Edna Lewis was perhaps New York City’s greatest Black chef of the last century, rivaled only by Patrick Clark. Among many other accomplishments, she was the chef at Gage & Tollner from 1988 to 1992, beginning there at the age of 72, and filling the seafood-rich menu with family recipes from her childhood in Freetown, Virginia.
When it was announced that Gage & Tollner was being reopened by chefs and partners Sohui Kim, Ben Schneider, and St. John Frizell, I decided to go and search for the ghost of Edna Lewis (she died in 2006). I didn’t have to look far. There at the greeter’s podium was a pile of free postcards showing a smiling Lewis holding a pheasant, standing in front of the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1992.
Though her roots were in the South (Lewis was a grandchild of emancipated slaves), she co-owned and operated Café Nicholson, a French restaurant in a stylish brownstone on East 52nd Street that opened in 1949, during the heyday of the city’s love affair with French cooking. Her many admirers included other Southern expats like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee, as well as Salvador Dalí, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlon Brando, and Gloria Vanderbilt. She left her job there in early 1953, but remained a business partner for decades after.
Lewis subsequently worked many jobs: as a pheasant farmer in New Jersey, and as a chef at restaurants in other states. In 1972, she published the The Edna Lewis Cookbook, followed by A Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, which concentrated on recipes from her childhood. In 1988 she was offered, and accepted, the job of chef at Gage & Tollner, which opened in 1879 but had been on the skids for years. Once installed, she hired many women as her assistant chefs, unusual at that time.
She led G&T’s kitchen for over four years, during which time her menu introduced many Southern dishes using local ingredients procured at the Union Square Greenmarket and Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market. An early bill of fare lists crabcakes Freetown, catfish stew, whole flounder en papillote (wrapped in parchment), and Smithfield ham with corn pudding. Her she-crab soup became legendary.
During Lewis’s tenure, the reputation of the restaurant soared and the place was mobbed — though then, as now, it was difficult to drag Manhattanites to a fine dining establishment in Brooklyn. Of her, Bryan Miller said in a New York Times review, “Mrs. Lewis cooks with full-throttle gusto,” then goes on with Northern condescension to say, “Subtlety…is not in the Southern vocabulary.”
Much of the Victorian charm of the landmarked interior has now been fully restored (it had been a TGI Friday’s, an Arby’s and a jewelry store in the interim). Tables and bentwood chairs stand along and opposite a marble bar, behind which a profusion of glittering bottles are on display. The wallpaper features gilded leaves and flowers on a deep brown background, darkening the dining room. Antique brass chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, and massive mirrors with arched tops add to the feeling of spaciousness in what is basically a deep and narrow room.
Seated with a mint julep ($18), which was powerful, fragrant of mint, and domed with crushed ice, I scanned the menu. There were plenty of recipes that recalled Lewis’s tenure at G&T, in addition to a leche de tigre ceviche; a section of simply cooked steaks and chops, some offered by the ounce; retro appetizer classics like devils on horseback and a wedge salad with blue cheese; and some decidedly French entrees mixed with more modern notions like a cauliflower steak.
I beelined for the dishes that might have been inspired by Edna Lewis recipes. Naturally, I had no way of knowing the extent to which they were, other than my own experience eating her food as prepared and described by others, so I judged the current menu on its own merits (and have linked to original Lewis recipes where possible).
Parker House rolls came four to an order in a nifty cast-iron pan on a cutting board flanked by a small crock of whipped butter. They were warm and delicious, though less sweet and more salty than other examples I’ve tried lately.
Soon, the she-crab soup ($19) — so named because it’s often made with roe — made its dramatic entrance, a small bowl of yellow soup sprinkled with finely minced green herbs. A pitcher of dry sherry sat on the side, to be poured into the bowl. The flavor was spectacular, buttery and creamy, though with perhaps fewer shreds of crab than one might have wished. Still, a very memorable soup, and one I’d readily reorder.
Next came a single small crab cake ($28) cushioned with lemon aioli, with blanched baby spinach on the side topped with a very soft egg in the molecular gastronomy style. (Lewis had served the crab cake with red rice and a conventional coleslaw.) The appetizer was altogether a great plate of food, with the soft egg and spinach being highlights of their own, though it’s very hard to imagine Lewis cooking an egg this way. But in its purity and simplicity — almost no breading or filler — the crab cake recalled her approach magnificently.
For an entree, I ordered the fried chicken ($27). It came in a basket with small, rotund hush puppies and a kale kimchi slaw dotted with pickled shallots that was wonderful, just not very Lewis. The chicken had certainly benefitted from a buttermilk marinade, making it softer, but blackening the exposed, unbreaded skin in patches. But the skin was crisp, and the flesh juicy. Though I prefer a simple dusting of flour in the Carolina fashion, the chicken was entirely consistent with Lewis’s approach, especially in the cookbook The Gift of Southern Cooking she did with Scott Peacock, a young gay chef that was a constant companion in her final years.
Lewis was famous for her coconut layer cake ($14), but the cake that arrived at the end of my meal was an icebox cake, cool and smooth on the tongue, via pastry chef Caroline Schiff, with a garnish of whipped cream embedded with crunchies and minced fruits. It was unspeakably rich and extremely tasty, but decidedly more in the vein of what you’d find at Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar than a recipe by Lewis. Still, taken in totality, the influence of one of America’s greatest and most influential chefs lingers on at Gage & Tollner. Cost of my meal, including tax and tip: $160.