Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Dinner at Upstairs at 21, The 21 Club, Manhattan New York

Readers, every so often you come across somewhere that sticks with you long after leaving.  Sometimes you turn up at a venue with no idea of what you’ve booked, apart from the little knowledge you gained from the internet before you emailed to make a reservation… which asked for a credit card to secure it.

Fast forward a few weeks and with Mr WhatClaireBaked dressed with no sneakers, no jeans and a mandatory jacket for dinner and me in the nicest, least crumpled dress at the end of the holiday, we headed to 21 Club.  We were met at the door by the concierge who accompanied us upstairs and knocked on the door.  Yes knocked.  Next thing we were met by two waiting staff in full dinner suits and led into the dining room.

Upstairs at 21 is something special and from what we could gather, is relatively unknown.  The private dining room seats 32 people maximum.  

Let’s start with the venue.  21 officially opened on 1st January 1930.  It’s New York’s original speakeasy.  In the era of prohibition, the bottles would drop out from the bar, down trap doors into the cellar.  During a raid, the alcohol disappeared without a trace…  Sitting in a room with so much history makes you think, what was it  REALLY like back then? If only the walls of the private dining room had ears.

Celebrities, heads of state and figureheads have dined and drank here in peace over the years.  The original owners Jack and Charlie were enthusiastic collectors of art… in the great depression, customers who couldn’t settle their bills with cash did so from their art collection and as a result, the venue has a rich and varied selection of paintings and sculptures, which the staff are only too happy to tell you about. 

You’re greeted at the doors by ornamental jockeys’ many of whom were donated by some of America’s top stables. The wrought iron gates at the front entrance date back to 1926.  Let’s be clear… this place comes with history as standard.  
Image Source: http://www.newyorkmarkt.com/

The private dining room “upstairs” is nothing short of beautiful.  Four huge murals adorn each wall of the rectangular room, depicting iconic New York landmarks across the four seasons.   There’s white linen on the tables, the cutlery carries significant weight and there’s crockery when you arrive “for show”.   I’ll be honest, we had no idea what we’d booked until we turned up. It was near on impossible to find out much online. I came across 21 by chance on a New York dining guide.  The likes of 11 Madison Park were out of budget, but we were looking for something with class and elegance for the last night of our east to west to east American trip.   The four course tasting menu sounded exactly what we were looking for. 

upstairs at 21 club new yorkupstairs at 21 club new york


Upstairs at 21 oozes elegance.   It’s 1930s glamour throughout. Walking in through those iconic iron gates you can imagine the days of old.   Wives of Wall Street brokers mingling with America’s first lady.  Walt Disney sneaking to a table in the corner… you get the picture. 

Dining at Upstairs at 21 is an experience.  It’s to be savoured; food is taken to your table slowly, drinks are poured as you need them and there’s no in, out, have a nice night approach.  We were in the restaurant for nearly 3 hours.  Every course was a masterpiece in itself.  The highlight though: it wasn’t pretentious.  We’re fairly sure a number of diners were significantly wealthier than us, but to Steven (our host for the night) it didn’t matter.  We were there to enjoy the experience as much as everyone else.  We bonded over our “across the pond heritage” – both dining room hosts were from Ireland.     The couple sitting next to us had been coming to the venue for years and took the time to ask where we were from, how we found the food and wished us well for our lives back home. 

It didn’t feel appropriate to take photos of my food.  So I’m afraid there aren’t any.    I’ll just need to talk you through it…

...We started with fish courses – me enjoying crab cakes and Mr WhatClaireBaked trying oysters for the first time, which came served over ice, with lemon and salsa.     Next, came the mid-course and for both us, lobster ravioli was the only choice.  Pasta was perfectly al-dente, the filling rich and creamy. 

Moving on to mains – a filet mignon for me, with a rich meaty sauce, potatoes and seasonal veg, whilst my partner in crime went for the duck.   

I broke my own rules of white wine with white meat only, justifying it with the two fish courses I started with, forgetting the beef that followed – enjoying a Sancerre which I savoured.  

Never one to shy away from dessert, despite the mammoth amount of food we’d consumed, we saved space.   In fact, I was delighted to be told there was a wait for the chocolate soufflĂ©.  It arrived towering over its ramekin (soufflĂ© goals) with cream and a tart raspberry ice cream.  Absolutely delicious. 

Several hours later, stomachs full and in a comatose state, we realised we were the last table left in the dining room.  The staff hadn’t rushed us, in fact encouraged us to stay as long as we liked and enjoy the surroundings: just in case we didn’t find ourselves back in Manhattan again. 

