Thursday, May 24, 2012

Toots Shor, Chicken Hash with Hearts of Palm and a Caesar Salad "Cocktail"

Toots Shor, 1903-77

A few weeks ago I was noodling around the dial (ok, that’s an anachronism –– er,  channel surfing) –– and came upon the end of a documentary on Toots Shore,  Toots,  done by his grand daughter, Kristi Jacobson. I was engrossed in half a minute and terribly sad I had missed most of it.  God bless Netflix, I rented it to watch it again and was so glad I did.

Until recently,  Toots Shor was long forgotten by most   –– now a whole new generation is discovering NYC’s legendary “saloon” thanks to Mad Men.  The Mad Men design team even built a virtual Toots Shor set (where Don and Betty drank martinis and ate their famous Caesar Salad prepared at tableside) and sparked a renewed interest in the style of the period.  The original was a bar/restaurant in NYC that thrived in the 40s and 50s  –– a place where actors, writers, singers, journalists and sports figures came to play. In its heyday, it was the place to go, located at 51 w 51st Street from 1940 to 1959 (after that it moved around the corner to 52nd Street).  The ringmaster was Toots Shore.

In the documentary,  NYC writer Gay Talese talked about the allure of Toots Shor, person and place:

"A restaurant man could have a tremendous impact on one's life that has little if anything to do with food.  Restaurants are not about food, they're about endorsing character, they're about giving people a sense of who they are.  Toots Shore was a master at this."

Toots Shor hailed from Philadelphia but came to NYC in 1930.  He got his start in the bar business as bouncer for speakeasies (he was a big, burly guy) and that proved to be lucrative both financially and for the connections he made with influential people (the underworld as well as the elite and famous).

By the end of 30’s he had risen from bouncer to management and finally to his own place in 1940.  Toots Shor was a place where everyone went to drink –– a lot.  When I say everyone was there, I wasn't kidding –– Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Joe Dimaggio, Frank Gifford, Don Ameche, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Louis, Frank Sinatra, Babe Ruth, Ernest Hemingway, Yogi Berra and Orson Welles, to name a few of the varied clientele (Chief Justice Earl Warren would sit across the bar from gangster Frank Costello –– it was that kind of place).

Jackie Gleason was one of the inner-circle and great friend of Toots who would drink in the afternoon, rest, and go back at dinner to drink some more.

He and Toots once had a drinking contest and Gleason lost (Gleason drank J&B scotch and Toots brandy and soda).  Gleason passed out "sunnyside up"  right in the entrance of the restaurant after hours of heavy drinking and Toots let him lay there for a few hours till he finally said "OK, pick the bum up and get him back here" and hauled him back in the place (Toots had no patience for me who couldn't hold their liquor –– even after an heroic battle of the booze).

I heard a great story from DrLostPast (that was also in the documentary) that Gleason and Toots argued about who could run faster.  They decided to have a race around the block.  They were both “large’ individuals, so this was a serious challenge.  It was decided they would run in opposite directions around the block so as not to draw a crowd.  They took off, but at the corner, Gleason called a cab and got back in a snap.  When Toots arrived huffing and puffing, he found Gleason with a cocktail waiting for him.  Toots was a great sport when everyone broke out laughing at the prank... he even paid Gleason the $1000 bet (Toots liked to gamble, he once lost $100G on the Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight).

Toots became famous in his own right appearing on What’s My Line and This is Your Life television shows in the 1950s.  He was much loved, and much hated because, as he admitted, he thought he was always right and sometimes didn't have an edit button in his head.  He would say what he felt.  It was well known if he liked you, he would do anything for you and had helped many many people out many many of jams. He wouldn't speak to you if he didn't like you.

When the world changed in the 60's (the “Rat Pack” was out and the Beatles were in), the place wasn’t as popular as it had been. This was compounded by the fact that the original place was small and intimate and the new place was too big (the original Shor's space had been bought out to build an office tower).  Toots Shor was losing money (he had always given away nearly as many drinks as he sold) and on top of it he was in a mess with the IRS.

Frank Sinatra shelled out $50G all by himself  (quietly, in an envelope) when Toots turned down his offer to do benefit shows with Dean Martin for 3 weeks for him at the restaurant.  Although a lot was raised at a benefit dinner, it wasn’t enough to erase the IRS debt so Toots Shor closed (the guest list for this was a who’s who of NY journalists, artists and sports figures).

