Published: April 2009
By Peter Lindberg
Carnivores, rejoice! After a decade of lean cuisine, beef is once again the hottest item on the menu. We take a bite-by-bite tour of the nation's best steak houses.
It's official: beef is back. Thanks to a cash-rich and protein-craving population, the steak house is again the hottest joint in town, from coast to coast. What's more, some of the country's most celebrated chefs are moving in with a whole new take on the classics
How fickle we are.
A decade ago the steak house was in cardiac arrest, as outmoded as a vinyl LP. Sure, your dad still lunched with clients on rib eyes and Gibsons, and beefy regulars swore by their old haunts. But did anyone who really cared about food—people like you—consider creamed spinach and a Frisbee-sized porterhouse a Serious Dining Experience?
Well, just as vinyl LP's simply sound better nowadays, so does the thought of a nice New York strip, with some cottage fries and an iceberg-and-blue cheese salad. Blame the economy, the Atkins diet, or a craving for all things retro: steak restaurants are more alive than ever. At old-school beef emporiums like Brooklyn's Peter Luger, reservations are harder to get than courtside seats for the Knicks. Meanwhile, celeb chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joachim Splichal have opened their own steak-house interpretations, proving plenty more can be done with a choice cut and a few spuds.
Used to be that beef was just "real food for real people." Now even unreal people have a jones for red meat—people like Brazilian cover babe Gisele Bündchen, the best spokesperson for beef since James Garner. ("Ah, mm, I love meat," she has raved. "Meat is the best.") Vogue editor Anna Wintour is often seen eating a steak or a burger for lunch. Chic young things on the Zone or Atkins diet are getting their protein fix, not with soy shakes, but with pan-seared filets (hold the frites).
Steak, it seems, is the dot-com stock of the aughties. Clearly, your dad was onto something.
So is the steak-house trend really about great beef, or is it all just cigar smoke and mirrors?We got to the meat of the matter in New York, L.A., Las Vegas, and Chicago, sizing up the New Breed against some esteemed ancestors. For an unabashed carnivore's perspective, I brought along my friend Jack, a guy's guy of a certain age, who thinks "vegetarian" means the T-bone comes with mushrooms ("I hate that," he says). He does love beef, and the thought of eating steak for two weeks straight had him frothing like a mad cow.
"Reminds me of my uncle's brothel back in Reno," Jack muses as we duck into the Strip House in Greenwich Village. There's a definite bordello theme, with rosy silk lamp shades, ruby-red flocked wallpaper, and red quilted-leather banquettes. You feel as if you're deep in a bottle of Burgundy—and from the look of things, half the patrons already are. A tableful of suits whoops it up over a bawdy joke, and hollers for another shellfish platter. Jack studies the carpet pattern: a kaleidoscope of buxom female silhouettes, like the opening credits of a Bond film.
Such is the tongue-in-cheeky appeal of the Strip House (heh-heh—get it?). Chef David Walzog, who heads up the straitlaced Michael Jordan's The Steak House at Grand Central Terminal, gets more creative here. "Tomatoes and onion," a steak-house standby, becomes a postmodern salsa, wrapped, sushi-style, in a cucumber slice, seasoned with basil and tomato-water vinaigrette, accompanied by chèvre and crostini. Next is a terrine of rabbit, veal, pheasant, and oxtail, deliciously gamy and densely textured. "Best goddamn meat loaf I ever ate," Jack says.
The namesake strip, richly marbled and bursting with juice, is paired with a boneful of velvety mustard-and-marrow custard. By now Jack has forgotten about the pornographic carpet and is giggling with pagan joy. One spoonful of the truffle-scented creamed spinach and he's entirely out of his head.
As the night wears on and the port starts flowing, the sound track shifts from Steely Dan to Maxwell, and couples canoodle on the mohair sofas in the bar. Enjoyably schizo, the Strip House is the sort of place you could take your dad, your wife, or your mistress. Just don't go there with your macrobiotic niece from NYU.
"IT'S STEAK, JACK, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT."
Jack and I are stunned into silence, ogling the steak tartare at Dylan Prime, a nouveau beef joint in deepest TriBeCa. We'd heard rumors about this divine apparition. Now it sits before us: a delicate mound of raw sirloin with a speckled quail egg perched on top. "My God," Jack whispers, "it's beautiful."
After a short prayer, we pour the egg over the tartare, mix in capers, onion, parsley, and a dollop of mustard, and spread a small forkful on crostini. It's the platonic ideal of meat. We take our time, hardly noticing the Miu-Miu—shod models at the next table. "This is it," Jack murmurs, licking his fork clean. "This is the Grail."
