With Downton Abbey coming to the States this season, prepare to see the American version of the opulent post-Edwardian era formal meal. Wanting to recreate the same style of formal feasting at Muse in Newport, Rhode Island, Chef Jonathan Cartwright has built a historically accurate Vanderbilt-style multicourse dinner menu—complete with the buttoned-up service. Here, Cartwright tells how he did it.
Imagine coming home on a Friday night to discover that your partner has organized an elaborate party for Saturday, when your guests will go walking or shooting in the afternoon, then eat 15 courses for dinner. Back in the days of the Vanderbilts, wives would organize extravagant evenings for the weekend when their husbands came home from hunting, and they would stay up partying till 2 or 3 in the morning.
We did imagine it after the restaurant manager of Muse saw an old menu at The Breakers mansion that happened to be a Vanderbilt family meal from 1912. By taking the Old-World menu and pairing it with vintage French wines and “Russian service,” we created an event to celebrate our first year of business.
The Russian service of that time required dexterity of the guests, who served themselves each course from a butler’s tray
offered by the waiters.
Some of the biggest challenges in recreating the historic menu for the modern palate included finding the products, teaching the staff about somewhat forgotten cooking techniques and finding guests with open minds to try these old-school dishes.
We served cream of mushroom and lobster broth, oysters with mignonette sauce and a main course of turkey supreme with roasted potatoes or sea bass with hollandaise and grilled asparagus. My favorite was the roast partridge.
The vintage menu is on offer at Muse whenever someone wants to order it, though we ask for two weeks’ notice and
a minimum of six people to enjoy the full menu.
Wine-wise, in the Vanderbilt era, they would have served mainly French wines—Bordeaux or Burgundy—along with some fortified wines like Port and Madeira. This was before great New World wines had been discovered. We pair white Bordeaux with some of the seafood items, a big red Bordeaux with the partridge and Chablis with the lobster dish.
These days, we have better access to wonderful wines from all around the world. The style of service, however, is similar. Opening a bottle of red and decanting it to breathe before service, the choice of an appropriate glass, the value of decanting older bottles and keeping the sediment out of the glasses are all practices preserved from that time.
It’s probably only at Buckingham Palace or the White House where you’ll find food and service like that anymore, though for similar luxury, guests can come to our restaurant to have the same attentive service and high quality food. Ultimately, dining like a Vanderbilt nods to an amazing, forgotten era—a way of treating yourself.
—As told to Alexis Korman