9:35 am Mar. 14, 20123
Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.
With the long anticipated return of "Mad Men" scheduled for later this month (season five premieres March 25), America’s collective obsession with all things mid-century New York City is back in full martini-slinging force. What better time, then, to celebrate steak Diane—a dish so quintessentially retro-glamorous, it might as well be called steak Don Draper.
The dish starts with a tender cut of steak pounded thin and briefly pan-fried in butter. It then gets topped with a rich sauce of more butter, shallots, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, stock, a splash of cognac, and a hearty dose of black pepper. The finished product isn’t much to look at—brown meat in an equally brown sauce with a sprinkle of chives thrown in as a half-hearted attempt at greenery. But the intoxicating booze-and-beef perfume emanating from the pan more than makes up for drab appearances.
Steak Diane epitomized luxury and continental glamour for post-World War II diners. Only a few years before, during wartime, dairy and meat had been rationed across America—including in New York City. According to a New York Herald Tribune article from 1943, “The restaurants here largely have adopted the policy of setting Tuesday and Friday apart as meatless days.” But in the postwar boom years, meat and butter were suddenly available in seemingly endless supply, and could share space on one glorious plate. The addition of a fancy French spirit only added to the dish’s allure.
The exact origins of steak Diane are unfortunately as hazy as the cigarette-clouded restaurants that served the dish. It is not a classical French recipe, though its preparation is at least a cousin to the French steak au poivre (steak coated in cracked peppercorns and often accompanied by a cognac and butter sauce). Auguste Escoffier’s 1907 book, Le Guide Culinaire, included a recipe for Sauce Diana, named for the Greek huntress Diana. But according to Betty Harper Fussell’s book, Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, it was typically “associated with game like venison”—and not steak. Furthermore, Escoffier’s version was enhanced with truffles, and steak Diane’s sauce is not.
Whatever the dish’s original inspiration, its American iteration most likely developed in one of New York City’s Francophile kitchens. Beniamino Schiavon, a chef better known as “Nino of the Drake,” claimed to have introduced it to New York City via the Drake Hotel’s restaurant. Whether it was Nino, or another ambitious chef de cuisine, for decades steak Diane was a menu staple at posh hotels like the Sherry-Netherland and restaurants like the Colony, the 21 Club, and Le Pavillon.
During its heyday, Steak Diane was not exclusively a New York dish. It could (and in rare cases still can) be found in upscale restaurants across the country and abroad. In his book, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, Nigel Slater writes about his attempt to woo a “doe-eyed waitress” by taking her out for steak Diane at a restaurant called Angelique’s in London. “I could have made it myself … but it wouldn’t have been the same: the chichi splendor of Angelique’s seemed an essential seasoning.” And yet, nowhere was steak Diane more at home than in New York City—a metropolis overflowing with chichi splendor.
Like fettuccine Alfredo and bananas Foster, steak Diane was regularly prepared tableside by a table captain—a welcome relief to the overworked chef. “Each captain did things a little differently and claimed to have the secret recipe,” said Arno Schmidt, the former executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria and author of the forthcoming book Peeking Behind the Wallpaper, which offers an insider’s perspective on the country’s most famous kitchens. Cooked over a portable burner wheeled on a cart between tables, the captain would add a reckless splash of brandy to the hot pan and ignite the dish in a flamboyant display of pyrotechnics. Along with a vodka gimlet, a chilled shrimp cocktail, and the companionship of a sultry blonde or a dashing gentleman, it is difficult to imagine a more stylish night on the town.
Of course, the definition of decadence is always changing. As New Yorkers joined the rest of the country in embracing healthier fare (and meanwhile demonizing the saturated fats found in butter and beef), steak Diane’s star began to fade. Meanwhile, as Chef Schmidt told me, flambéing food tableside became increasingly less practical for New York restaurants. “As rents climbed and restaurants began to squeeze in as many tables as possible to increase their covers, there was no more room to push carts around,” he said. Today’s fire-code mandated sprinkler systems would also create the risk of drenching customers if a flame went momentarily wayward.
And so, Schmidt said, “The steak Diane died a peaceful death.” In 1979, The New York Times’ 60-Minute Gourmet columnist Pierre Franey offered his recipe for the dish, which he called “the specialty of the house—20 years ago and more.” Two years later Florence Fabricant, writing for the same paper, deemed the steak Diane “dated.”
For years, the 21 Club was the last holdout.
“Except when the restaurant is exceedingly busy, it is still prepared tableside by one of the captains, some of whom have been working the floor for more than forty-five years,” writes Arthur Schwartz in New York City Food. A recent call to the restaurant revealed that the dish is no longer included on the menu, but they continue to make it on request. Meanwhile in 2008, the then-newly-opened Greenwich Village restaurant Commerce began to offer a classic steak Diane (prepared in the kitchen, not at the table) in a nod to old New York. Commerce executive chef and co-owner Harold Moore learned the dish as a teenager in the early 1990s, when he apprenticed with a veteran French chef in New Jersey—and it stuck with him. “It is not a sexy dish by today’s standards, you can’t make it look modern,” he said. “But the taste is where it’s at.”
It is also a relatively straightforward dish to make at home, though considering the rich ingredients and requisite glug of booze, not necessarily an ideal everyday dinner. Save steak Diane for a special evening in—a romantic meal or an elegant dinner party. Or fry up a couple and tuck into a luxurious TV dinner while toasting to your old friends Peggy, Betty, and Don.
I adapted this recipe from the one found in Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food. Note: because this dish comes together quite fast, I recommend having all ingredients chopped and measured out before starting to cook.
1 12- to 16-ounce flat iron steak
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 tablespoons finely minced shallot (1-2 shallots)
3 tablespoons Cognac
2/3 cup beef or chicken broth, divided
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
chopped fresh chives for garnish
1. Trim the steak of excess fat and cut it in half horizontally creating two 6- to 8-ounce steaks. Gently pound the steaks to flatten them to 1/4-inch thickness. Season them on both sides with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of butter and let melt. Once butter is bubbling, add seasoned steaks and cook on each side for 1 minute. Remove steaks from pan and set aside on a plate.
3. Adjust heat to low and add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and shallots. Sauté until just translucent, about 1 minute.
4. Increase heat to high. Add Cognac and let cook for 30 seconds. Then add 1/3 cup broth and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits in the pan. Stir in mustard and Worcestershire sauce and cook, stirring regularly, until liquid is reduced to a syrup, 1-2 minutes.
5. Add remaining 1/3 cup of broth and continue to boil until sauce thickens, 2-3 minutes more. Turn heat to medium-low and season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
6. Place the reserved steaks and their juices into the simmering sauce, turning them a few times to coat and cook to desired doneness, while the sauce reduces a bit further. Divide steaks onto two plates, top with sauce and sprinkle with chives.
Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods of New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com