Photographs: Roxana Marroquin
The unseen forces that can hurt a career in the kitchen—personality clashes, poor timing, bad business deals—have bumped chef Rick Laakkonen nearly off the island (to its southern tip, to be exact). After a few questionable gigs (Buddha Bar, Tao), the toque once touted by critics as among the city’s most inventive has quietly settled into Delmonico’s. Taking into consideration the venue—a relic just below Wall Street—and the clumsy food, the position doesn’t seem to be about much more than a paycheck.
Delmonico’s, which opened on William Street in 1831, was the country’s first fine-dining establishment. Today, long past its heyday, it’s become little more than a tourist trap. Laakkonen’s arrival isn’t likely to restore any of its luster.
In fact, it seems pretty clear that Delmonico’s patrons neither know nor care who’s running the kitchen. If bankers still gather there for conspiratorial powwows, it’s surely only out of habit or convenience. The dining room was half empty on recent visits, and the blas waiters—in burgundy vests that match the wall-to-wall carpeting—seem accustomed to doing little.
Instead of making a connection with the setting and the food—offering modern riffs on old-fashioned fare—Laakkonen delivers contemporary compositions that are utterly out of place. One starter—a classic combination of goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts and beets—made a visual splash with beets shaved into ribbons and chopped into a sort of tartare, yet it tasted like nothing more than a standard-issue bistro salad. A more intriguing scallop starter, too, turned out to be a clunker. The seafood was nicely caramelized, but the supporting players—mealy artichoke heart, portobellos, gluey spinach pappardelle—had clearly been miscast. And though the lobster bisque—floating American caviar and lobster hunks—was as creamy as you’d expect, it bore so little of the chef’s personality that it might have been on the menu for the last 100 years.
Entres also hobbled along. A “Cioppino style” seafood stew—an obscenely generous heap of mussels, clams, shrimp and lobster tossed with thick tomato sauce and fregola—tasted like jarred sauce and not much else. Grilled branzino with starchy buckwheat pasta had the acrid flavor of fish that had been idling over an open flame. Even a simple veal chop disappointed, the bland meat accompanied by a tepid cauliflower puree. Only the signature Delmonico steak—a rich, juicy boneless ribeye served with a tangle of fried onions—was worthy of its reputation.
Desserts, unfortunately, delivered little validation. A mango and key-lime bar was sickly sweet. While the baked Alaska—filled with apricot jam and banana ice cream—was also cloying, it at least had nostalgia and caramelized meringue peaks in its favor.
Unlike some landmark restaurants—21 Club and La Grenouille—Delmonico’s ceased to be relevant long ago. Without the institutional memory of loyal staff and devoted patrons, the place might as well be a museum. Even with a modern chef, history is all that it’s peddling.
Drink this: Though requests for guidance through the pricey wine list produced only shrugs from the waiter, the one wine he pushed—a velvety Wyatt pinot noir from Sonoma ($56)—turned out to be a reasonably priced hit (for this list).
Eat this: Lobster bisque, Delmonico steak, baked Alaska
Sit here: The tables in back offer the most privacy for the sort of business whispering this restaurant still draws. The casual Delmonico’s Grill next door, featuring a pub-grub version of the restaurant’s menu, is a more inviting spot for a bite.
Conversation piece: In the 178 years since Delmonico’s opened, it has been credited as the birthplace of lobster Newburg, eggs Benedict and baked Alaska.
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