Thursday, February 26, 2015

London’s Café Royal and the Famous Chicken Pie Café Royal

Café Royal waiters by Aubrey Beardsley

Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec to dark magician Aleister Crowley, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence as well as future kings of England –– all of them came to Café Royal.

In late 19th and early 20th century London, it was the center of a universe for those who were drawn to the evanescent talent and wit of its notable patrons (many of today's readers will not have a clue as to the identity of some of the lost luminaries mentioned –– links are provided should you want to explore on your own ––  sic transit gloria mundi).  I've had a soft spot for this crowd since I was a kid.

Richard Le Gallienne, Walter Sickert, George Moore, Henry Harland, Oscar Wilde, Will Rothenstein, 
William Butler Yeats, Aubrey Beardsley, John Davidson and Charles Conder

Artists, writers, composers, performers and wits of all stripes were drawn to the café but also welcome were the demimondaine’s paid girls and their pimps as well as ravishing artist’s models (the term, demimonde came from an 1855 work by Dumas, it means half-world). It made for a rather exciting firmament.  Anything could and did happen with such a volatile company.

In his book Cafe Royal: Ninety years of Bohemia, author Guy Deghy put it well when he said,

Café Royal, Orpen

“But there was nowhere else where one could find a microcosm that, conceivably on the same night, might have blended the verbal soufflés of Oscar Wilde with the nasal patter of bookmakers; the peacock screeches of Whistler with the prattle of models in second-hand pre-Raphaelite costumes; the boom and bluster of Frank Harris with the donnish and disdainful aperçus of A.E. Housman, and the hoarse whisper of con-men; the high-pitched brogue of George Bernard Shaw; the soft precision of Max Beerbohm, and the exquisite savagery of Aubrey Beardsley… and all this against a backcloth of domino-playing petit-bourgeoisie, hopeful lookers-in and connoisseurs form Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green, nervous young protégés hoping to be introduced to Oscar Wilde but praying it would not be tonight.”

William Orpen painting of Café Royal 1912

The café opened February 11, 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago.

It all began when a man took a runner on his debts in France and assumed the name Nichols when he arrived in London, changing it from Daniel Nicolas Thévenon. Born in 1833, he came to London with his wife in 1863 a bankrupt wine merchant with 7 gold coins between them. In 2 short years through industry and ruthless thrift, he was able to move into a restaurant at 15-19 Glasshouse Street in London that he called Café Restaurant Daniel Nicols. Only months later thanks to the newly fashionable French wine and champagne that Nicols knew well (singers were singing songs advertising French wines in music halls), business was booming. 68 Regent Street was also procured and the place was renamed Café Royal. When Nicols died 30 years later at his country estate in Surbiton, he was worth half a million pounds. Café Royal had done very well.

Café Royal, 1915, Adrian Allinson

Osbert Sitwell, recalled the Café Royal’s famous Domino Room’s pre-1914, describing its  ‘smoky acres of painted goddesses and cupids and tarnished gilding, its golden caryatids and garlands, and its filtered submarine illumination – composed of tobacco smoke, of the flames from the chafing dishes and the fumes from food, of the London fog outside and the dim electric light within’. The Domino room was the destination room in the Café.

James McNeill Whistler by Boldini, 1897

The first wit to grace the tables of Café Royal was American James McNeill Whistler, “…who signed with the mark of the Butterfly his bills for poulet en casserole and sweet champagne. Forever in a state of excitement over new finds on the menu, he endeared himself to Lecoste [wine buyer for the café] for his praise of the croûte Mallard.”  It was said "In a second you discover that he is not conversing—he is sketching in words, giving impressions in sound and sense to be interpreted by the hearer.” He must have been a sensational dinner companion.

Oscar Wilde was soon to take over the crown from Whistler, but at the beginning, Whistler and Wilde had been great friends who engaged in brilliant badinage. One famous exchange occurred at a Whistler dinner. Wilde heard Whistler making a witty remark and said, “I wish I’d said that.” to which Whistler responded “you will Oscar, you will!”

George Bernard Shaw said Wilde was the supreme conversationalist of the day and fellow patrons would hang on “Oscar’s latest.” Now-classic remarks would appear in press sometimes hours after they had flown from his lips.

Oscar Wilde, 1882 Photo taken in NYC

For today's audience, Oscar Wilde is probably the most well-known denizen of Café Royal. Deghy devoted many pages to Wilde and his crowd at the Café, noting he was ‘good for business’,  both for the patrons he drew in and his voracious appetite. Arthur Ransome said of Wilde, “he overfed like a schoolboy at a tuckshop with an unexpected sovereign in his hand.” “Each meal for him was an exquisite ritual, and he who had once roughed it on five-shilling dinners would now pour long and lovingly over his choice of the suprème de volaille à la Patti or the caneton de Roven à la presse, the sole Beaumanoir or the turbotin paysanne. At each stage of the meal he would summon the chef for involved instruction, and after each dish would compliment the manager in transcendental terms.” His influence went far beyond his appreciative consumption of Café victuals.

