Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Rainbow Room and Lobster Newberg

The 3rd Monday of January may be the saddest day of the year, but I always feel a little blue the week after New Years–– it’s such a comedown after the non-stop festivities and fabulous food.

My remedy? I think a virtual visit to the Never-Never Land of 30’s nightclubs (inspired by hours of watching The Thin Man series I wrote about HERE) will do the trick nicely… champagne glass in hand, of course. For Nick and Nora, the party lasted all year –– seems like a splendid idea to me.

The menu that caught my eye last week was one from the Georges Lang collection (Lang was the late, great NY restaurateur who left a massive book and menu collection now at NYU’s Fales Cooking Library), a 1934 beauty from New York’s Rainbow Room.

I began at a favorite site called The Bowery Boys and read up on a little history about the place (that is undergoing renovation and not open at the moment) and ended up finding many great books and articles on its history.

John Rockefeller Jr. (known as “Junior” in the family) envisioned the concept of Rockefeller Center before the depression struck, but built it after it hit. Although some would have given up on the idea of a building a gigantic complex (the largest private building in modern times) in the midst of a horrific economic downturn, this just strengthened the resolve of Rockefeller who saw it as a way to give hope and good jobs to thousands of workers in New York City (I read 75,000 jobs came from the project, bankrolled by Rockefeller –– we need more like him today!).

The lead architect for the complex was Raymond Hood who died in 1934.
Edward Durell Stone designed the exterior of Radio City Music Hall (completed in 1932) .

Donald Deskey decorated the interior of Radio City (he was chosen by Abby Rockefeller, who had a brilliant eye for talent).

Even the bathrooms are fabulous

The Rainbow Room opened in 1934, on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building (now the GE Building).

The Streamline Moderne  architect of The Rainbow Room was Jacques Carlu, but the interior design of the club was by Swiss-born Elena Bachman Schmidt (a protégé of the famous Elsie de Wolfe ). Elena was aided by Vincent Minnelli who took a break from his set design work at Radio City Music Hall to act as a color consultant in the great and glorious Art Deco style with a dance floor made of 360 glass blocks and 2600 colored lights that rotated and changed color (a color organ synchronized the lights with music from a custom-made pipe organ according to NYCago). I think atmosphere is a secret ingredient in great dinners, don't you?

It was originally a white tie joint that brought in high society patrons, but it segued into more egalitarian tuxedos as the 30’s waned. Until its closing 2 years ago, plain old jackets and ties were acceptable –– although prices were insane, New Years a few years ago was $1600 a couple under the management of the Cipriani organization!

View from 65th Floor.

I recall, the few times that I went there, the wine prices were as high as the real estate … but the view… well it was something.

Everybody went when it opened… Noel Coward was one of its first patrons and a slew of Hollywood and Broadway’s biggest names would enjoy the sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Guy Lombardo, Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett among others over its long history.

The menu was for supper that was served from 10 pm to 2 or 3am, a more substantial dinner menu came earlier, 6:30 to 10 pm. Dancing and organ music played from opening to closing. It was a nightclub after all.

Although huge fancy menus had taken quite a tumble from fashion with the double whammy of Prohibition and The Depression, The Rainbow Room had a few Gilded Age favorites. Chicken a la King, turtle soup and rarebits were there as were soufflés and Baked Alaska. Beluga caviar was the first thing on the menu ––there was a whole section on Chafing Dishes.

It wasn’t hard to figure what I would make. I’ve wanted to do Lobster Newberg for a long time, ever since I was reminded it of it when I researched Delmonicos. The dish was originally named Wenberg after the patron who made it for Delmonico in a “blazer” (or chafing dish as we know it today), and it was a huge hit in the 1870’s. Then he ticked off the management who renamed it Newberg in an anagrammatic pique, and Newberg it has remained.

Lobster Newberg was listed in the Chafing Dish section of the Rainbow Room menu as it should be. Chafing dishes were a great way to serve delicately sauced dishes and had the added drama of flaming table service on flashy carts … they had been popular for generations in New York restaurants and clubs… a little after-theater theater!

Although Snails Chablisienne looked awfully good (an Escoffier standard with meat reduction, shallots, wine and butter), and Frog’s Legs and Oysters Poulette was an interesting old standby (with a creamy mushroom sauce), Newberg was the one for me.

Lobster Newberg is great because it is a breeze to make and rich as could be with a dark luxurious texture. The reduced madeira in the creamy egg sauce is beyond perfect. Harry Luke (wonderful gastronome that I will write about next week) said Lobster Newberg was “the most perfect synthesis of ambrosial flavours I ever tasted.” Amen to that.

