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American Steakhouses

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.


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