This is a new feature on Lost City for those readers who hunger to know how New Yorkers ate in days gone by.
Over the years, I have collected a number of books about once-renowned, now-disappeared New York restaurants. Some are histories with a few recipes cataloged at the back, some are out-and-out cookbooks. Only the original chefs and restaurant owners, now all lying in Green-Wood and Woodlawn Cemeteries, can say whether the recipes in the books are truthful or authentic. (One would think they'd want to keep such secrets close to their vests.) But we are taking it on faith that they are fairly close to the true formulas.
I also take it on faith that this subject is of interest. For famous and legendary restaurants are not fascinating only because of the way they looked and who went there. At least, to me. There must have also been something about the food. Not that it was always fantastic, but it was specific, and of the place, and spoke of the joint's personality.
The Colony on E. 61st Street was the first restaurant to embody the idea of Cafe Society—social register folk and celebrities mashing up and chowing down together—in the New York of the 1920s and 1930. It was also known to have quite-above-average French cuisine that attracted discerning socialites like the Vanderbilts.
I have a copy of 1945 book by Iles Brody called "The Colony—Portrait of a Restaurant, and Its Famous Recipes." The first half is an extensive overview of the make-up of the place, its major players and the way it did business. The second half features a couple hundred standard recipes.
The Colony was apparently quite proud of its food; one dish in 10 bears the suffix "...a la Colony." I have chosen to share with you the Velouté of Whitebait Colony, because, among many a complex and vague recipe, this one is fairly straightforward. In other words, you can try it at home. Here it is:
Cook lightly three ounces of finely chopped onion in butter, sprinkle with a teaspoon of curry, add one and one-half pints of boiling water, an herb bunch, a pinch of salt, a little powdered saffron, and two ounces of crusty bread. Boil for ten minutes. Add a pound of fresh small whitebait, and cook over a brisk fire. Rub through a fine sieve, and thicken with the mixture of three egg yolks and a few tablespoons of cream. Pour into the soup tureen over some dried slices of buttered bread. As the last touch, add a very little good sherry. Serve at once. This soup must not stand.
Sorry about the vagueness of some of the directions. "Herb bunch," indeed. A lot of the recipes in this book are like that. Also, sorry, but you're not going to lose any weight or unclog those arteries by following the Colony diet. Everything's dripping with butter and cream and eggs.
P.S.-That's not the Colony above. It's Rector's.