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For a Celebratory Meal: "The Darby"

What do you give someone that has everything? When you want to celebrate a special birthday and create a remarkable memory? When you are me you rack your brain to think of the perfect outing and the perfect place that will show the person just how much you care and also just how wonderful an experience “a simple dinner” out can be.

Then finally an idea pops into your head and it is a stroke of genius. How you present it is even more creative. When you finally get to see the reaction of your loved one you think you have hit the ceiling. But the fun had only just begun. Especially since me and my brother we were going out to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday.

Let me preface the rest of the blog by saying this:
The Darby in New York City is the kind of restaurant you need to go to at least once when you visit or at least five times over the course of your life if you are a resident. It is the kind of place my soul craves and never wants to leave.

It is the kind of place where even if you are coming of three-week migraine episode, like I am, it is a place worthy of rallying all your strength to go out because once you are there you are transformed. The moment I walked in I knew I never wanted to leave. (P.S. If you are a migraine sufferer it is cool and dark inside so it is an ideal spot no matter what). 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who is a fellow lover of the Food Network that I adore Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and anything she does. As far as I am concerned she can do no wrong. Now I just have more proof of how smart I am. My first stroke of genius came last year when I went to Butter, where she is executive chef ( I don’t even dare read that blog right now for fear of upsetting myself by reliving foods I cannot have now. It is bad enough I still have daily visions of “The Darby” in my head.

“The Darby” is on a great block, in a great neighborhood in Manhattan. It borders on the meatpacking district and there are so many great stores, bars, clubs, and yes restaurants there. In fact one of my all time favorites is just down the block, “Scarpetta” ( Another drool fest for sure when you read that blog, I guarantee it. The pictures alone are worth a thousand excited utterances from your stomach.

Let me set the scene for you when you arrive at “The Darby”. It is in the middle of a random block full of the little corner stores and random gift shops New York City is famous for, but when you walk up to the restaurant you have to stop and double check that you are at the right location. From the outside there are dark oak like shades that cover big windows that never open, allowing a secretive inside destination that is all the more alluring. But when you look up the name it appears in lights almost like it is announcing a head lining tour.  It was the perfect set-up for the show stopping night that awaited us.

As we walked inside, the friendly staff greeted us as they showed us to the bar while we eagerly waited to be seated at our table. The restaurant was just opening and we were among only a handful of people besides the staff to be inside. It was like being in on a huge secret. I was so giddy I was having trouble controlling my energy that was bursting from inside.

The bar itself was impressive. I immediately noticed the immaculately placed fruit and vegetable spreads in their need jars all along the bar. The smell of the fresh mint and berries was so enticing I longed to reach out and grab it. I did the next best thing and took a picture. The drink list was fantastic and I even liked the glasses they chose for a martini. Usually there are no edges on a martini glass and the drink inevitable spills some on you or on the bar. But here the glass had a small lip. It was perfection. Now I could not partake because of my migraine medication, but it was still fun to admire. I could already tell how deep the level of detail would be here and how amazing of an experience I was in for.

Within a few moments of ordering our beverages we were quickly escorted to our table within an idyllic location in proximity to the band and D.J. We were also towards the back of the restaurant so we got to see everything that went on and take it all in. It was all so intoxicating. Once the bread came I knew that unlike Dorothy and Toto I did not want to go home again.

For the first time in my life I didn’t get through the entire breadbasket before devouring my appetizer. That is not to say it wasn’t gone a few minutes after that. But I was so taken with what I had ordered it was like I actually blacked out and left my body for a moment- hence the remnants of the bread. I know people use the word “literally” too often and that’s a shame because it’s the only word that accurately describes my experience and love affair with my crab cakes. They were LITERALLY the best things I have ever eaten. Not just as an appetizer either. I am talking in my life. Not one day as gone by since that I have not thought about them or talked about them. I daydream about them the way you would a great love that has gotten away. I fear I will soon be doodling pictures of them at work in meetings. You know a giant heart with something inside along the lines of “The Queen hearts The Darby Crab Cakes”.

When we ordered the jump crap cakes with tarter sauce, it was sort of an after thought. I like crab cakes and just thought I would give them a go. I wasn’t even particularly in the mood for them. Once them arrived them seemed smaller and looked more like fried green tomatoes than anything else.

