A CAFÉ SOCIETY CLASSIC REVISITED

For America’s burgeoning restaurant industry, the 1950s and ‘60s represented the essence of cool – especially in our largest cities, where prospering populations savored culinary indulgences unheard of during the “Meatless Tuesdays and Fridays” of World War II.


Manhattan had the OAK ROOM, DELMONICO’S and the STORK CLUB. Celebrities flocked to the BROWN DERBY at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. And all of Chicago vied for a seat (preferably at the coveted Booth #1) at the swanky PUMP ROOM, located in the Ambassador East Hotel.

Polished brass and mahogany trolleys were wheeled up tableside by captains and maitre d’s who could slice and dice with one hand, and flambée and serve with the other. They’d debone your Dover Sole, then return later to ignite your dessert ¬– perhaps Crepes Suzette, Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster.

No chef of that era was more celebrated than Pierre Franey of LE PAVILLON (regarded as the finest restaurant in America). Nor was any dish more celebrated than his signature STEAK DIANE, a New York Strip doused with brandy and set aflame tableside. To ensure consistency and speed of reparation, the steak was flattened before cooking. And along with the brandy, it gained extra flavor from butter, veal stock, French mustard, chives, heavy cream and a dash of Worcestershire sauce before the pyrotechnics.

As I was thinking about this post a couple of months ago, to my surprise one Saturday morning the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Charlotte Druckman praising this one-pan dish as “simply delicious.” On top of that, just a couple of weeks ago Mark Bittman of the New York Times shared his recipe for Steak Diane.

Does this signal a revival? I hope so….

Jane Nickerson, a writer for the New York Times, said in 1953 (yes, in 1953) that New York had three possible sources for the origination of STEAK DIANE: the restaurant at the SHERRY NETHERLAND HOTEL; THE COLONY restaurant (where Jackie O. hung out); and THE DRAKE HOTEL at 56th and Park avenue.


Pierre Franey weighed in on the discussion and credited Beniamino Schiavon, known as Mr. Nino of the Drake, as creator of the dish while working in Belgium. I guess that’s why Steak Diane has only a vague French pedigree. However, its fancy French spirit certainly added to the allure.

As the iconic Café Society restaurants began to fade, so too did the tableside theatrics for which they were known. Rents were soaring in places like New York, and restaurateurs reacted by cramming in more and more tables – erasing the avenues for dining room trolleys. By 1970, Steak Diane had essentially disappeared.

The 21 Club on West 52nd St. in New York is said to be the last holdout, but it too threw in the towel in the late ‘80s.


To paraphrase the Journal … “Diane, we hardly knew ya”.

Now might be a good time to talk a little about the dish itself, which is surprisingly easy to make at home. After all, it’s a one-pan affair. And you just might find yourself ahead of the curve in rekindling this old flame at your holiday parties. Note that most, but not all, recipes call for New York Strip Steaks. Others tout Filet Mignon (although you will have to butterfly it). Either works, but both should be of the absolute highest quality.

The steaks need to be pounded thin to break down the fibers and insure a quick sear. The igniting of the brandy intensifies the flavors of the finished sauce by caramelizing the sugars. YUM. Mr. Nino of the Drake is said to have proclaimed, “This is the perfect sauce for the perfect steak.”


BUT WAIT! Is it really possible that Steak Diane is making a comeback?

I’m told that the 21 features it on their menu from time to time. ALLORA on East 42 St. has it on their permanent menu. Keith McNally, perhaps New York’s best restauranteur, proudly serves it at MINETTA TAVERN. BRENNAN’S in New Orleans has never stopped and still prepares it tableside.


And finally, who could be more on-trend than Ralph Lauren, whose immensely popular and beautiful restaurant, RL Grill, on Chicago’s Gold Coast, features Steak Diane as a signature item.

All this has me wondering: Did the Twin Cities have its own Café Society? Did the BLUE HORSE serve Steak Diane? How about THE CAMELOT? Or GANNON’s in St. Paul, where Liver Steak and Onions was a staple among its supper club set.

In Minneapolis, the BIG THREE back in the ‘60s and ‘70s were HARRY’S CAFÉ, MURRAY’S and CHARLIES CAFÉ EXCEPTIONALE. Did any of them give it a shot? I don’t know.

One thing I DO know: Julie Child and Jacques Pepin share the recipe for Steak Diane in the recently published Cooking at Home. And as you probably know, each and every week SALUT features a different Julia Child recipe as part of its “Dinner With Julia” Monday night special.

Is there a Monday night Steak Diane in Salut’s future? STAY TUNED!

W.T.F.

PHIL

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