Too bad the rest of our dinner doesn't measure up. The bread arrives cold; the mushy gnocchi and soupy risotto sides aren't worth a second bite; and the kitchen can't seem to get Jack's porterhouse done medium-rare—the first is medium-well, the next barely lukewarm. He finally gives up and orders another tartare.
The thing to do, then, is hit the candlelit lounge and cut to the chase, with a Bloodless Mary martini (horseradish-and-pepper-infused vodka, served straight up in a glass rimmed with celery salt), a good Cohiba, and that ambrosial tartare.
JOACHIM SPLICHAL, REIGNING DEITY OF L.A.'S FOOD SCENE, could have made his Manhattan debut with a branch of Patina, his temple of ethereal California cuisine. It's a sign of the times that he instead weighed in with a steak house. Nick & Stef's is tucked beneath Madison Square Garden—not exactly ground zero for gourmands. Then again, the original Nick & Stef's, in Los Angeles's Staples Center, took off like Kobe Bryant when it opened in 1999. Sports fans may balk at California cuisine, but they sure like a good piece of meat.
Not that this is your typical pre-game hangout. The dining room calls to mind a Scandinavian men's club, with angular ash paneling, gallery-style lighting, and armchairs of burnished mahogany. Cool jazz sets the mood. At the front window is an altar-like, glassed-in meat locker, where beef is dry-aged for up to four weeks. Passers-by with Macy's bags stop outside to drool.
You could stick to the classics here and do well—the Caesar (prepared tableside, just like the old days) is as good as any, and bacon-and-garlic-crusted creamed spinach would make Granddad weep. But there's also a splendid arugula salad with shaved pear, grilled onion, and duck prosciutto, and an intensely creamy polenta with mascarpone that every steak house should serve.
And the beef?Jack's porterhouse is on the tough side and requires a flavor kick from some bordelaise, which Jack begrudgingly resorts to. But my dry-aged rib eye is perfectly seared and appropriately earthy, needing no help from any of the 12—count 'em, 12—sauces on the menu.
"Kinda empty in here," Jack says as he steals a piece of rib eye. He's right: the Garden is dark tonight, and the wait staff looks bored. That will have changed by the time basketball season starts, yet for now Nick & Stef's is almost too quiet, and perhaps too polished. A good steak house, says Jack, should be two-thirds great beef and one-third commotion.
"Enough with this polite stuff," he says. "Get me to Luger's."
"LUGER'S," OF COURSE, IS PETER LUGER, THE CENTURY-OLD PATRIARCH OF NEW YORK STEAK HOUSES, located in a desolate patch of Brooklyn. (Ye shall know it by the limousines.) The reservationless wait for hours to sit at one of Luger's worn tables, in a too-bright, wood-beamed dining room with beer steins on the walls. For commotion, head to Peter Luger.
This is how it goes: You'll want to start with the beefsteak tomato and onion, coated with the house steak sauce (no one puts it on the steak). Maybe a shrimp cocktail, which tastes like shrimp cocktail, no more, no less. You definitely want a slab of peppery Canadian bacon, coarse and well-singed. Skip the salads. You'll need beer—Brooklyn Brown, in a mug. Wine is for sissies.
Then the steak: a dry-aged porterhouse bathed in butter, cut into strips, and served sizzling on a platter. The gruff waiter props up one end on a saucer so the juices collect in a pool. The platter is so hot you can sear the meat on its rim, if medium-rare is too bloody for you. (But in that case, why are you here?) You'll need to cut around the fat for the choice bites. And suddenly that $20 cab ride and the two-hour wait won't bother you anymore.
By the way, if your date orders tuna salad, you're entitled to switch dates.
Culinary god Jean-Georges Vongerichten doesn't have to play Vegas. But in 1998 he joined the high-steaks game with Prime at the Bellagio resort. It's one of several chef-driven steak houses that have opened here lately, and by far the grandest. The sumptuous dining rooms are done up in chocolate brown and cobalt blue, with pewter and gilt accents and crystal chandeliers. They should issue engagement rings at the coat check.
The menu includes the obligatory steak-house staples: old-schoolers can enjoy good shrimp cocktails, baked potatoes, sautéed onions. But it'd be a shame to miss the seared tuna spring rolls, scarlet jewels encased in a light wrapper, or the roasted-cauliflower soup with chunks of grilled lobster. A plate of roasted beets and goat cheese resembles dessert, with thick balsamic vinegar drizzled like chocolate syrup over the chèvre, and a garnish of nasturtiums.
The aged New York strip, nicely seasoned with peppercorns, has Jack cooing like a baby, as do the truffled mashed potatoes. My filet is as tender as a grilled portobello—you could slice it with a letter opener. It's superb with a dollop of béarnaise sauce, even better with a side of earthy roasted mushrooms.
