Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 42 - Pagani's (Great Portland Street)

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“IF you will dine with me on Sunday night I will give you dinner in the most interesting private dining-room that any restaurant in London can show,” I said to little Mrs. Tota.
“She’ll do nothing of the sort,” said George, her husband, from behind his paper.
“George !“ said little Mrs. Tota, and there was a mixture of astonishment, query, and reproof in the way she spoke her husband’s name.
George laid down his newspaper. “Since you took her to dine in that private room at Kettner’s nothing has been good enough for her. She would like a maitre d’hotel and a head waiter dancing round her at every meal, and she can’t go out of the front door without looking round to see if there is a manager there to bow her out.”
“You are perfectly horrid, George,” said little Mrs. Tota with some asperity. “You won’t take me out yourself, and when other people are kind enough to offer to do so you are as cross and sarcastic as you can be.”
   [-298-] George looked at me with the corners of his mouth drawn up by a suppressed smile, and his left eyebrow twitched as if he felt inclined to wink. I poured oil on the troubled waters. If Mrs. Tota, with her husband’s permission, would dine with me at Pagani’s on Sunday we would dine in the public dining-room on the first floor, and look afterwards at the drawings and signa­tures in the celebrated little room on the second floor.
“It is real good of you to take the wife out,” said George, as he saw me off the premises. “I hate going out at night, as you know, but she enjoys it all thoroughly. She chattered about that last dinner for a good month.”
On the Saturday I went to Pagani’s, secured a table for the next evening in the room on the first floor, a very pretty dining-room with soft blue curtains to the windows, a blue paper on the walls, shaded electric lights, and a little bow- window at the back, which makes the snuggest of nooks. Then M. Giuseppe Pagani, one of the two proprietors, having appeared, we talked over the important matter of the menu. The difficulty that vexed our minds was whether filets de sole Pagani or turbot à la Pellegrini would best suit a lady’s appetite. Finally the sole won the day. I hesitated a moment over the Bortsch soup, for it has become almost as much a standing dish as croûte au pot in most restaurants ; but Bortsch is the customary Sunday soup at Pagani’s, so it had to be included in the menu.
[-299-] This was our list completed

Hors-d’oeuvre variés.
Potage Bortsch.
Filets de sole Pagani.
Tournedos aux truffés.
Haricots verts sautés. Pommes croquettes.
Perdreau Voisin. Salade.
Soufflé au curaçoa.

