniel, Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern, Per Se and Le Cirque are taking part in the program.

Jennifer Lang, owner of Cafe des Artistes, said some diners order less expensive wines and more people bring wine from their own cellars. Her 19th century menu will be based on the Danish book and film “Babette’s Feast.”

“A very wealthy person (from that era) would feel right at home,” Lang said, naming Teddy Roosevelt as an example.

The $160 prix-fixe menu includes turtle soup, quail in puff pastry, caviar blini, rum cake, and wines appropriate to the period. The price includes wines and gratuity, and diners will receive a DVD of the Oscar-winning 1987 film.

Chef Tom Valenti of Ouest, which serves French- and Italian-influenced American cuisine, said he will consult 19th century cookbooks for inspiration. He plans to buy supplies from hunters in upstate New York to recreate flavors of the age, since most meat these days comes from industrial farming and has much less intense flavor.

Drinks of the period are well documented, he added, but that does not mean a chef’s work is easy.

“I will be doing plenty of research on the cocktail front,” Valenti added.

Reporting by Nick Zieminski; editing by Patricia Reaney