Once I grabbed a crab cake, cut into it, and took a bite. Then that’s when I left my body. I didn’t hear a word my brother said for about a minute. I didn’t even know what to say to him before he tried one, except that I was tempted to tell them they were awful so I could eat they all by myself even though we were two of every course and sharing. Normally that strategy is genius so you can taste more dishes but here I was sweating with panic. But I behaved and shared and now we are both addicts. Crab cake eating addicts.

So I suppose you are wondering what the crab cakes were like? Well they  were so moist and fresh tasting. Besides tasting crab there were many other ingredients that I couldn’t pinpoint and the tarter sauce on the side tasted more like a dressing. I began using that dressing as dipping sauce for the aforementioned bread when I returned to it.

You wouldn’t suspect it from the last few paragraphs but we did order a second appetizer. It was the Caesar salad. I thought it would be a nice compliment to the cakes. When it was presented to us all I could do is laugh. I am not sure this picture does it justice but in person the size is just mind-blowing. It is a whole head of Roman lettuce that is then filled with all of the fillings of this kind of salad. At first we just thought ok we will eat what we can. It was delicious, no surprise there. Little by little we tore into. As it was only lettuce and lightly drizzled it went down easily.

After we were done it was nice to have some time to listen to the music and take a breather. The house band is really amazing. Every Friday and Saturday you pay an automatic $15 per person to hear them and from what I hear there are different kinds of music every time. When we went it reminded me of a great New Orleans Jazz band infused with some Rhythm and Blues. The singer was amazing. After a song or two when they needed a break, the D.J. would take over playing hits from every genre and year. There was something for anyone and everyone. Just by looking around, as it was getting more crowded by the second, there was a general vibe of delight.

Next came our entrees. We ordered the oven roasted striped sea bass and black truffle gnocchi. I have never had anything with black truffle but it sounded exotic. I wanted to taste the bass because I didn’t want to go with something generic like chicken, although I am sure that was good. I wanted to try something outside my comfort zone.

The sea bass was wonderful. I expected it to be thinner and have a more fish like taste. To me, it had a more steak like quality. It was had a great garlic flavor and potatoes that were under stacked under it so when you cut a piece you got the perfect bite of both.

As for the gnocchi it was so rich. The truffle sauce was so rich and perhaps too much was placed on the dish for my taste. If it were the only thing I was eating I don’t think I would have been happy. I was eating the homemade gnocchi out of the sauce and then eating some bass. Don’t get me wrong I loved this pasta and the flavor I just couldn’t eat too much of it, it was so heavy, plus I needed room for dessert. Only a rookie would go to a place like this and leave without finishing all courses.

When it comes to dessert, “The Darby” has a cake of the day. That’s right as with most restaurants they too have a soup of the day, but they didn’t stop there. They have a cake of the day. How brilliant is that!! The night we were there it was red velvet. Even better. We ordered one of those and a slice of frozen Meyer lemon pie that was served for a limited time. We also got coffee and jasmine pearl tea.

The after dinner beverages were served with such precision and care. I even got my own little teapot! It is the little things that make me happy. Ok big things too but I digress.

The red velvet cake was tasty, not too heavy as many kinds can be, but savory. As for the lemon pie I was a little disappointed. I should have picked a fresh dessert, but it was still pretty tasty. Being that it was frozen it was kind of melting as I was eating and had a meringue that was too bitter for me. If I had to do it again I would go for their classic sundae. That was my second choice but my counterpart would always have to get the cake of the day so that I could try that as well. Cake of the day- how has someone not done that sooner?! Oh Chef Alex! See what I am saying?!

As we were finishing up the table next to us was just settling in. The woman sitting next to me asked me to recommend some dishes. So I told her what we got and of course about the crab cakes. We were still sitting there when they came. I wanted to point out that she should give me one as a fee for doing such a good job helping her, but I resisted. Her party was inhaling them pretty fast, but who can blame them.

Overall it was a fantastic evening and I will be going back to try out many different dishes, as the season’s changes, as will the Chef’s ideas. I can’t wait to be further surprised and amazed. The thought of it makes me want to go every six months on the dot.

This was an amazing celebratory meal but certainly not our first. It was only a few short years ago we sat in Paris at the Moulin Rouge drinking Champagne celebrating my brother’s college graduation. It is nice to know that we are equally comfortable in both locations.

Last week we went to see Ann on Broadway and met the incomparable Holland Taylor.

Some days, if you are lucky, the places you go will measure up to the company you keep.

But today here I sit still craving those damn crab cakes.

For Your Celebratory Meal:

For Butter:

For Chef Guarnaschelli’s New Cookbook:


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