For me, no phrase evokes more profound visions of the Downton Abbey lifestyle than the words 'luxury liner.' I'm not talking about those loaded-with-on-the-make-singles Armpit of the Seas superships that dock briefly at each of the Rolex Replica Islands. I mean gazing-across-the-Atlantic-from-a- deck-chair-while-sipping-super-bouillon on a floating manor house -- the kind that ferried British nobility and nouveau riche Yankee moms with marriageable daughters across the pond long before the Airbus gave Boeing CFO's apoplexy.
These HMS liners sported red stacks that belched smoke, had gleaming, hand-polished wood-paneled cabins attended by white-gloved stewards sating hedonistic palates with iced beluga, delicate seasonal oysters and sheerly sliced Scottish smoked salmon. As for folks in steerage, everybody's grandparents? They made do on their usual diet of gruel and garlic.
My sea-faring fantasies explain why I arrived at the Hotel DuPont Brandywine Room in Wilmington, Dela. on Dec. 5, 1997 for the "Titanic's Last Supper" -- a multi-course feast based on two waterlogged first class dinner menus and the culinary reveries of survivors like the unsinkable Molly Brown, who clawed their way into lifeboats when they heard the opening bars of "Nearer my God to Thee." At $110 per person including wines and a tip it sounded like bargain city to me.
The Hotel DuPont was erected in downtown Wilmington during the years when the Titanic was being nailed together in the shipyards of Belfast. Its purpose was to ensconce visiting warmongers in elegant lodgings while they priced munitions.
For us social climbers, glad rags were de rigueur. We were going out on the town in style. I had donned my entire winter wardrobe and my escort had gotten his aging tux on his aging body.
We were greeted at the entrance of the Brandywine Room by a sparkling ice carving of the Titanic with four bottles of Iceberg Vodka leaning on its portside. Iceberg Vodka had purchased an actual iceberg and distilled the alcohol grains in its melted down H2O.
At our table for four, pristine linens supported more silverware than could be found in my entire hi-rise, plus gold trimmed china, eight wine goblets and three more for other liquids. Fortunately, the manager told us which fork was meant to spear which course, a lesson ignored by my escort. "If God didn't want us to eat with our hands, would He have created so many fast food chains?" he retorted.
Titanic martinis -- equal parts Iceberg Vodka and Blanc Lillet -- so romantically energized my beau that he got down on bended knee to propose properly to the woman he loved -- fortunately, she was I and I was present -- finally uttering the words I longed to hear, "Miss Scarlet, long have I worshiped you from afar..."
And then it was time to eat.
For openers, quail eggs in aspic with caviar was a tidbit that a surviving diner had enjoyed in Titanic's a la carte restaurant that fatal evening. Plover eggs, used originally, are now impossible to find, even for ready money but the substituted dense, delicious and 99-1/2 percent cholesterol quail eggs tasted like unborn yolky egg sacks poached in the glorious chicken soups of my childhood. The caviar? A mashed dab from the bottom of the barrel, but I purloined my escort's dab anyway. The first wine? A crisp 1995 Mersault. So far, so-so.
Potage Saint-Germain, a sensational pureed spring pea soup appeared next. Faced with a less formidable menu I would have easily double-dipped into this treat. Alas, it was accompanied by a really lousy sherry, which retailed for $7.49 the bottle, was over-priced at half that price and made me suspicious of all the sommelier's subsequent selections.
Homard Thermidor with Duchess Potatoes was created by a Belle Époque chef in honor of a theatrical turkey called Thermidor -- a play that's been quickly forgotten, as should the DuPont's version of this dish. Creamed lobster in the shell surrounded by a decorative, piping hot, golden brown border of potatoes mashed with eggs yolks? Fah-ged-about-it! The lobster reeked of iodine. The spuds tasted like unflavored cardboard. The wine was another loser. Too sweet.
By the time thick rounds of fillet with morel mushrooms on the bed of braised cabbage arrived, I would have happily paid a homeless person to finish this meal for me. Fortunately, the braised shredded cabbage was flavorful and the sauce had a pleasantly smoky edge. A rose water and mint sorbet's eucalyptus flavor was refreshing, like aftershave for the tummy.
Ready for dessert? Moi aussi! But no!, there were still several courses to go. Quail with cherries combined tough quail with overly sweet fruit sauce, plus asparagus topped with a collapsing roof of Hollandaise sauce sprinkled with large chunks of egg whites.
Ta da! Finally, the dessert doubleheader. Both winners. Fresh mint flavored pears and peaches nicely poached in a light sugar syrup and a sherbet filled frozen orange shell topped with a beautifully toasted whipped meringue supplied a refreshingly cool finale to a rather excessive meal.
A night to remember? Maybe, but certainly a meal to forget.
This last dinner of the Titanic explained why so many First Class passengers went down with the ship. They were too stuffed to do anything else that night but sleep forever, even if it meant they would sleep in the deep."