Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dining with Pierpont Morgan and the Dutch Masters: Another hectic week concludes and I look for a few hours of sanctuary in one of New York’s fine museums. I turn the corner onto Madison Avenue and East 36th Street and step into old New York a century ago. There, the Morgan Library & Museum sits in regal splendor on a quiet tree-lined street.

A storm is stirring as I enter the glass atrium on Madison Avenue that connects several historic buildings on the block between 36th and 37th Street. Between 1902 and 1906 the financier Pierpont Morgan commissioned the architect Charles F. McKim to build a Renaissance-style library adjacent to his Murray Hill townhouse to hold his extensive collection of books, manuscripts, letters, artwork and artifacts. It is now a jewel box of a museum. I first discovered The Morgan more than 20 years ago when I visited the charming exhibit of Sir John Tenniel drawings titled, Lewis Carroll and Alice. Tonight, the program is Celebrating Rembrandt: Etchings from the Morgan in honor of the artist’s 400th birthday. There is also, From Rembrandt to van Gogh: Three Centuries of Dutch Drawings.

I slip down a marble hallway to a quiet gallery, lined with 50 Rembrandt etchings purchased by Morgan exactly 100 years ago. There is honey-colored parchment matted and hung in gilded frames – etchings that depict human wisdom and frailty, nature’s wrath, and the fury of God. Rembrandt worked in minute detail, sometimes on surface area the size of postage stamps, to render country scenes, portraits and Biblical epics.

The artist's precision hatch marks and wiry squiggles weave darkness and light into deep emotional intensity. I notice an older man chuckling near a tiny etching. It is about two inches square, titled The Monk in the Cornfield, and depicts a man of the cloth ravishing a milkmaid. On the other side of the room is From Rembrandt to van Gogh: Three Centuries of Dutch Drawings, a collection from the 17th through the 19th century with a lovely selection of drawings depicting nobility and pastoral scenes.

One can work up an appetite viewing the great masters, so I secure a table at the Morgan Dining Room. Executive Chef Charlene Shade offers a menu inspired by early 20th century New York City cuisine. I take a seat in what is, in fact, the original private dining room of the Morgan family and order several dishes. It is a small and somewhat understated cream-colored space with Grecian columns lining the glass entry way.

I start with a glass of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, 2005 which has a deeply tart grapefruit finish. My appetizer is English Pea and Lobster Soup. The puree is light and frothy, a glistening sea foam green, and it tastes as though the peas were just snapped from the shell. Several thick chunks of lobster are afloat at the center of the potage. On the side is a square loaf of dense, multi-grain bread sprinkled with oats.

The staff is attentive, and my server decides I have been waiting too long and brings me a second, complimentary glass of the Sauvignon Blanc. Shortly thereafter, I am presented with a Fricassee of Organic Chicken with Spring Vegetables and Wild Mushrooms. The dish looks as lively and colorful as a Dutch still life. It is goodness and simplicity – a summertime serenade from the farm and the vegetable garden. Juicy morsels of chicken are perched high on the plate atop a wild nest of pencil thin asparagus, perfect peas, deep green lima beans and earthy-scented miniature mushrooms dressed in a luscious light cream sauce. Tarragon, tinged with purple is sprinkled about.

The meal concludes with a plate inspired by the exhibition From Rembrandt to van Gogh: Dutch Drawings from the Morgan. A white, ceramic platter offers a selection of artisanal Dutch Cheeses: Gouda Robusto, Prima Donna and Roomano with Walnut Raisin Bread, Flatbread and Plum Jam. The Dutch cheese is crumbly, with a yeasty tang that complements the rich plum jam. I top it off with a Bonny Doon, Muscat Vin de Glacière, California, 2004 that tastes like the nectar of grapes just plucked from the vine.

Indeed, this Friday night getaway has been a work of art. I pay the bill and make a brief visit to Mr. Morgan’s crimson study and his library complete with secret doors and passage ways. By 8:30 p.m., I step out again onto Madison Avenue and slide into the crush of humanity heading west on 34th Street.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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