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ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : BOOK REVIEW : '21' Paths to Sophistication

November 30, 1995|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I was in college, the only address I knew in Manhattan was 21 W. 52nd Street, the location of '21' ("Jack and Charlie's '21' Club," we ignorant squirts knowingly called it). It was thought to be something of an antique, and its collection of cowboy art seemed odd in New York, but the bar was very grand and made you feel dizzy with sophistication.

I don't think I even knew that there was also a restaurant on the premises. This was appropriate, because Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns had founded '21' as a saloon--the most expensive, exclusive speak-easy in the country. During Prohibition, it made a point of serving French wine and genuine Scotch instead of the dubious bootleg products available elsewhere. After Repeal, it started '21' Brands Co. to import high-class hooch legally (so that's why there are those quote marks in the name '21' Brands). The B&B cocktail was invented there.

But it always had high culinary ambitions too. The original chef had worked for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. '21' was luxurious, it had impressively elaborate mechanisms to evade Prohibition agents--and good food as well: a dynamite combination. Although everybody knew perfectly well that it was engaged in illegal business, it hauled in the celebrities and became a household word on the order of Spago.

It has remained a mega-major hangout all these years, too; a power lunch takes place there in the movie "Wall Street." And now the current chef, Michael Lomonaco, has compiled "The '21' Cookbook," a collection of recipes accompanied by a considerable amount of '21' history and nostalgia.

The nostalgia stuff is very appealing. There are lots of colorful anecdotes (for instance, Kriendler delivering meals to well-heeled customers' apartments while dressed in cowboy clothes), together with old news clippings and wonderful cartoons from the '30s and '40s.

But what sort of recipe should go in a '21' cookbook? Lomonaco has to dance around this question a bit. Tastes have changed over the last 70 years.

For instance, '21' was smack dab in the middle of the fad for having special waiters called captains do a lot of the cooking at your table--whisking salad dressings, flaming crepes and so forth. Two of its famous salads, demanded by diners generation after generation, call for Lorenzo dressing, developed by one of these captains; it's a vinaigrette doctored with mustard, watercress, bacon and the old-fashioned sweet tomato sauce laughingly called chili sauce.

To an Angeleno, the old-time '21' comes off rather like Chasen's, a place that was the epitome of class and fashionability at one time, meaning that much of its menu was bound to end up looking terrifically dated. To take soup recipes alone, vichyssoise and senegalaise seem positively Jurassic today.

Also like Chasen's, '21' has always catered to some of the more plebeian tastes of its customers (if they're crazy enough to pay $24 for hamburgers, '21' would be crazy not to do it). So the book includes recipes for Manhattan clam chowder, hash browns and liver with bacon and onions.

Lomonaco, who has a sophisticated culinary background--he worked under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque--accepts the necessity of serving these old-time dishes at the same time that he caters to the fashionable tastes of our own day. He also updates some of the classics, frying that $24 hamburger in olive oil (so you can have an olive-flavored hamburger, I guess) and goosing up the liver and onions with balsamic vinegar. His own dishes in the modern vein look perfectly OK, although he does not appear to have the most distinctive culinary personality on the block. That may be just what so venerable an institution as '21' wants, of course.

The result does seem a little scattered--cold poached salmon with pressed cucumbers side by side with sea bass in lemon grass and chile-coconut broth. Because a lot of people buying this book will be nostalgia buffs, rather than experienced cooks, Lomonaco also includes a lot of rather elementary cooking information, such as how to shop for lobster. There are some lectures on the importance of vegetables, too, and the concept of the nutritional pyramid is invoked, possibly because Americans have come to expect their cookbooks to preach to them.

But the recipes look interesting, a combination of unobtrusively up-to-date and shamelessly old-fashioned. People who buy it for a window on the glamour world of the past may end up cooking out of it.

* THE '21' COOKBOOK: Recipes and Lore from New York's Fabled Restaurant

By Michael Lomonaco with Donna Forsman

(Doubleday: $35, 383 pp.)

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