The Perfect Menu: Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine

Hotel Ponce de Leon & Casino was one of the most ambitious travel resorts in American history, especially considering the era in which it was established. Founded by oil tycoon Henry Flagler in 1888, he set out to create a hotel and dining experience that stood above those previously established in Florida. After a tumultuous construction process in St. Augustine, the hotel became known as an essential wintertime retreat for artists and high class guests including four American presidents. Distinguished by its Spanish architecture, the hotel attracted fans for its grandiose structures as well as its nearby Floridian attractions like alligator farms, curio shops, and of course, the food. Despite its Spanish theme, a variety of French, English and Italian fare defined the hotel menu, consisting of various now-retired delicacies and a few modern staples of American cuisine. Some dishes like Macaroni and Prime Rib continue to be served today but a good majority of these dishes likely wouldn’t be recognized by the average modern American diner. These dishes are rooted in a distinct time period where hotel dining was often the finest meal options, and people expected food that they couldn’t make themselves at home. 

In this article I’ll be examining the culinary harmony present between dishes in a menu like this during the turn of the 20th century and closely analyze one recipe in particular: The entree of Lobster Croquettes a la Victoria. This menu is divided up into 13 sections, with some devoted solely to a single entree. The categorizations are as follows: Oysters, Soups, Appetizers, Fish, Pork Jowl, Main Entrees, Sorbet, Ribs/Lamb, Sides, Game Pie, Vegetables, Dessert, and General Provisions. This is a typical range of choices for an evening at a luxury hotel such as this one, each dish spanning a large amount of palates and cultures. 

As it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of dishes on this menu, It’s important to analyze every dish individually to find out why they were chosen over other favorites at the time. To start off, headlining the menu in their own section are “Blue Point Oysters”. Oysters were and remain a common favorite in any coastal restaurant, but these oysters in particular must be harvested from Long Island/Connecticut area. Restaurants that serve “Blue Point” oysters from anywhere else in the country are not true Blue Point Oysters and eventually New York state legislature passed a law in 1908 making it illegal for restaurants to falsely claim their oysters as such. This obviously presents an issue: getting the oysters from the northeast all the way to St. Augustine without compromising the health standards of the restaurant. The result however was an extremely famed starter dish that merited the effort required to keep them on the menu. 

After the oysters is where the menu truly begins, with soup. There are two varieties on this menu, a consomme and a bisque. The former is a clear soup that uses the simmered and skimmed stock of some animal, often chicken, which is finally garnished with tapioca. The latter is a much creamier soup, and while the most common protein used is lobster, Ponce de Leon chose to make their bisque with clams. While fat is the antithesis of a good consomme, a bisque is nothing without it. Although there are only two choices of soup here, the options presented an excellent balance between light and heavy that were sure to satisfy any customer. 

In what can only be described as the hors d’oeuvres section of the Ponce de Leon menu, diners have 4 quite different choices. Celery and salted almonds are relatively unremarkable starters, but Boudins a la Richleau and Queen Olives add a much more unique taste to this section. Boudin is a type of sausage present in multiple different European cultures and is usually made with a variety of different meats. Boudins a la Richleau in particular are made with pork, chicken, butter and panada (boiled bread) to create an incredibly dense and savory sausage. Queen olives, from the Spanish region of Sevilla, are a large variety and would likely be stuffed with pimento pepper. 

The fish category offers two of the most ubiquitous fish in American dining, trout and bass. These two dishes are not unique for their choice of fish, but for the manner in which they are prepared. The bass is boiled in hot water while the trout is broiled under a grill. The bass is served under a Venetian sauce, that despite its name was a historically French dressing that was supposedly favored by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. It is made with vinegar, white wine, shallots, herbs, and Veloute (one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine). The trout on the other hand is signified by the butter it’s garnished with, compellingly named “Maître d’Hôtel butter”. This extremely savory condiment was made by combining butter, parsley, lemon juice and salt & pepper. As the name suggests, this garnish was most often made by the Maître d right in front of diners at the table, adding yet another performative aspect to the already grand experience of hotel dining.

