Monday, April 28, 2008

Smith and Wollensky

In many ways this blog should have started with a review of Smith and Wollensky, it has, over the last 2o or so years, been the restaurant that I most often frequent and has to a large degree shaped my vision on what the steakhouse experience should entail. There was a time when I ate here once a week and sometimes more often than that. I consider myself a regular. When I call to reserve a table I usually reserve a cut of extra rare prime rib, it tends to sell out and it is an absolutely magnificent piece of beef.

S&W dry age all their meat inhouse

Up until a few years ago S&W was still considered a relative new comer to the steakhouse scene here in NYC having been established "only" in 1977. The same year that Sparks moved uptown to 46th St but certainly decades after the likes of Lugers, The Old Homestead, Keens and the Palm opened their doors. These days however, with a new steakhouses opening almost weekly, S&W is fast approaching venerable status, if it hasn't reached it already. The location itself, 49th and third Ave was formally the site of Manny Wolf's Steakhouse and the building itself is landmarked and dates back to 1897, so there is some history to the place. Not that S&W was an instant success, even handing out free roast beef to passers by wasn't enough to draw in the crowds , it took an extensive marketing campaign and the establishment of the adjacent Wollensky's Grill to turn the venture profitable.

Over the years S&W has evolved in many ways in to the quintessential American Steakhouse, a fact reinforced by their post 9/11 decision to feature an exclusively domestic wine cellar. In fact S&W has contributed much to the steakhouse vernacular. Ben Benson worked here before venturing out and starting his own successful chain of steakhouses with a virtually indistinguishable menu. Jason Miller formally of Primehouse NY also cut his teeth working for the S&W group. It was inevitable I suppose that a restaurateur, especially one with the ambition of Alan Stillman, would want to replicate this success elsewhere and thus S&W has opened up restaurants in numerous other cities across the states.

Despite the fact that the NYC location has always remained independent of the other outposts that bare its name it has been branded, to a degree, with the dubious moniker of being part of a chain. It is unfortunate, although I suppose inevitable, that this is somehow frowned upon in culinary circles although in this day and age of celebrity chefs it is becoming far more common place. Of course Stillmans earlier venture, TGI Friday's probably did not help S&W's culinary bono fides much either. But through perserverance and consistancy of high standards S&W has grown to the point were it is often said that it is the single highest grossing restaurant in America.

I haver never eaten at any of the S&W outposts. It not that I think that they won't be up to the standards of the flagship location, I have for instance heard very good things about the Miami branch, its just that when I am traveling I want to experience local cuisine, not what I can get at home. That is not to say that I would dissuade you from trying out a S&W near you if you have never been to NYC or experienced an NYC steakhouse. I would imagine that the satellite locations will give one a good introduction. Unlike the Palm all of the beef is dry aged at S&W so they may indeed be bringing something unique to locales that formally did not have access to such rarefied beef. The fact that each outpost has its own dry aging box and butcher shows a dedication to steakcraft that it competitors do not share.

All of this success, of course would be irrelevant to me if S&W did not come through on the food and in my estimation it does so with utter consistency. I must admit that I eat here with a lot less frequency since I started Beef Aficionado simply because I am always looking for new experiences to report on. But I assure you that this is out of the necessity of constraints, both monetary and caloric. Suffice it to say that S&W serves as a standard or benchmark of sorts by which I judge other chophouses.

Despite the success' S&W has not rested on its laurels and the restaurant has evolved over the years. For example when they lost but a single point in Zagat for decor a few years back the entire restaurant was closed and completely renovated. It looked the exactly the same when they reopened just a lot brighter.The minor (compared to the UK) mad cow scare of a few years ago prompted the inclusion of a pork porterhouse for a time, the recipe lifted from the excellent Post House restaurant, another Stillman creation.

Colorado rib eye

And the beef menu has been made more accessible. The bone in "Colorado" rib eye which was a staple on the specials board but not the menu has now found its way on to the latter. They have also added a porterhouse to the regular menu, an item that was a less frequently available than the rib eye as a special.

