Once upon a time there was a legendary restaurant called Café des Artistes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The place was housed in the storied Hotel des Artistes at Central Park, built in 1917 as a residence for artists. Illustrator Howard Christy Chandler painted the walls with larger-than-life murals of naked nymphs and satyrs frolicking about.
In 1975 it passed into the hands of George Lang, a Hungarian-born violinist who was a child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, refugee, world traveler, intellectual, raconteur, entrepreneur, gastronome, cookbook author, bon vivant and friend of the New York famous. His clientele was a new generation of “artistes” and glitterati, from world-renowned performers who came by after their gigs at nearby Lincoln Center to Hollywood stars to brightly shining culinary luminaries of the day.
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The establishment’s allure continued, despite the darkening murals and, sometimes, less-than-stellar food. But the menu wasn’t the point. One went there the way one visits shrines of one kind or another, no matter the weather. It was a place, as one regular, New York Arts editor and publisher Michael Miller put it, to “observe celebrities in the wild.” Then in 2009, when George and Jenifer Lang decided to close it, the place went dark.
Today, the restaurant at 1 West 67 St. glows again, transformed into The Leopard des Artistes, and the dazzling murals and delectable food sparkle. The cavorting nudes are still there, restored to their original blush since the new owners, restaurateurs Gianfranco Sorrentino and his wife, Paula Bolla Sorrentino of Il Gattopardo and Mozzarella e Vino, brought art restorers in to do a serious cleaning. But an interior face-lift is hardly the most remarkable thing about the transformation. Gone is the continental-style bistro that Jenifer Lang once likened to an English Ordinary, meaning a cozy and informal eatery serving familiar food. Where once the reputation of the house was built upon its rarified New York color and romance, now it rests upon its world-class, quintessentially Italian menu.
For one having frequented Café des Artistes in the 1980s when the Langs were at the helm, eating at the revived Leopard at des Artistes recently was to experience a kind of vertigo. While the patina of the old place is still intact, the menu consists of dizzyingly sumptuous Italian cooking. It’s no wonder. The Sorrentinos recently hired Michele Brogioni, an Umbrian-born, Italian-trained chef with 20 years’ experience who won a Michelin star during his stint at the Relais & Chateaux Il Falconiere in Cortona, arguably one of the best restaurants in Tuscany. He brings a classical if polished Italian style to the menu. “The food is always seasonal,” Brogioni said. “It’s really a trip around Italy from north to south.”
Of course, any good chef will rely on fresh local ingredients at the height of their season, and Brogioni is no exception — produce from nearby farms and other locally sourced ingredients were among the raw materials. It’s what to do with those ingredients, and practicing restraint in the process that makes a great chef.
Genius and magic
If the genius of true Italian cooking overall is the propensity to use raw ingredients lavishly hand-in-hand with an understanding of the art of leaving well enough alone, Brogioni is a master. Our dinner included bufala ricotta-stuffed baked squash flowers presented on a tomato couli; bucatini with fresh sardines typical of Sicily; and tortellini filled with an aromatic mixture of veal, beef and pork topped with butter and mascarpone, set on a tomato reduction. Lamb loin chops over pureed and fried baby artichokes were so delicious they are hard to forget, as is the titillating selection of wines we sampled from the restaurant’s extensive offerings. If that wasn’t enough, a 2006 Sagrantino passito from Montefalco was thrown in — a delicious dessert wine from Brogioni’s native region that I bring back from Umbria whenever I go there because it is so hard to find here.
The goodness and artistry of the food all made for magic, combined with the fetching nudes prancing over our heads and the meticulous attention of expert sommelier Alessandro Giardiello and the wait staff. There are many superb restaurants in New York City, but this one casts a spell.
Main photo: Wood nymphs painted by American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy glow through the windows at the legendary former Café des Artistes, built in 1917, and now The Leopard at des Artistes. Copyright 2015, Nathan Hoyt/Forktales