The subsequent category is occupied by another single dish: boiled pork jowl. This may be familiar to those who grew up on soul food, but it’s been largely overshadowed in America by its more favored counterpart bacon in recent years. Although similar to bacon, pork jowl uses meat from the cheek of the pig, which is then boiled, not grilled. The jowl is typically much more fatty and possesses a very rich and smooth texture. It can be served with any kind of vegetables, but as a staple soul food, the usual pairing was collard greens, often cooked in the same pot as the jowl.

The next section is one of the most exciting, featuring some truly exceptional entrees that cover a variety of meats. The first is Chicken Chasseur, a grilled chicken saute that relies on mushrooms and a white wine/tomato sauce for its signature flavor. The result is a very hearty and unforgettable taste that made the dish truly stick out as the only chicken option on the menu. Then there’s the more decadent option, ballotines of lamb with “sauce soubise”. As opposed to the typical bone-in presentation of lamb, a ballotine is a large portion of diced lamb that’s rolled and stuffed with vegetables and seasonings. As with every dish on this menu, it is defined by its sauce, which is made by combining Bechamel sauce with pureed onions, as well as a significant amount of butter to extract every bit of flavor out of the already extremely tender meat. Contrasting this grandiose dish are the tiny deep fried lobster croquettes “a la Victoria”. Although croquettes remain quite popular today, this specific manner in which they were prepared has been largely forgotten. According to The Epicurean, a cookbook by chef Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s, croquettes “a la Victoria” are distinguished in their use of truffles and the mother sauce veloute which uses equal parts butter and flour as well as a common protein stock. After chopping up the lobster, mixing it with sauce and a celery puree and letting it cool, it is then molded into 2 inch balls and rolled in eggs and bread crumbs. A closer look at how you could make this recipe today can be found at the end of this article. The last item in this section sticks out a bit, as banana fritters aren’t exactly an entree item. Nevertheless, they were quite a popular trend at the time, perhaps meriting their placement next to lamb and lobster. These fritters use extremely ripe mashed bananas and are garnished with rhum from the Carribean island of Martinique. Similar to the croquettes, they are deep fried and often served with cinnamon.

Directly ensuing these entrees is the sorbet, a rather simple dessert with an extraordinarily strong flavor. It is made by boiling sugar water and mixing directly with maraschino cherries in a blender. The final product is then poured into a container and deep frozen until it’s served. 

Although the sorbet may leave the diner with the notion that the dessert section has arrived, there are still a few main entrees remaining in the following category. One is the prime rib, a whole cut of meat from the ribs of beef, often roasted standing on its bones to prevent searing. This continues to be popular in American steakhouses today as one of the finest cuts of meat, enjoyed around the holidays much like the other dish in this section: roast lamb with mint sauce. This is a traditional British preparation of lamb that juxtaposes the extremely dense flavor of the lamb ballotines with something a little lighter. It is roasted like the prime rib and served with a complex but tasteful mint sauce made from mint leaves, salt, sugar, hot water and red wine vinegar. 

After the final two entrees come a plethora of sides for diners to choose from. Many require little explanation, as the items in this section aren’t necessarily intended to stand out, but rather to complement the dishes above them. Macaroni Milanaise is a restaurant staple; it uses ham, mushroom puree, tomato sauce, and a variety of different cheeses to develop a flavor that exceeds expectations of simple mac and cheese. Succotash is another southern favorite, a wild but harmonious mix of corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and any other in season vegetables. Although many of the other side dishes here don’t stick out on their own, it was expected of all hotels that they have essentials such as potatoes or boiled rice on an a la carte basis to be respected as a legitimate restaurant. 

The following section is the last with a sole entry, inhabited by the widely known British game pie. Often served cold, these pies were made from a mix of the cook’s choice of pigeon, partridge, chicken, goose, or any other similar bird. Due to the extremely long process of making game pies along with the process of heating and cooling, the game pie was seen as a representation of labor and skill that was incredibly easy for an untrained chef to prepare improperly. This is likely why it occupies its own section, as few dishes maintained the cultural reverence game pies possessed as far as traditional English cooking.   

