Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Palm

One would have a hard time inventing a story about the attainment of the the American dream more perfect, and perhaps more improbable as that of Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi. Through four generations these two families have stewarded the fabled Palm restaurant from a single concern to a rapidly growing international chain with over 25 locations. Its name was actually the result of the founders heavy Italian accents which where misinterpreted when they applied for a business license. They intended the name of the restaurant to be that of their home town Parma. The misspelling became simply The Palm and frankly it is hard to imagine that the restaurant could have reached the level of success it enjoys today , nor its ability to branch out across America if they had indeed called it Parma. The name they ended up with makes possible the restaurants iconic logo which of course features a palm tree in place of the L in palm, but beyond the clever use of graphics the name itself conjures up images of an oasis of luxury and fine dining. Indeed the Palm has become synonymous with the fine dining experience in popular culture, featured in TV shows such as The West Wing and Entourage. The Palms website features a list of celebrities as far ranging as George W. Bush, James Carville, John Travolta and Snoop Dog. If you are wondering what this has to do with the quality of food you've got me. I would be more impressed if the gave us the pedigree of their steer and the method used to age it.

All this success has of course come at a price and in case your are doing the calculations of the amount of dry aging that must be needed to satisfy the demands of over 25 restaurants stop right there because unfortunately the beef here is no longer dry aged. At least not most of it. I can't speak for the numerous branches because my only experience outside of the three NYC locations was a meal many years ago at the Orlando, Fl. outpost but the only steak that is dry aged these days is a bone in NY strip. It is this dissolution of the purity of the steak ideal that has allowed the Palm to venture into locales that would be prohibitively expensive to provision for so far from home.

Despite this expansive development there remains, at the original location at 837 Second Avenue, an air of exclusivity and of aloofness on the part of the staff towards those that are not instantly recognized as "regulars" or "celebrities." It is an attitude that makes one feel when dining at The Palm, even with a reservation, as if one is imposing somewhat. How else to explain the fact that on a recent visit I was forced to wait at the bar for close to twenty minutes for a table that was empty the entire time I was there while the Maitre de gushed and fawned over streams of regulars, seating them almost immediately. Certainly had this attitude permeated the rest of the chain it is doubtful that the restaurant would have survived in the numerous locations outside of NYC. But here, despite the glut of steakhouse ventures The Palm continues to thrive, though I suspect that for regulars it is the familiarity and doting they receive more than the food itself. For the food, frankly does not hold up against the top chophouses in the city.

That is not to say that there are not flashes of brilliance. A steak tartar made from dry aged NY strip steak was delightful although one is left to wonder why the rest of the beef here does not receive the same treatment.

Similarly a shrimp cocktail was about as good as it gets for this, admittedly, over done dish. Plump, meaty shrimp where perfectly cooked although I encourage you to avoid the generically bland cocktail sauce.

The hash browns are possibly the riches incarnation of the dish I have had. The burnished bronze hue of the crust gives way to an incredibly buttery interior. Perhaps a little too buttery. I took some home once and was mortified to witness what happens to this dish when it is refrigerated, it turns in to what looks like head cheese - small pieces of potato encased in a mold of solid butter. I would not be surprised if the hash browns had more cholesterol than the steak they serve here.

And what of the steak? It is along with their famed lobsters the principle draw here. As mentioned above only the bone in NY strip is dry aged and even this cut falls behind the best of the breed. It is not that the USDA Prime steak is not tender and well marbled, it certainly is, but it lacks the complex, musky flavors that properly aged beef imparts. I would say that the culprit here is that the steak is just not aged long enough to fully develop the flavor. I should also note that a steak ordered black and blue was delivered to the table closer to tan and blue, the outside barely heated despite the waiters prior assurance that black and blue was not a problem. This lack of char is a problem that I am encountering with alarming frequency as of late. I don't see how there can be much dispute on how this temperature should be achieved but apparently tan is the new black. A massive bone in rib eye, while sharing the marbling and tenderness of NY strip was even blander in flavor.

Despite lacking the dry aged flavors of my favorite prime ribs here in the city (Keens Chophouse and Smith and Wollensky) The Palm's version is gargantuan and has a hearty beef flavor as well as being a beautifully marbled piece of meat. I was also pleasantly surprised at how rare the prime rib was served. I called ahead and requested an "extra rare" cut be held for me which to the restaurants credit was honored. Reserving the cut along with the table is a practice that I have come to employ when I am in the mood for rare prime rib simply because it is a dish that tends to sell out at most chophouses. When it comes to the dry aging of prime rib I am more lenient than with steak. I generally avoid non dry aged steak but find that prime rib, because of its slow cooking process, does not suffer as unduly as steak from not being dry aged. Frankly I would be happier to pay the same price for half the beef as long as it is dry aged but part of the draw of the Palm is the massive serving sizes. This ethos makes its way to the desert tray where some of the cakes and pies on offer look like they tip the scale at over 2lbs.

I find it impossible to recommend The Palm in NYC, there are so many superior incarnations of the steakhouse in the city that offer dry aged beef along with service that while not being obsequious is at least not indifferent. When it comes to the numerous outposts I also encourage you to seek out a local, indigenous steakhouse, rather than a chain. When I travel the last thing I want is something I can get at home. Infact when I am home I don't want what the Palm offers.

The Palm
837 Second Ave.
(bet. 44th & 45th Sts.)
Manhattan, NY


DocChuck said...

Great review and "heads-up."

The prime rib looks superb despite your mild disappointment in the lack of dry aging. I cannot remember ever getting a restaurant prime rib so perfectly prepared.

Unfortunately, we cannot seem to even get it right at home, so I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that an over-cooked prime rib is better than no prime rib at all.

MrsDocChuck said...

We have never had a bad meal at any of the Palm locations we have been to.

Nothing extraordinary, mind you, but very satisfying.

The wine list needs serious help, IMO, and the service can be spotty (last visit our waitress had no idea what mignionette sauce was!) but the food has generally been reliable.

DocChuck said...

The above poster (known as chiffOnade) loves to post as "mrsdocchuck" but is in NO way (thank God) related to the poster, DocChuck.

Personally, I (DocChuck) have never been to "The Palm" and I seriously doubt that Louise has either, since she lives in Clearwater, Florida.

Nick said...

I am sorry that this situation has once again reared its head and that I am forced to deal with spurious issues wholly outside of my mission here. I am busy and devote as much time as I can to this blog but I am not here to police the comments section and deal with flame wars.

@mrsdocchuck your veiled attempts at sincerity at least exhibit a passion for and knowledge of food and I would welcome you as a reader and commentator but for my suspicion that you are only here to goad docchuck. I am going to respectfully request that you post under a different name, if you are indeed interested in what I have to say. While I have appreciated some of the comments you have made it is hard for me to take them seriously enough to respond to because I doubt their earnestness.

MrsDocChuck said...

Please see my comments on the 5 Guys thread.

Thank you.