Filet Oscar

The Filet Mignon is now offered with a variety of preparations such as Au Poivre, Oscar or with Roquerfort cheese. The menu also states that the filet is served "old butcher style" which means that it comes with more fat than some diners might be accustomed to. The precaution on the menu doubtless born out the exasperation that results from having to endlessly explain to tourists that they are getting there moneys worth, the cut here is 16oz as opposed to the 14oz that other chophouses offer. The fat adds flavor and helps protect the delicate tenderloin from over cooking. Of course fools are not suffered gladly at S&W and a hapless tourist requesting a well done filet may well be gruffly and pedantically instructed that their filet will need to be butterflied lest it catch fire before it is cooked through. Personally when the beef is as good as it is here I order it black and blue and S&W 's grill excels at achieving this temperature. You know you are in a true NYC chophouse when the waiter nods approvingly, as they do here, at you when you order a steak black and blue.

NY Strip steaks

Having defended the filet mignon I never the less recommend that you try the other steaks on offer instead, they are all dry aged and have a lot more flavor and marbling. The bone in NY strip for example is a magnificent cut, the bone not only helps the steak retain moisture and stay juicy but it also imparts that metallic, tangy, mineral rich flavor that only dry aging can achieve. The outside blade of the bone has a particularly pungent taste and aroma as the mold that is a result of the aging process is still largely present as opposed to the fleshy side of the steak were it has been cut away. But even the boneless strip has plenty of flaovr and succulence and is easier to eat. The same holds true for the Colorado rib eye which is even more flavorful and intensely marbled.

The porterhouse is also superb although the beef itself it is ultimately not the equal of the vaunted Peter Luger porterhouse, which I maintain is the finest example of the cut that I have had. However, I prefer the S&W practice of serving the steak whole rather than sliced and drowned in butter as is the custom at Lugers. Of course when it comes down to the rest of the meal, from soup to nuts there is no doubt in my mind that S&W provides one a meal that is finer dining experience than you will get at Lugers and the latter's ribeye, a recent addition, while being very good is not the equal of the one at S&W.

Prime Rib

As good as the steaks are, and I think they are very good, the prime rib is the finest example of cut and I have ever had. While I can make the caase that there are better examples of the steaks that S&W serves at other NYC restaurants I cannot make the same case at the prime rib, it is unmatched in my opinion. I often make the claim that the prime rib at S&W would be my death row meal and I can say that after trying some of the finest beef NYC has to offer as well as some top notch offerings London and Los Angeles, including some very pricey Japanese Wagyu, that it remains so. It is an utterly delectable cut, especially when it is served rare. The prime rib here, quite unlike most prime ribs, really is USDA Prime beef, dry aged for 28 days and then expertly roasted for several hours. The depth of flavor imparted by this process is unmatched. The dry aging, aside from producing an ethereally buttery texture to the beef also gives it a deep musky mineral rich characters. Unlike the similarly aged Colorado rib eye, which is after all the same cut prepared differently, the prime rib does not have the tangy, bold, in your face Roquefort-like flavor but a more subtle, though no less intense, one which is akin to a reduction. While the ribeye has a strong start and a delicate finish on the palate the prime rib is different, it starts of relatively mildly, even bordering on sweet but then the flavor ramps up leaving a lasting presence.

S&W also has very fresh seafood although I have found their fish mains to be less consistent, sometimes extreamly tender but other times a little dried out. Realistically you should stick to the beef here.

S&W's sides, all of which are served a la carte as is the custom at most NYC chophouses, are almost universally good. The creamed spinach is rich and creamy and the spinach itself retains a nice bright green color, unlike say Peter Lugers where the spinach is cooked so much that it becomes quite dark and dull. The hash browns are also generally wonderful, crispy and golden with a buttery interior, definitely some of the finest of their breed although I admit that on occasion they taste as if they wnere made too far ahead of time. The fries and onion rings are also well done.