Oscar Wilde

“Apart from the multitude of philistines and would-be artists who came to the Café Royal only to sit and stare, he [Wilde] attracted like a magnet the vast majority of poets, writers and artists of his day. He was, as Frank Harris said, “a sort of standard bearer” around whom they grouped them selves as the personification of their age and more than one celebrity forsook such outposts of bohemianism as the Crown, Kettner’s, the Cheshire Cheese and Verrey’s for his table.”

Oscar Wilde and 'Bosie' (Lord Douglas)

The Café also provided a canvas for Wilde's destruction –– the drama of his relationship with his beloved 'Bosie' and his evil father, Queensbury, were played out there.  His many friends at the Café begged him to let the lawsuit go and withdraw quietly but they were dismissed.  Wilde was sentenced to prison for "the love that dare not say its name" (the scandalous affair even tarnished the reputation of the Café for a time). He died a broken man.

Aubrey Beardsley

Another doomed luminary of Café Royal was Aubrey Beardsley, the Art Nouveau artist.

It could be that the madly talented clerk at the Guardian Life and Fire Assurance Co. was started on his brief but bright career as an artist through associations made at the Café – soon after his arrival there, he was advised to ditch insurance and to go to art school. His association with the notorious Yellow Book may also have been born in the swirling vortex of talent at Café Royal.

I have been a fan of Beardsley since I first saw his work at 13 years old. I didn’t fully understand decadence or pornography or homosexuality at that age but I had that attraction teens have for doomed artists and poets (the giant phalluses of his Lysistrata illustrations and the wild perversity of his drawings for Wilde's Salome were shocking but excitingly so). Beardsley was certainly doomed – tuberculosis had dogged him most of his life and took him when he was but 25 – only a few years after a visit to Paris –– the posters of Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese woodcuts (especially shunga pieces) that he saw there would revolutionize his art.

Beardsley in his apartment

“If Aubrey Beardsley had been in the habit of going to fancy dress balls he could have gone as the Café Royal, so accurately did he reflect the spirit of the old Café that he loved. He was only really happy in three places -- the Pavilion at Brighton, the Casino at Dieppe, and the Domino Room at the Café Royal. This was no mere whim of his vivid mind. All three had this in common: they were unreal, dreamland places for people who lived unreal, dreamland lives. And Beardsley, who lived in a room with orange walls and black doors, needed more than anyone else to live that kind of life. He had been dying of consumption ever since he was a child, almost; and desperately clinging to life, a bizarre, exaggerated life that could only be found in such places as these.”`

The description of Beardsley was striking, “an emaciated apparition of a boy, curiously-colored hair plastered down over his death-mask of a face like a tortoiseshell skullcap, and bony white hands fluttering like butterflies under an X-ray….”

Beardsley illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome

“In the café, among the unholy splendours of the world of mirrors, under the ripe fullness of the garland-infested caryatids, and heavy gold-dust in the air, the weird shapes of Beardsley’s ‘Japanesque’ mood began to form themselves in this mind. There the Beardsley Woman was born. This was his space.”

Prince of Wales

It wasn't just artists and writers who drew patrons to Café Royal. There were the royals, most notably future kings of England and they came for the company and for the food.

The Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) loved good food. “He ate sparingly but selectively; he never touched underdone meat or starch-laden food, but fairly lean lamb and poultry; liked cold dishes in aspic, eggs, and fruit, especially strawberries.”  When he was  not attended by his great chef, Nicolas Soyer (son of Alexis), he impressed  his foreign host's gastronomic advisors "with his profound understanding of the intricacies of their art and with his judicious restraint." He was surrounded by gourmets –– men like Alfred de Rothchild ‘whose household boasted three French chefs as well as a private string orchestra to accompany the dinner’, surgeon Sir Henry Thompson “…contended that eight was the ideal number of guests for a dinner, and called his exquisite stag-parties “octaves”. The Marquis de Soveral, known as ‘The Blue Monkey’ was the Princes’ primary gastronomic arbiter. He encouraged the Prince’s visits to Café Royal as the century came to a close.

Many things changed as the 19th century turned to the 20th. The luster of the Café Royal began to dim.

What remained consistent was the food and the attentiveness of the staff to the customer’s special whims and needs. “Practically all expected to receive preferential treatment, and the head waiters’ Day Book was filled with their dos and don’ts –– what sort of vinegar was to be used for Sir William Carringtons’ salad, how high the grouse should be for Lord Vane Tempest, when the account should be presented to Lord Knowles, or how to attend to those two frequent lunch-companions, Lord Dewar (whisky) and Sir Thomas Lipton (tea). Among the frequent lunchers were two young men both of whom were to be Kings of England –– Edward VIII and George VI. “Always plain food. No Fuss. Call headwaiter at once and notify manager’ was the instruction.”