Despite being slightly anxious on arrival at the formality of the dining room, we both enjoyed the experience, were delighted with the quality of food, standard of service and the wonderful once in a lifetime trip to savour a little piece of Manhattan history…
Image Source: http://onthesetofnewyork.com/allabouteve.html

So much so, I’ve managed to find a copy of Jack and Charlie’s Iron Gate yearbook published in 1950. A memoir from the original owners, documenting the famous faces who'd walked through those iron gates  I’m not bothered if it’s battered, bruised and a little worse for wear when my copy arrives.  I just want my own little piece of Manhattan history to stay with me on the bookcase.  When I’m old and my years of travel are a distant memory, I’ll look back on this red leather book with great fondness, recalling a night of unexpected surprises and enjoyment. 


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Lunch at Bellagio Las Vegas for Under $100 for Two

Readers, yes, you read the title correctly.  It is possible to dine at Bellagio in Las Vegas for under $100 for two people.

Bellagio is without a doubt, the jewel of Vegas’ crown.  In the middle of the strip, escalators leading to the entrance surrounded by the biggest fountains I’ve ever seen  and crucially, a great place to play the 1c slot machines if you’re in town with no plans to gamble big time.

By chance I read a Vegas blog when I was looking at places to go for some fine dining in Vegas, as a break away from fried chicken and waffles (I won’t like to you all… they were amazing, but back to that later).

I’d read online that Lago, run by award winning Julian Serrano was a pretty amazing place to go if you are into tapas style dining and small plates… they have a gorgeous European style sun terrace and best of all, it’s in the middle of the front of the hotel, overlooking the famous fountains.

lunch at lago las vegas
Starting with cocktails


But shhhhh…. Here’s the bit not many people know.   Bellagio’s famous fountains start at 3pm.  The last sitting for lunch is at 2.30pm… looking for the best seats in the house for the dancing water whilst enjoying delicious food?  Lago could be the place for you.

The best bit – they do a 3 course prix fix lunch menu for $28 per person.  Not widely advertised, but its right there in the middle of the menu if you look closely.  The servers might not mention it, but if you’re keen for Bellagio on a budget – this might just get you there.

We pre-booked well in advance, as Bellagio is world famous. We went on a Monday, so possible quieter than a weekend in the height of summer, but by the time our mains appeared, we had the terrace to ourselves.  15 minutes later, the fountains came on and are nothing short of spectacular.  I could only describe it as feeling like we were part of a private showing as there was nobody else around us.  The water feature is so huge, that the tourists on the pavement opposite, may as well have been ants!

Aside from the spectacular setting, it’s a great place to escape the madness of the Vegas strip.  The terrace has a laid back vibe, cocktails and great beers are available and special mention should go to Antonio from Lisbon who was our server.  He never rushed us, left us in peace to enjoy the view and provide some recommendations of things we might enjoy off the menu.

I started with the antipasto plate – filled with Spanish cured meats, cheeses, olives and roasted peppers.   So much for small plates… I could have shared my plate with Mr WhatClaireBaked as it was HUGE.  But in the spirit of testing the food for the blog.  I wired through by myself.  Mr WhatClaireBaked went for the equally delicious seafood salad.
lunch at lago las vegas
Antipasto to start


After a bit of a breather, we got stuck into the Italian themed mains – this time a bit smaller, but still enough to feel satisfied after.  Note – we went wild and ordered rosemary potatoes and grilled asparagus on the side but even without these, the small plate sizes were filling.  I had two gigantic meatballs whilst the lasagne verde was served across the table (tried a little, it was also fab).
lunch at lago las vegas
Our mains


The only thing you don’t get to choose is the dessert, which is noted on the menu as “chefs choice”.  Provided you’ve no food fears and are open to try anything, you’ll probably not be disappointed.  We were served a delicious tiramisu with coffee ice cream and a lemon meringue slice with pastel coloured chocolate disks.  Presentation was beautiful.
lunch at lago las vegas
Spot the fountains in the background

After an amazing lunch, we took the time to enjoy our drinks in the sun overlooking the fountains and never once felt rushed.   A little piece of tranquility on the Vegas strip.  And if you get the chance, don’t rush out after lunch.  Enjoy the themed display around the lobby (Autumn was the feature during out visit), take a stroll around the shops and make sure to place your bets in their famous casino… for a small tip, waitresses will make sure you have a drink in hand as you place your bets.  

So there you have it, lunch for under $100 for two at the famous Bellagio resort. 

For reservations visit their website
or to find out more about Bellagio, check out their Facebook page.