There had been a choice. The government had offered to forgive the whole debt if Toots would install listening devices in the place (there were many underworld figures who hung out there regularly).  Toots wouldn’t do it, even to save his beloved saloon. He wouldn't rat out a guy for any reason.  He took care of the wise guys and they took care of him.  Toots said in an interview just before his death "In fact I said to my children,  if your father told half the stories he knows, it would make The Godfather look like a fairytale." The wise guys knew the secrets were safe with Toots.

He died of cancer a few years after the restaurant closed  –– loosing the restaurant took all the life out of him.  To the end he believed being a saloonkeeper was the best job in the world.

1943 Menue from Toots Shor (NYPL Collection)

It was well known that Toots Shor was a place to go for drinks, it wasn’t known for its “nuttin fancy” food. But “nuttin fancy” can be really good.

Evidently his Caesar was a favorite of many patrons (like the fictional Don Draper).  I thought I would make it into a Caesar "Cocktail" after I read it might have started out as romaine dunked in dressing when it was first invented in Mexico/California.  The bread batons are delicious. I love the croutons in Caesar salads and dunking the oversized croutons,  lettuce and tomatoes in the fabulous dressing is a fun way to eat salad and easy to snack on while you are drinking your real cocktails.

The Chicken Hash au Gratin with Hearts of Palm sounded awfully good.  I couldn’t find a recipe for it but did find one for a lobster version from Emeril. I made a few changes and voila… chicken it was and delicious it was.  The hearts of palm add a wonderful tang to the rich creamy sauce. Certainly the hash is the perfect kind of dish to fortify your stomach for a serious night of drinking.

Speaking of drinks, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson over at 12 Bottle Bar has a new book out on gin ––  Gin: A Global History.  I have now done a few combination posts with 12 Bottle Bar and they are always a blast to do –– I always learn so much!

A virtual visit to a legendary ‘saloon’ (as Toots called his place) should get you in the right mood for an introduction to this great little book.  The pictures are wonderful and it is beautifully written.  This is no surprise considering 12 Bottle Bar is my favorite cocktail blog (one of my favorites, PERIOD!).  The stories are fun and the history goes down like a cool drink on a hot day.

It’s a perfect book to stash in your bag for a summer read since it’s about the size of an iPad (just a little thicker!).  It will definitely inspire your cocktails.

What better person to ask than Lesley about beverage fashion during the glory days at Toots –– she knew the score in spades:

"Like the first season of the series "Mad Men" suggests, people were more than a little uptight in the 1950s.  Versions of the Martini date back to the late 1800s and, in fact, the Martini was the "it" drink of the 50s, its no-nonsense ingredients and lack of fruity fanfare emblematic of an equally no-nonsense generation. "

"When we flash back to the '50s, we return to simplicity, cleanness, and, above all, pragmatism.  The drinks of choice followed suit -- in terms of gin, there was the the Martini, of course, as well as the Gimlet (gin and, classically, the slightly sweetened Rose's Lime Cordial).  At this time, when you asked for "gin", you meant London Dry and nothing else.  The brands of choice -- Gordon's, Seagram's, Gilbey's -- are names still familiar today. 

Other spirits, too, had their followers.  Like Don Draper, many folks drank their liquor straight or on the rocks with a water back.  Other popular cocktails included the classics of the Golden Age of cocktail culture, such as the Old Fashioned (Bourbon, sugar, bitters, lemon garnish) and the Manhattan (rye, sweet vermouth, bitters, cherry/orange peel garnish).

In the early 50's, vodka was slowly making its way into the drink culture too.  In 1955, the "vodka-tini" officially entered the drink lexicon, thanks in no small part to an aggressive advertising push by a then little-known company called Smirnoff. Their "It leaves you breathless" campaign was just what the doctor ordered:  A spirit that had little to no flavor and couldn't be smelled on the breath.  It gave new "meaning to the term "three-Martini lunch"."

Got your cocktail ready?  Let's eat.

Caesar Salad Cocktail

16 hearts of romaine leaves
12 cherry tomatoes
8 bread batons (sautéed in 2 T olive oil)
Herbed oil (2 T olive oil, 1 t mashed garlic, pinch of salt, pinch of pepper, pinch of thyme)

1 recipe my favorite Caesar Dressing (based on a recipe from the old City restaurant in L.A.)

After sauteéing the batons, brush them with the herbed oil if you would like. Pour the dressing in the bottom of the glass and add the romaine, tomatoes and batons.  Dunk and enjoy!