Out the window on Lake Bellagio the 250-foot fountains roar to life—but the entertainment's just as good inside. Two toupeed high rollers arrive with a pair of off-duty showgirls. The maître d' shows them to a table overlooking the lake. "May I suggest the ladies sit on this side?" he says. "Then you'll have a view of the water, and the gentlemen will have a view of you!"
You gotta love Vegas.
Celestino Italian Steak House opened last February on a tony block of Beverly Boulevard, in a warm, modern room with only 15 tables. The ambience is decidedly feminine, with saffron-colored sconces, soft linens, an overflowing vase of lilies. Jack is confused, until he sees a guy feasting on a porterhouse with his tie flung over his shoulder. "That's how you eat a steak," Jack says.
Celestino is the latest from Celestino Drago, who did wonders for Sicilian cuisine at Drago in Santa Monica. Here he's taken over the space once occupied by his upscale trattoria L'Aroncino—proving that in this low-carb, high-protein age, steak is the new pasta. The ace up Drago's sleeve: bistecche piemontese, the flavorful beef from Italy's Piedmont region (it's raised in the American Midwest), with one-quarter the fat of American beef. At Celestino it's rubbed in sea salt and herbs, and, just as important, matched with some startlingly good Italian sides.
We begin by dipping raw fennel and asparagus into a fragrant bagna cauda of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies served in a hot copper pot. Ignoring Jack's jeers, I order a salad of baby spinach, tart pears, and pecorino. It's about time a steak house served greens this fresh.
Tonight's special is so over-the-top, I can't resist: filet mignon on a pillow of sautéed oyster mushrooms, topped with foie gras (ha!). It could use another element for texture, but the depth of flavor is outstanding. Plates of caponata, piquant cipollini onions, and puréed potatoes with black truffle add up to a meal in themselves. Jack sticks to creamed spinach—in this case sautéed greens splashed with cream, and even better than the real thing.
Jack had his doubts about Piedmont beef ("It's the fat that gives the flavor"), but the 20-ounce fiorentina porterhouse thoroughly convinces him. "Jeeeez," is all he can say. He even eats the leeks.
In the town that essentially invented red meat, it doesn't take flashy gimmicks to pack a steak place to the rafters. But flash can't hurt, and that's the theory behind Nine, an absurdly popular meat-and-greet zoo that arrived in April 2000. Conceived by chef Michael Kornick (of the revered MK) and Michael Morton (whose family knows a bit about Chicago beef joints), Nine is as far from an archetypal steak house as Coach Floyd's Bulls are from Phil Jackson's.
The cavernous space is pure Vegas glitz—silver-leafed ceilings, a champagne-and-caviar bar bathed in sci-fi colored light, columns plated with disco-ball mirrors. The hyped-up crowd loves it. Jack, his ears plugged to the techno, is less enthusiastic. He scans the cocktail list as we wait for a table.
"Can't a fella get a real drink anymore?" Jack gripes. "It's all 'saketinis' and chocolate vodka." He wades into the scrum at the bar and eventually scores a martini—Beefeater, of course. Thirty minutes later we're led to a quieter, glassed-in dining room in back, where HDTV's alternate nature montages with hockey highlights.
Besides the half-dozen steak options, Nine's menu is vintage nineties fusion—ahi tuna with mango compote, sashimi with crispy wontons. We let the waiter plot our starter course, and he returns with two rice-paper ice cream cones. "You may have seen these on the news," he says. "They're a Nine specialty!" One holds a scoop of lobster and avocado; the other, a luscious tuna tartare with hints of serrano pepper and lime. Even Jack is impressed, digging in for one last tangy bite.
At our server's suggestion I order the veal porterhouse, fatty and disappointingly flavorless, while Jack takes on a 24-ounce bone-in rib eye that positively sings. He's happy now, even if the fries are too skinny to have any taste.
By 11 the Friday swarm is out in full force, and dance beats are shaking the floor. "Nice steak," Jack says, "but I would've ordered it to go."
VISIONS OF SUSHI ROLLS DANCE THROUGH MY HEAD—nice, polite, bite-sized portions. The last thing I want is dinner at another steak house. But Jack is adamant. "We're not leaving town until I get a turtle pie at Gibsons."
So the next night we find ourselves at Jack's second-favorite place on earth (after Soldier Field). Gibsons Steakhouse opened in 1989, and it's hard to imagine that Chicago existed without it. Smack in the Rush Street nightlife zone, the place fills up with every element of Chicago society. "This is Michael Jordan's favorite table," our hostess says as she seats us by the window. (I bet she tells that to all the boys.)
