This gem at the landmark Hotel des Artistes is a godsend for those after a splendid multi-course- or wine-pairing menu on the Upper West Side. As one reviewer wrote, it’s a “hit with a particular subset of Manhattan society: the one that derives fame from power rather than the other way around.“
Cavorting above patrons at the door and dinner tables are murals of nude female figures with animals and foliage — characteristic motif paintings of the 1920s — for which the artist, Howard Chandler Christy was noted. The café was built in 1917 for residents in the Hotel to make up for the lack of kitchen facilities in the apartments. Habitué artists were such notables as Marcel Duchamp, Noel Coward, Fanny Hurst, Norman Rockwell, Isadora Duncan and Valentino. The owner, George Lang, former restauranteur, food and travel writer, critic and journalist closed the doors to the famous Café des Artistes in 2009. Having worn years of grime, the nymphs Fantasy Scenes with Naked Beauties were restored by MoMA two years later. They’re bright and cheerful now. Wood paneling has been added to the rooms and the full service bar has been moved to the back. Cozy tables are opposite, perfect for a tête-à-tête or a power lunch/dinner. Books are stacked in the bar and adorn niches in the restrooms.
I’d dined at the Café in the late 1990s and was hesitant to return. The restaurant had retained its charm, but the food was disappointing. When I learned that Gianfranco Sorrentino, well-known restauranteur and owner of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo in Italian) opened the restaurant, I jumped at the chance to visit.
Like Il Gattopardo on the East side The Leopard at des Artistes at One West 67th Street is known for the use of authentic ingredients in keeping with the mid 19th century “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” gastronomy, where food and gourmet products featured prominently. The people and cultures that passed through southern Italy – the regions of Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Apulia, Sardinia and Sicily – left a legacy that shaped a cuisine that married olive oil and fresh ingredients to the sea.
My colleague and I started with Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Treviso. It doesn’t hail from the south but near Veneto, on the hillside known as Valdobbiadene, the home of the best Prosecco in Italy. It’s refreshing fizz has the aroma of the hills where the grapes are grown. We sipped the delicious sparkling wine, while dipping morsels of crusty bread delivered from Kate’s Bakery (the breadsticks are made in house), into the slightly piquant, liquid gold, an extra virgin Valentini Ambrogio D.O.P. olive oil.
Little grilled chickpea squares with rosemary followed, and a hint of garlic and spices blended subtly into the smooth mixture.
The salad, a hearty fusion of sweet and aromatic roasted beets, cabbage, Cipollini (red) onions, Tuscan olives, and octopus, was laced with olive oil and lemon juice.
The savory combination of flavors in a ragout of mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops and cherry tomatoes tossed with sage, garlic and bay leaf on thin Busiate Trapanesi was tantalizingly flavorful. Henry Nekrasov, the charming maître d’ paired the pasta with a Ciavolich Colline Pescaresi Pecorino, a new, dry, uncomplicated Abruzzese white wine that had a nose of mineral and licorice.
Executive Chef Vito Gnazzo at Il Gattopardo and at The Leonard at des Artistes prepared the signature dish, Il Gattopardo paccheri pasta, a flat, broad pasta with shredded rib pork and sweet onion, basil, oregano and a touch of pepperoncini, a typical Neapolitan dish that was hearty and satisfying.
Henry paired this pasta with a dry, zesty, light bodied Bachart Klaus Lentsch. The fruity notes of the red wine underscored the big flavor of the meat and pasta.
A departure from the tasting menu was the orecchiette with broccoli rabe with certa anchovy sauce. I’d seen a woman order the dish and asked for a tasting. The tender little shells cradled the red sauce and tangy broccoli rabe, and the anchovies and grated parmesan cheese were just salty enough to enhance the flavors.
I didn’t think anything could top what we had had, however, the dover sole, deboned, halved and served by Henry with ease was paired with a 2013 Marramiero Altare, an intense, creamy and, for a white wine, oaky. It was the kind of complex wine that required thought rather than a visceral response to the taste. It might not be a wine for every palate, but it complimented the dense, tasty fish.
“A Regional Taste of The Leopard” menu is served seven nights a week and costs $30. There’s also a BYOB Italian Sunday Supper, which features the menu (like a bowl of pasta or a dish from the seasonal menu) and your own bottle or a Brunch at The Leopard at des Artistes (Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30 to 3pm), which serves homemade muffins, scones Danishes, croissants and coffee cakes with butter and homemade jam ($15) or a more filling spaghetti “alla carbonara” style with guanciale (a form of salami), egg, cheese and pepper ($20).
Whatever the choice, the theme of the former Café des Artistes remains. The Leopard at des Artistes is for the movers and shakers who enjoy dining in a restaurant devoid of noise and fast food.
The Leopard at des Artistes is open for dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5 pm to 11 pm. Sunday Dinner until 10 pm. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 to 3 pm. (212) 787-8767, theleopardnyc.com.