Favorite Caesar Dressing based on one from City Restaurant, L.A.

3 anchovies
1/2 t cracked pepper
1/3 c olive oil
1/3 c grated parmesan
1 egg
3 T red wine vinegar
2 T lemon juice
1T pureed garlic
2 t dry mustard
1 t celery salt
3 dashes Tabasco
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce (I usually use more)

Boil water and put an egg in the boiling water for 1 ½ minutes then remove.  Run under cool water.  Put the anchovies and oil and parmesan in the blender and blend for a few minutes. Then add the egg (scraping the shell to get all the egg).  Add the rest of the ingredients and blend.  Taste for salt (you probably won’t need it) and refrigerate.

Chicken Hash au Gratin with Hearts of Palm inspired by Toots Shore (with a little help from Emeril) serves 8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main dish

5 tablespoons butter
2 (14-ounce) cans hearts of palm, drained
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons white pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
½ cup cream (you can skip the cream and just use milk if you want it lighter)
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
¼ t nutmeg
1-2 T sherry or madeira
pinch paprika
1 tablespoon chopped chives
2/3 pound cooked cubed chicken
2 slices white bread, crusts removed, toasted and processed to make fresh bread crumbs or use about 1/3 cup of dried breadcrumbs
2 T parmesan
Herbs for garnish

Preheat oven to 375º.
In a skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the hearts of palm, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper and sauté until the hearts of palm are golden, about 3 minutes. Arrange the cooked hearts of palm in a layer on the bottom of a gratin dish or 4 -6 mini cast iron skillets (I love these little babies ).
In the same skillet you cooked the hearts of palm in, melt 2 more tablespoons of the butter. Add the shallots and garlic until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the flour, and cook for 2 minutes, being careful not to let it brown. Whisk in the milk and heavy cream slowly, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil. Cook until the floury taste is gone and sauce is smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice, chives, spices and madeira and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and remaining 1-teaspoon of pepper. Add the chicken, and stir well.
In a small saucepan melt the remaining tablespoon of the butter and remove from heat. Add the breadcrumbs and toss to thoroughly combine. Pour the chicken mixture over the hearts of palm (but don't overfill or the crumbs won't crisp) and spread the breadcrumbs evenly on top, sprinkle with parmesan. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

Thanks again to my friend Linda at Statewide Marble in Jersey City for the gorgeous piece of onyx!


Diane said...

Great post and it just shows that you really can start at the bottom and make it to the top.

The recipes have left me with my mouth watering :)

Keep well Diane

pam said...

I love Mad Men, and I love learning about this time period. Born in the late 50's, I saw some of it first hand, with the cocktail parties my grandmother would have.

Lora said...

How wonderful you did a post on Toots and a fabulous one at that. This was a wonderful read. Thank you!

Dino said...


Another well-researched and superbly written post.


SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What an interesting time period. I never knew much about Toots Shor and I would love to see the documentary too. Wow, he loved to drink. They may have contributed a little to his early demise also!

Love the Caesar salad cocktail and the chicken sounds so delicious!

Frank said...

Fabulous story. Love the Jackie Gleason vignette!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

What a fabulous menu! (Love the Caesar Salad Cocktail!) Those were the days. We often think celebrity chefs are a recent phenomenon, but back then the club owner was bigger than life. Very curious where the actual location for Toots was - since I work in that neighborhood.

Barbara said...

Those were the days, weren't they? And what fun to read about it. Will have to find the special on Toots. I missed it...but did see a wonderful one on Johnny Carson. Amazing what channel surfing brings up...there is so little else to watch.

(I know you're not going to believe I've only watched a few Mad Men episodes and it never really caught me up.)
Gin is my favorite (and only) drink. Would imagine that book is made for me. :)

Had never read the Caesar Salad was served first in that manner. Will send this post on to my daughter. It's her favorite salad.
Love your chicken hash recipe. We had a French restaurant in Dania back in the 70's that served the best I've ever had. Long gone now, so I'll try your version when I start cooking again. :)

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Great post!

Toots personality comes through loud and clear!

The food looks great too! There are lots of delicious looking items on that menu.

The two that jumped out and, "socked me in the kisser,"(as Toot's might have said) are the roast duckling with port and cherry sauce and also the curry of chicken and chestnuts.


Marjie said...

Casear's Salad in a glass sounds like loads of fun!

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