Ready to ring in 2014 with meals swank and needed

Banquet chef Matthew DiGiovanni (left) and Hailu Godoy work with lobsters in preparation for the Union League's champagne-filled New Year's Eve party.
Banquet chef Matthew DiGiovanni (left) and Hailu Godoy work with lobsters in preparation for the Union League's champagne-filled New Year's Eve party. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2014

The decorators at the Union League were hanging gold drapes Monday afternoon. The cooks downstairs were poaching 150 lobsters. Up the street, the staff at the Ritz-Carlton 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge were polishing champagne flutes and laying in bottles of the bubbly by the hundred.

And by Tuesday morning, another dining room on South Broad Street will fill with the aroma of turkey sausage and buttermilk biscuits, made from scratch, and offer New Year's Eve breakfast to a few hundred guests on a budget.

Broad Street might be all Mummers by this time Wednesday, but on New Year's Eve, it's an avenue of the culinary arts.

The Union League will offer a lavish feast with butlered champagne and hors d'oeuvres before a filet mignon dinner and guests dancing the night away to a live band.

At the Ritz-Carlton, the bistro is staging a grand party, with 2,014 balloons dropping from the ceiling over an estimated crowd of 700 when midnight arrives.

A few blocks down Broad Street, the Broad Street Ministry won't wait till dinner time. It will host its first New Year's Eve breakfast as a special treat to those who can't afford Philadelphia's fancier feasts.

"We're on Avenue of the Arts, too," said the ministry's director of social services, Edd Conboy. "We have lots of fiestas."

The ministry says it expects to serve from 200 to 400 people Tuesday morning.

And, like the chefs at the finest restaurants in the city, the ministry's chef, Steve Seibel, is preparing the meal from scratch, starting in Tuesday's wee hours. On the menu: those homemade biscuits, turkey sausage, and béchamel sauce, and home fries with peppers and onions.

The tables will have floral centerpieces, and music will play. Guests at ministry meals usually request Bob Marley and Carlos Santana, Conboy said.

"People appreciate that kind of attention," he said. As for the music, "we like to be a little bit funky."

The ministry decided to host a New Year's Eve breakfast this year, along with Thanksgiving Eve and Christmas Eve breakfasts, because food pantries, shelters, and churches offer meals on the holidays. The staff wanted to "fill the gap" with festive meals for those who are homeless or financially insecure.

But for those who do have the means to spend big on New Year's Eve, places throughout the city - from prix-fixe menus at many restaurants to large parties at hotels and ballrooms - were busy Monday doing the behind-the-scenes prepping.

The 10 Arts bistro's staffers were polishing the champagne flutes they expect to fill and refill many times through the night. The assistant director of food and beverage, Miguel Hernandez, predicted that customers would go through from 660 to 744 bottles of champagne.

Bistro guests will have plenty to wash down. The six-course dinner menu includes foie gras, lobster ravioli, and filet mignon.

Union League workers were setting up tables for the ice sculptures - depicting Father Time and Baby New Year - that would serve as centerpieces for raw bars stocked with 600 oysters and 500 clams, all on the half-shell.

In the basement kitchen, the staff was preparing the lobsters for lobster-and-wild-mushroom paquet, which will accompany the filet of beef entrée at the New Year's Eve Gala dinner.

The pastry chefs were blowing sugar to make it look like a New Year's ball. The balls would be filled with caramelized chocolate mousse, the final dish of the separate feast at the Union League's signature restaurant, 1862.

But Monday's work was just the start of a three-day marathon for the league's executive chef, Martin Hamann, and his team of more than two dozen cooks.

After the party ends at 1 a.m. and the eight-piece dance band (Back2Life) has left, a cleanup crew will come in overnight, sweep up the confetti, and transform the Lincoln Hall ballroom into a brunch paradise. By morning, buffet tables will be decked with French cheeses and pastries, and omelet and carving stations. Guests dine and watch the Mummers parade past.

"It's a lot of fun," Hamann said. "I try to be visible and have a sip of the fish-house punch."

A sip of that traditional punch, a blend of brandy, rum, whiskey, and champagne, might do the trick for someone working since Monday to please hundreds of guests - whether they're dining on filet or turkey sausage.


cvargas@phillynews.com, 215-854-5520, @InqCVargas

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