One of the reasons I love New York City is the rapid change. Even in a bear economy, stores and restaurants bud, bloom, and then die, supplanted by the next new thing. It can be exciting and stimulating, manna for someone who thrills with the vibe of transition. But it also means that nothing can be held sacred. Old favorites can never be taken for granted, and the idea of a “classic” has an unusually temperamental tinge.
So when a colleague of mine suggested meeting at Café des Artistes for a leisurely lunch, I immediately recalled this history of this archetypal “Old New York” destination, opened in 1917 and renowned for serving some of the city’s elite.
Except that it wasn’t Café des Artistes anymore. It was reborn in 2011 as The Leopard at des Artistes.
Despite the jazzy, exotic new name, The Leopard at des Artistes maintains the stately feel of its predecessor. The large-scale murals covering the walls, a holdover from the Café days, remind you that this is still a place to bring your parents (or grandparents), assuming they are as well-heeled as the rest of the clientele.
If you are in the mood to linger and really want to treat yourself, The Leopard at Des Artistes is a perfect place to sit and enjoy a sumptuous dessert.
But choose wisely. The Leopard, despite its pedigree, has some standouts, but it also makes some rookie mistakes.
Since we were still in the throes of blueberry season, I ordered the blueberry semifreddo ($11), with a lemon sauce and cinnamon crumble. The plating was promising – a sunny brushstroke eclipsed by a lilac half-moon. However, on closer inspection, I knew without lifting my spoon that this delicacy would be a dud. There, frosting the top of the semifreddo, was a sprinkling of ice crystals, a sure sign that the dessert had been too recently removed from the freezer. The first bite confirmed that this was, indeed, the case. Instead of a light, mousse-like texture, the entire semifreddo was studded with ice crystals.
Over-frozen or improperly prepared cold treats are always disappointing, but for an order that commands $11, this kind of mistake is inexcusable. Not only does the ice ruin the texture, it also tamps down the flavor of the dessert. The semifreddo was sadly more blueberry in color and name than in taste. The lemon sauce was appropriately bright and tart, and the halved blueberries off to the side were just that – plainly halved fresh blueberries (a little bland for the summer’s bounty). The cinnamon crumbles, tight and hard like granola, might have been a nice complement to the semifreddo had it not be frozen through, but as it was, they were simply a small kick for an otherwise dispirited dish.
Much, much better was my companion’s mascarpone panna cotta ($11, pictured at the top of this post), bridged to its mound of balsamic macerated strawberries by a crystallized twig of candied rosemary. The composition of this dish was Zen-like in its understated elegance. And unlike my letdown of a semifreddo, this panna cotta was a textbook example of what a panna cotta can and should be. Soft and silky – not at all firm or jelled, common pitfalls for panna cotta – it practically melted on the tongue. The smooth, clear dairy flavors made a, yes, classic pairing with the deeply-sweet, sharp balsamic strawberries: berries and cream.
The update here was the candied rosemary. I’ve long been a fan of herb-infused custards and puddings. I once had a life-changing basil-infused crème brulée, and then, as now, it was accented with strawberries. Just like balsamic vinegar underscores the sweetness of the berry, herbs tease out the tang. The rosemary, a bold seasoning that can stand up to rich, muscular meats and hearty potatoes, shows it, too, has a softer side. Here, it graciously takes a supporting role, adding a vegetal woodiness.
The panna cotta rests on a diminutive shortbread disc, a thoughtful, if subdued finish to a perfectly executed dish.
The final result is a unity of flavors and textures that proves that a classic can be comforting, but the inspiration is in the update.