    At eight o’clock on Sunday I was waiting for Mrs. Tota in the arched entrance which is one of the distinctive features of the modern Pagani’s. Glazed grey tiles front the whole of the ground floor, the rest of the building being red brick, and the deep entrance arches are supported by squat little blue pillars. The curve of the arches are set with rows of electric light, which give the little restaurant the appearance of having been illuminated for a fete every night.
“Now mind, I want to see everything, and be told who everybody is,” said Mrs. Tota as she got out of the cab, and I promised to do my best to carry out her wishes, and suggested that we should peep into the room on the ground floor before we went upstairs.
The long room, with its golden paper, its mirrors painted with flowers and trellis-work, its little counter piled with fruit, was crowded with diners, not one of the many little tables being vacant. A great hum of talk fell on our ears, and many of the gentlemen at the tables were gesticulating as only foreigners can. I told Mrs. Tota that at least half the guests were musicians or singers, and immediately she was all attention.
[-300-] One gentleman, with long hair and a close-clipped beard, she recognised as a well-known violinist and a gentleman with a black moustache and a great bush of rebellious hair, she identified as a celebrated baritone, though he looked strange, she thought, without a frock-coat, lavender kid gloves, and a roll of music in his hands.
In the blue room on the first floor the tables were mostly occupied by couples, and Mrs. Tota wished to know if this was where the married musicians came. The gentleman with the clean- shaven face at the next table to ours, deep in conversation with a very pretty lady in a fur toque, was certainly a doctor, and the gentleman with a white moustache, who had secured the table in the little bow-window, was evidently a soldier ; the two ladies dining tête-à-tête did not look musical, but on the first floor, as on the ground floor, the majority of the guests were evidently of the artistic temperament.
The Bortsch was excellent, and when the sole Pagani made its appearance M. Meschini, the partner of M. Pagani, came to our table to ask whether the dish was approved of. “It is beautiful,” said little Mrs. Tota. “What are the wonderful little pink things with such a delicious taste? “ M. Meschini, without moving a muscle of his face, told her that they were shrimps, which, with fresh mushrooms and moules, help to give a distinctiveness to this excellent dish. “How was I to know a shrimp without his head and tail and scales ?“ said Mrs. Tota, when M. Meschini had moved on.
Mrs. Tota ate some of the tournedos truffés, [-301-] and gave her opinion that the truffles were perfectly heavenly; but I preferred to wait for the partridge and its casserole, with all its savoury surroundings. M. Notari, the chef, is an artist in his kitchen, and nowhere in London could we have found a better-cooked bird.
To establish my claim to be critical, I said that I had tasted better soufflés, but Mrs. Tota, telling me that I was a pampered Sybarite, ate her helping with perfect content. The two pints of Veuve Clicquot we drank were excellent, and with a Biscuit Pagani, two cups of Café Pagani and liqueurs, we ended a very good dinner.
I paid my bill: bread and butter, 4d.; hors­d’oeuvre, 6d.; soup, 1s. 6d.; fish, 2s.; joint, 2s.; game, 5s.; vegetables, 1s.; sweets, 1s.6d.; ices, 1s.; salad, 10d.; wine, 14s.; coffee, 1s.; liqueurs, 2s.6d.; total, £1 : 13 : 2, and then asked M. Meschini to take us upstairs and show us the private dining-room, which is known as the artists’ room.
When we came to the little room with its ruby velvet curtains and mantel drapings, its squares of what looks like brown paper, at about the height of a man’s head, covered with draw­ings and writings, and protected by glass, its framed drawings and paintings, Mrs. Tota turned to me and asked me if I often brought my invalid maiden aunt to dine here.
“Invalid maiden aunt? “ I said with astonishment, but remembered in a second that I had mentioned some such relative (or was it an uncle?) when we dined in the private room at Kettner’s. Mrs. Tota laughed and turned to [-302-] M. Meschini, who was beginning to explain the various works of art.
The name of Julia Neilson, written in bold characters, catches the eye as soon as any other inscription on these sections of a wall of days gone by; but it is well worth while to take the panels one by one, and to go over these sections of brown plaster inch by inch. Mascagni has written the first bars of one of the airs from “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Denza has scribbled the opening bars of “ Funiculi, Funicula,” Lamoureux has written a tiny hymn of praise to thy cook, Ysaye has lamented that he is always tied to “notes,” which, with a waiter and a bill at his elbow, might have a double meaning. Phil May has dashed some caricatures upon the wall, a well-meant attempt on the part of a German waiter to wash one of these out having resulted in the “sack” of the said waiter and the glazing of the wall. Mario has drawn a picture of a fashionable lady, and Val Prinsep and a dozen artists of like calibre have, in pencil, or sepia, or pastel, noted brilliant trifles on the wall. Pader­ewski, Pucchini, Chaminade, Calvé, Piatti, Plançon, De Lucia, Melba, Menpes, Tosti, are some of the signatures ; and as little Mrs. Tota read the names she became as serious as if she were in church, for this little chamber is in its way a temple dedicated to the artistic great who have dined.
17th December.
*** I asked M. Meschini if he would be so kind as to give me the recette for the filets de sole Pagani, and here it is just as he wrote it down for me.

   [-303-] Filets sole Pagani

    The sole is first of all filleted, and with the bones, some mussels, and a little white wine, a fumée de poisson is made in which the fillets of the sole are then cooked.
The cook takes this cuisson, and by adding some well-chopped fresh mushrooms, makes with that what he calls a réduction; to this he adds some velouté, little cream, fresh butter, some lemon juice, pepper and salt, and cooks the whole together till well mixed, then passes it a l’étamine. With this the sauce is made. The cooked fillets of sole and eight or ten mussels are then placed ready on a silver dish, and the above made sauce poured over them. The top is well sprinkled with fresh Parmesan cheese, and after allowing them to gratiner for a minute or two, are ready to be put on the customer’s table.