The following section is unremarkable at first glance but important nonetheless. Sliced tomatoes and lettuce are about as self explanatory as it gets, but much like the sides, it was incredibly crucial for a hotel to have simple items like these available on demand. American hotel culture was based on an idea of abundance, an illusion we push even further in modern times.

The second to last section of this menu is everybody’s favorite: dessert. It also dwarfs most of the rest with its sheer variety, providing everything from pies to cakes to puddings. Some more obscure dishes like rhine wine jelly were incredibly delicate and required the cook to be well acquainted with the caramelization process of sugar as well as dessert presentation. Many of these dishes invoked alcohol in their recipes, such as Farina pudding’s use of Marsala for its Sauce Sabayon. There are also some small but extravagant finger food options, such as coconut jumbles (baked coconuts) and petit fours (tiny cakes); french delicacies that were no doubt incredibly labor intensive to prepare considering their small yields but quickly enjoyed by diners without a second thought. On the other hand, there are also a few more simple items on this list, such as peach ice cream and chocolate kisses, which round out this menu to ensure that not a single person ended their meal on a low note.    

The 13th and final section of the Ponce de Leon menu does not contain dishes perse, but rather general provisions. These are things like fruits, nuts, cheese or coffee that could be ordered at any time and once again further established this feeling of abundance that hotels tried to maintain. They’re certainly not the highlights of the menu in any sense, but they were an easy and equally crucial thing to keep on a menu.

Although menus look considerably different in the modern era of hotel dining, examining the dishes on the Ponce de Leon menu up close gives one a better idea of how the American restaurant got where it is today. While it’s impossible to tell exactly how a dish looked or was prepared over a century ago, connecting the dots between other menus and documentation at the time can give a pretty good picture of what the culinary landscape looked like in American hotels at the end of the 19th century.

How to Make Lobster Croquettes “a la Victoria”

  1. Start by pre-making Veloute and celery puree. 
  2. For the Veloute, heat 3 cups chicken stock in a large pot and add an ounce of clarified butter until the sauce is frothing. Slowly add an ounce of flour, continue to simmer and whisk until the sauce is completely smooth.
  3. For the celery puree, bring 3 cups milk, 3 cups water, and a tablespoon of salt to a boil in a large pot. Add 2 large chopped celery roots, 1 chopped potato, and a small quartered onion. Simmer for about 30 minutes and mix everything in a processor with 5 tablespoons of butter until thickened. Refrigerate until ready to use.  
  4. Cook a large lobster in a boiling pot for approximately ten minutes.
  5. When the lobster is fully cooked, take it out and extract the meat from its claws and tail, then dice it into tiny cubes; If you can afford it, also cut a quarter pound of truffles roughly the same size as the lobster meat. 
  6. Add a quart of the Veloute sauce to a large skillet and season it with salt and pepper to taste. Then add half a pint of celery puree to skillet.
  7. Add two ounces of lobster butter, which can be easily made by roasting the empty lobster shells and adding them to a simmering half a cup of butter. Strain the butter with a sieve and let chill.
  8. Finally, add the meat and truffles and let the pot get cold. Once cold, divide into two inch long corks.
  9. Roll the croquettes in beaten eggs and breadcrumbs, and deep fry at 350 degrees until golden brown.
  10. Serve with parsley and plate tastefully. 

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Resources Used:

Graham, Thomas. “Flagler’s Magnificent Hotel Ponce De Leon.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 1, 1975, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30155893.

Turner, Katherine L., and Helen Z. Veit. Food in the American Gilded Age. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017. Print.

“Imperial Hotels and Hotel Empires: Tourism, Expansion, Standardization, and the Beginning of the End of a Hotel Age, 1876–1908.” Hotel: An American History, by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 110–135. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm3f6.8.

“The House of Strangers: The Transformation of Hospitality and the Everyday Life of the Hotel.” Hotel: An American History, by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 142–185. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm3f6.10.

Ranhofer, Charles. The epicurean : a complete treatise of analytical and practical studies on the culinary art, including table and wine service, how to prepare and cook dishes … etc., Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011. Print.

New York Public Library, nypl.getarchive.net/.