Dining With the Chiefs (Food Arts)

Originally published in Food Arts, April 2008

If your fantasies turn presidential, now that your team won on Super-Bowl Sunday,  consider a meal in the Presidential Suite of the Waldorf-Astoria.  Suite 35A in the Waldorf Towers has been “The White House in New York”  since Herbert Hoover first occupied the Suite in 1931. To celebrate those 75 plus years, the Waldorf’s Executive Chef John Doherty chose Super Tuesday, February 5,  to kick off a Super Presidential Menu that encapsulates some of the noteworthy dishes he has served over his 30 years at the Waldorf to more presidents, foreign heads of state and royalty than any other chef in the country.

The Suite in the Towers is not massive—only four bedrooms—but is both comfortable and classy, done Georgian style in cream and gold to resemble that White House in Washington.   By tradition each president or important resident leaves a gift for the Suite when he departs. In the living room you can sit in President Kennedy’s rocking chair, catch your reflection in President Regan’s oval mirror, pick up the eagle desk set donated by President Carter and by the light of  President Nixon’s wall sconces read the newspapers that cover the personal desk of General Douglas McArthur. On Super Tuesday,  the headline of the New York Post on his desk read “TRUE BLUE”—meaning not Democrats but Giants.

On Super Tuesday,  24 of us ordinary citizens were invited to drink champagne  and nibble on hors d’oeuvres that have stimulated the appetites of queens and sheiks, as well as presidents—tiny salmon rolls with caviar, crab cakes with rosy mayonnaise, Asian-spiced beef cubes, tuna tartar served in a spoon. In the adjoining dining room we sat at tables covered in pleated gold silk, feeding our dreams of glory with a four-course meal of presidential favorites. Ordinary citizenship has its virtues. We were spared the heavy security teams that take over the “A” Tower during any presidential visit, when all food for the Suite is prepared on a separate floor under the watch of Secret Servicemen  and is served by a special staff of State Department employees.

But we were free to simply enjoy the food. First, a single Seared Scallop with Potato-Chive Mousseline, topped with Osetra Caviar, served in a mother-of-pearl seashell nesting in a bed of salt. This was served to President Bill Clinton at a Heads of State Dinner in September 2000.  Clinton’s favorite dish, Chef Doherty remarked,  was a simple pasta with vegetables. And while most presidents occupying the Suite went in and out all the time, Doherty added, Clinton liked to hang out.  Both Clintons insisted on American foods and wines, a preference the Chef followed in this menu, serving the scallops with Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2006.

The second course was Poached Turbot with Caviar-Champagne Sauce, served to President Ronald Reagan at a Heads of State Dinner for the 40th anniversary of the United Nations in 1985. Since Reagan was suffering from diverticulitis, Doherty decided to steam fish simply over a fumet made with brut champagne, then finish the sauce with heavy cream, chopped chives and sturgeon and salmon caviar. Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2005 was the companion wine.

The third course was one Doherty had served to President George H. Bush when he entertained Prime Minister John Major in 1992.  President Bush was “a real food guy,” Doherty said. “He really liked to eat, was very adventurous, ate everything”—but broccoli. The dish reflected a more exotic  mix of flavors:  Roast Rack of Lamb with Saffron Potatoes, Candied Eggplant and Pickled Onion. Wine was a Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2003.

The dessert, Chocolate Extravaganza, had been served to his son, President George W. Bush, in 2007, who if not the eater his dad was nonetheless favored this dish. Created by the Waldorf’s pastry chef Jean-Claude Perennou, the dish presented a round bitter-chocolate container topped by a large square chocolate lid. On top was a cluster of  paper-thin chocolate leaves and a blossom of gold leaf. When you lifted the lid, you found hazelnut pot de creme layered with chocolate mousse. With this, the wine was Schromsberg Cremant 2004.

“Here you’re part of history,” Doherty told us.  “I’m just a cook, but to cook for a table that’s making decisions about the world,  that’s something else.”  Anyone who longs to taste history, even if he is not a  great decider, can savor this menu in the private Wine Library within the Bull & Bear Steakhouse for $500 per person.  Anyone who chooses to stay in the Suite itself can buy the dinner for $330 per person, with a $150 butler fee (for up to10 guests) and the Suite for around $10,000 a night. There’s no shortage of applicants.  As one Waldorf official remarked, “The luxury market in New York is very deep.”

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Posted on Apr 1, 2008