We score two of the namesake drinks, and before I even get to the onions, I'm sold. Gibsons has the perfect mix of classic and modern, under-30's and over-60's, male and female, locals and out-of-towners. The bar is roadhouse raucous, the dining room clubby and intimate; you can go frat-boy or old-boy and fit in. All the steak-house signifiers are in place: the brass and mahogany, the TV's tuned to ESPN, the autographed photos. There's even a white-jacketed men's room attendant proffering Tums, Maalox, Scope, Bayer, and Drakkar Noir. What more does the Steak Man need?
We start with the freshest, tastiest Malpeque oysters I've found south of Prince Edward Island. A side of sautéed spinach works splendidly as an appetizer, rich and intensely garlicky. And the meat—good Lord, the meat. Sliced sirloin in red wine sauce is a marvel of deep, beefy flavor. So is "W.R.'s Chicago Cut," an extraordinarily well-textured, bone-in rib eye. (It's named after Tribune food critic William Rice, whose glowing reviews line the walls.) Jack wants something to bag for our plane ride home, so after devouring his rib eye he orders a savory London broil—which he promptly polishes off. Jack can do that.
"Ready for the finale?" he asks. Our waitress staggers under its weight: a six-inch-high folly of macadamia nuts and vanilla ice cream encased in a crumb crust and topped with caramel and marshmallows—a culinary joke if it weren't so addictive. We light into it with steak knives. "Nothing like a Gibsons turtle pie," Jack mutters.
The crowd is as fun as the food. To our left are six girls who've flown in from Minnesota for Gibsons' surf-and-turf. "We're in mourning," one explains, pointing to her black-veiled companion. "She's getting married."
On our right sits a zoot-suited tough guy with a cigar in his breast pocket. He's sharing the 48-ounce porterhouse with a moll in a fur-strapped dress, who wears a diamond the size of a veal chop. "Nice ring your wife has," I tell Zoot.
"My wife's in Indiana," he deadpans. "And anyway, she doesn't like steak."
"Too bad for her," says Fur Straps, laughing and licking her lips.
In addition to the steak houses reviewed, we're including other favorites.
Strip House 13 E. 12th St.; 212/328-0000; dinner for two $90.
Dylan Prime 62 Laight St.; 212/334-2274; dinner for two $80.
Nick & Stef's Steakhouse 9 Pennsylvania Plaza; 212/563-4444; dinner for two $100.
Peter Luger 178 Broadway, Brooklyn; 718/387-7400; dinner for two $100.
Keens Steakhouse 72 W. 36th St.; 212/947-3636; dinner for two $100. Teddy Roosevelt loved it. So did Babe Ruth and Einstein. Those legendary mutton chops and a staggering selection of single malts are still served at this musty, manly 1885 institution. Dress nice.
Michael Jordan's The Steak House 23 Vanderbilt Ave.; 212/655-2300; dinner for two $110. On a balcony with a breathtaking view over Grand Central Terminal. Wealthy commuters miss trains by lingering over no-nonsense steaks (the porterhouse is sublime) and great wines. Polished and polite, and not at all the theme restaurant you'd expect.
Prime Steak House Bellagio Resort Hotel, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $150.
Charlie Palmer Steak Four Seasons Hotel, 3960 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-5123; dinner for two $180. The famed cookbook author and Aureole chef goes back to basics with an unpretentious steak house that favors quality meats and subtle flavors over flash.
Delmonico Venetian Resort & Casino, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/733-5000; dinner for two $130. Emeril Lagasse kicks it up another notch at the Venetian with Cajun-tinged side dishes, gorgeous rib eyes, and a melt-in-your-mouth chateaubriand.
Celestino Italian Steakhouse 8908 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; 310/858-5777; dinner for two $100.
Arnie Morton's of Chicago 435 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/246-1501; dinner for two $130. Morton's is Morton's wherever you go, but few carry the buzz of the L.A. outpost—just check out the Range Rovers six deep at the valet stand.
Grill on the Alley 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; 310/276-0615; dinner for two $90. The power-lunch spot of choice for meat-loving moguls. Bring an appetite, and a dozen copies of your screenplay.
The Palm 9001 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310/550-8811; dinner for two $100. Old Hollywood meets Old New York at this boisterous brasserie, where the steaks are presented simply and the dining room jammed with the fat cats and starlets whose caricatures line the walls.
Nine 440 W. Randolph St.; 312/575-9900; dinner for two $90.
Gibsons Steakhouse 1028 N. Rush St.; 312/266-8999; dinner for two $90.
Gene & Georgetti 500 N. Franklin St.; 312/527-3718; dinner for two $90. Frank Sinatra called it the best steak house in America. It even outlived him.