One dish that remained a favorite from the beginning is Chicken Pie Café Royal. “It has been handed on from chef to chef by word of mouth for who knows how many years? A Café chef who had been there since 1914 said it was a tradition even then. In the 1950’s, Chef Ruette wrote down the recipe. I bet those royal princes would have loved it… no fuss but so delicious. Another fine addition to the What's in a Name series.

Chicken Pie Café Royal

White Surrey chicken, (about 4 lb.); 8 thick rashers of streaky bacon; a medium sized onion; 3 hard –boiled eggs; ½ lb white mushrooms (firm); a goodly sprig of fresh parsley; and 1 ½ lb pie pastry

Clean and singe the chicken, then remove legs and cut a joint of drumstick and thigh. Cut off wings as if carving a cooked bird, i.e. leaving some flesh around the wish-bone and along the breast-bone; then cut across this middle piece between the wish-bone and the lower breast. This will give you four pieces of white meat and four pieces of dark. Cut the hard-boiled eggs in dices; chip the onion and the parsley 9not too fine); wash and slice the mushrooms. Season and mix these ingredients well; then mix with the pieces of chicken to allow as much of this garnish as possible to adhere to them. Stretch out the rashers and roll each piece of garnished chicken in a rasher of bacon, including the maximum of garnish. Make a stock with the seasoned trimmings and the giblets; then leave to cool.

Place the legs on the bottom of the pie-dish, then the white pieces. Add any remainder of garnish on top; then fill up the dish with the stock and cover with pastry. Cook in moderate oven for sixty to seventy five minutes. Serve direct from the over – very hot.

Chicken Pie Café Royal

4 boneless chicken thighs, cut in half, extra fat removed
S+P to taste
4 slices lean bacon cut in half (I ended up using more to get mostly the lean part)
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
3 T chopped parsley, finely chopped
3 T finely chopped onion
6-8mushrooms, sliced
1 c stock
1 T flour
pie pastry for top crust or double crust as you wish

Salt and pepper the chicken, wrap the bacon around it and sauté till the bacon is browned. Remove.

Preheat oven to 375º

Pour off most of the fat leaving about 1 T. Add the flour and then stir till cooked. Pour in the stock, stirring all the while until the sauce is slightly thickened. Roll the chicken in the combined parsley, onion and egg. Put the chicken and mushrooms in the pan and pour the stock over it**. Place the pastry over the pie and seal leaving vents cut in the pastry*.

Put on a foil covered baking sheet. Cook till browned, about 50 minutes.

Serve immediately.

* I just used the top crust but you can do top and bottom for a much richer dish. If you use 2 crusts you can seal it more effetively

**Mine leaked a lot. I might even leave a center hole and only put in half the stock at the beginning and more 10 minutes before it’s done.

Chicken Pie Cafe Royal

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Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Another one of your posts that I absolutely love. I had never thought of how Oscar Wilde would have eaten but was transported to his dining table! :D

Barbara said...

You're certainly hitting on all cylinders with this post, Deana. The cafes, restaurants and watering holes where the talented, artistic, royal and wealthy all mixed will forever be fascinating to all of us. Wish I could have been in someone's pocket just once back then. You bring it all to life.
Have always loved Beardsley, had no idea he died at such a young age and from TB.
Have you noticed chicken hash and pot pies have often been favorites at such places; we all like our comfort foods.

La Table De Nana said...

When I read your stories..I always think of the granparents I never knew..surely they knew of all these people..Your pie is so pretty..

Rhodesia said...

As ever, a whole lot of things I did not know here, and somehow Oscar Wilde looks nothing like I expected!

Bet that pie is so delicious, I can just smell it from here :-)

Have a good weekend Diane

Jonny said...

When I read this post, I found myself wondering where those fabled hostelries are for today's Bohemians. It's tempting to think that the recent hipster-orientation of food bibles like Bon Appetit and most-recently Saveur may answer this question, but it's hard to imagine that there is currently a venue anything like this serving people of this calibre. Indeed, it's evidently the confluence of the special venue and the extraordinary clientele that made the Cafe Royal unique.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I always knew so much of the cafe and those who gathered there but nothing of its food! This dish sounds right up my alley -simple and delicious. Anything with chicken, pastry, and mushrooms is a win in my book!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What a place it must have been with those celebrated figures! Poor Oscar Wilde was born a century too early and would have found life much more forgiving today.

Once again, another tantalizing recipe from a very tantalizing venue. Your photos always have such a beautiful, saturated look with beautiful styling.