Please forget all the sad, gloopy, rubber-lobster versions you may have had in bad restaurants… they are no relation to this baby. I went back to the original and used the Delmonicos recipe (with a bit of truffle inspired by Oscar of the Waldorf's recipe I found if you care to do it that way). I would say this is an appetizer, but you could make the pastry bigger and just cut 2 and make this a dinner portion for 2 with a salad… it is VERY rich! Or you could do it old school with a chafing dish and toast points as a regal treat for a small party).

Dr. Lostpast gave it an A+… a designation he has only given a handful of dishes on the blog. It’s just the thing to flush away the January blues and make you feel like a swell, swilling champagne on the 65th floor with the pulsating deco dance floor doing its thing. 2012 is looking better already.

Lobster Newberg

Lobster Newberg in Puff Pastry Shells

2-4  smallish lobster tails (depending on size) raw or 1 lobster gently cooked (Kill it by slicing behind it's head, put it in rapidly boiling water and then turn it down... high heat makes for chewy lobster) with meat removed
1 T truffle butter (or butter and ½ t truffle oil)
pinch cayenne pepper

¼ c madeira (Boston Bual or NY Malmsy from Rare Wine Company)

1 c cream
3 egg yolks (I must say, I splurged on the pastured eggs and the yolks were insanely yellow)
1 T great madeira (I used a Barbeito Malvasia Madeira Favilla Viera, 1920 from Rare Wine Co ) (optional)
s & p to taste
few sprigs marjoram
4 pieces puff pastry (2 ½ x 4”) or use toast points as was done in the 1930’s

Preheat your oven to 425º and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. I removed a larger sheet of pastry that I had in the freezer and cut a piece with a pizza cutter and put the rest back in the freezer. I left it out for a few minutes and then cut it with a very sharp knife into the individual pieces. Make sure that you re-cut the edges, if you don’t the pastry won’t rise properly (you can see in the picture, I missed an edge!). Place your puff pastry rectangles on the sheet and cut smaller rectangles within, leaving about ½” around… don’t remove the cut piece. Be careful not to go all the way down to the bottom. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the top sheet and turn down to 375º, turn the pan around and cook 7-10 minutes or until lightly browned.

If you have small lobster tails, use poultry shears to cut the tail and carefully remove the meat in one piece. Then slice it into pieces following the lines in the lobster. If you have a whole lobster, remove the meat from the shell and cut into bite size pieces.

Sauté the lobster pieces gently in the butter and cayenne and remove (high heat makes the lobster rubbery). Add the madeira and reduce till thickened slightly and remove from the heat. Whisk together the egg and cream and add to the slightly cooled pan.

It is critical that you warm it gently and do not let it get above 160º. It will be thick and rich. Strain it through a sieve just to be sure there are no lumps hiding in the thick sauce.
Return the lobster to the pan and warm with the sauce… VERY Gently. If you have a good madeira, add it now, add salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with marjoram.

Remove the top pieces from the pastry and pull out any damp bits so you have a nice box. Place the lobster inside and pour sauce over. Serve immediately and be instantly seduced. Give praise to the lobster gods for the great bounty of the sea.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!


Claudia said...

This is the tastiest blast from my past that I have ever come across. The idea of putting it in a chafing dish with appointed toasts is so reminiscent of my mother's dinner parties that I must bite. Before the lobster tails disappear from MN for another year.

angela@spinachtiger said...

I love retro foods. A nice martini or manhattan to start. Great post.

Priscilla said...

I hadn't made, or even thought of Lobster Newberg in years! Oh, and I so love it. I'll have to do this one of these days.
I love the grand old places like the ones in this post.
I spent the evening of my 21st birthday drinking Champagne at The Top of The Mark. (in the historic Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, for those who don't know) The best view in one of the oldest and most beautiful hotels in the city.

andrew1860 said...

Hi Friend another wonderfully research post. I love the Art Deco style. I also live lobster but never had this dish. I will have to try it one day. Happy New Years!

Julian said...

The Rainbow Room and Lobster Newberg together in one post. What a way to bring back wonderful memories of such a great period and wonderful dish. It cheered me up just reading it. Thanks for yet another fantastic post!


Anonymous said...

I've never made or had Lobster Newburg, but I've had this insane desire to try it lately. I love the vintage recipe, and I'm sure it will be amazing even without the truffles. The last few times I've made lobster is was Lobster Thermidor, and I need something new.

Diane said...

I had Lobster Newburg many years ago, longer than I dare think about!! Think after this post it is time I renewed this and made it for both of us. Ingredients on my shopping list. Keep well Diane

Felicia said...

What a romantic post! I feared I was the only grown-up who felt a bit blue in January--thanks for a great bit of history and an intriguing recipe to cheer things up!

La Table De Nana said...

I'm on a little Netbook trying to bring up the prices of The Rainbow Room menu:) Impossible..well no I can read some..

How cool is that?
Love anything in a puff pastry shell and this would be no exception..magnifique!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I got a bit weak at the knees by the time I reached the last photo. I am a huge lobster lover and the way you described the lobster as not being chewy in any way and then putting it in a puff pastry shell...drool! :D

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What a fun read about the Rockfeller Center and the Rainbow Room.

I have a chafing dish somewhere up in my attic. It hasn't been used in quite a few years :) I think I'd opt for your presentation anyway - it looks fabulous in the puff pastry!

Barbara said...

First of all Deana, Happy New Year!
Second: I have every single Thin Man DVD available. And watch them over and over. Perfection...really.
I've never been to the Rainbow Room unfortunately, but feel as though I am an old friend after reading this today. Thank you for the history and fabulous photos. You are in a 30's frame of mind! :) (I was born in the 30's!) What fun it would have been to be a part of all that...the white tie and tails. I love all the costuming in The Thin Man series. Have you ever seen The Women? The old one with Norma Shearer? God, the clothes were marvelous. I always loved Roz Russell too; she was in it as well.
Anyway...I'm smiling at your Lobster Newberg. Appropriate choice for that era and such a lovely recipe. Beautifully presented too, as usual.

Marjie said...

I do love a good lobster newburgh, but rarely get it. Your research and stories always amaze me!

AS for Junior, I'm afraid that investment today is tempered by the very real concerns of excess government regulation and taxation of income. I'd love to invest in more real estate, but it's risky, and I don't want to make less than I can make on safe muni bonds, which are so very boring...(sigh).

Now, back to drooling over the lobster newburgh!

Sarah said...

I have never been inside Radio City Music Hall and have always wanted to see it. Love that skyscraper! Wow! Bought a few lobster tails on sale this Christmas (frozen, of course, on the prairies) and I have puff pastry in the freezer. This would be lovely with some bubbly.

Alice said...

Wow, what a lovely presentation. Looks absolutely delicious, too.

Simply Tia said...

This is a very well written and informative post! Well done. That lobster newberg looks exquisite.

Have a good weekend.

Mary Bergfeld said...

What a wonderful glimpse of yesterday. You pulled all the elements come together beautifully and then gave us a wonderful recipe to use as well. I hope you have a wonderful New Year. Blessings...Mary

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Sweet friend,

I do wish that we could have things like this these days, like elegant RAINBOW ROOMS, exquisite celebrations and just the clean and wonderful fun of this era. I do remember my mom having recipes like this from her days as a teen. Lobster Newburg, CHICKEN À LA KING??? This brings me fond memories when mom used to entertain wearing an organza apron, pearls and high heel shoes. Your visit today was so sweet. When it all boils down to it, KINDNESS and LOVE are the best ingredients for a life well-lived.

Be well, enjoy EVERY MOMENT, and flap those fairy wings! Anita

Ann said...

I just discovered your blog; I've been missing out! Lovely!

Linda said...

Oh my Deana...I do not know how I missed this...
I love your post...but I really love that plate the Lobster Newberg is resting looks so delicious!

tasteofbeirut said...

That is a plate i would have loved to have in front of me for New Year's Eve! Wow! Always read about the Rainbow Room too! As always you make us travel in time into spheres of the rich and sophisticates and it is so fun.
Question: Cost of that bottle of madeira?

Pam said...

This brings me back to the Rainbow Room of my youth. In 1979 when I first moved to New York I had a boyfriend that loved dining in all the old beautiful spots. Luckily for me the RR was one of his favorites. Reading your recipe for Lobster Newberg reminds of my time at the CIA when we made this dish as part of our fish class.
Lovely pics and a joy to read.
Happy New Year!

Deana Sidney said...

Just a note to Taste of Beirut... the wine, nearly 100 years old is only $275 a bottle... amazing value for something so old. I am fortunate that Mannie Berk at Rare Wine Co. is something of a patron who sends me small airplane size samples of old madeiras to try with food and to drink from time to time. His blends are very reasonably priced at under $50 and I use them constantly.

Jamie said...


I saw the Rainbow Room ashtray. I have the same one! eeeeeekk!! Made by Hall, and production #691

I wonder if Sinatra, put his cigarette out, in it. James Dean? Dean Martin? ....could be anyone.

Great article, thanks for the read