S&W was one of the first steakhouses to have a pastry chef although the items on offer are fairly traditional. The massive desert trolley is hard to pass up even after a belt busting steak.

I will concede that the competition is growing increasingly stiffer in NYC amongst steakhouses. In the last few years the number of steakhouses in NYC has seemingly doubled and while most are tired Luger clones, all to often replete with former Luger's staffers, there have been a few that have impressed me lately, most notably Primehouse. However, I still think that S&W holds up as a standard bearer for that most unique of institutions, the NYC steakhouse. Highly Recommended.

Smith & Wollensky
797 Third Ave.
(49th St.)
Manhattan, NY

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wildwood Barbecue

Wildwood Barbecue opened its doors tonight, joining an increasingly crowded field of smoke joints in the Flatiron district. Aside from the very sub par Duke's located around the corner on 19th Street Wildwood faces some stiff competition from local barbecue restaurants Blue Smoke, Hill Country and R.U.B., all of which are within walking distance of the new restaurant.

Big Lou representing Hill Country at last years Big Apple BBQ Block Party

Not that Wildwood is showing up to the gunfight with a knife, B.R. Guest Restaurants, the entity behind the venture had the foresight to hire Big Lou Elrose, formally of Hill Country, as "executive" pitmaster and Matt Fisher as pitmaster for the NYC location. While Big Lou has gained a loyal following amongst barbecue aficionados on the back of his fine work at Hill Country Matt Fisher is less renowned. That is likely to change if the 'cue I sampled tonight is any indication of his potential. Given that this is the restaurants opening night this should not be considered a definitive review as much a preliminary report.

I mentioned Big Lou was the executive pitmaster because apparently there will be Wildwood springing up across America. Indeed, the menu does not subscribe to one type of barbecue or another but rather ocombines a menagerie of regional styles into a cohesive menu. The beef items on offer, brisket and an enormous bone in short rib are pure Texas and not dissimilar from the 'cue at Hill Country. There is also a Carolina pulled pork sandwich, Memphis-style dry rubbed ribs and Denver lamb ribs.

The beef brisket was absolutely superb, moist, tender, smoky and delicious. It was the epitome of fork tender 'cue, it won't fall apart at the mere sight of a fork but it will easily succumb to the slightest pressure. In many ways it combines the finer aspects of Hill Country moist and lean brisket without being either too fatty or too dry.

Even better than the brisket was the massive beef short rib which had a wonderful caramelized crust and comes served on a Bowe knife sized bone.

The inside of the beef short rib contrasted nicely with the exterior. While the latter had a salty, bitter sweet, dark character that fell into the yin, the tender ribbons of smoky beef that lay inside brought the 'cue back into the yang. The smoke ring was particularly distinct with a deep pink hue. This standard of barbecue would be impressive under any circumstance but the fact that a restaurant turned out a piece of beef of this quality on their opening night portends well for the future.

The Carolina pulled pork was as good as I have had in NYC. It was very flavorful and tender with a nice smokiness that still allowed the porks inherent sweetness to come through. The accompanying potato bread and a vinegary sauce where largely superfluous, the pork was compelling enough on its own.

The rib sampler - Spare, babyback and lamb

The rib sampler offers a good introduction in to some of the diverse varieties of 'cue on offer. My favorite was the spare ribs that where nice and meaty, replete with an impressive pink smoke ring. They perhaps fell behind the finest example of the breed found at Daisy May's and R.U.B. (although the latter has been rather inconsistent as of late) but none the less where quite impressive. The baby backs, slathered in an allegedly spicy chipotle raspberry, was not very spicy at all and mercifully the raspberry flavor was minimal. Truth be told I don't find baby backs make for the best 'cue, they just don't have enough fat for my taste.

I was not enthusiastic about everything that I sampled. The two home made sausage varities, Texas style and Jalepeno, where rather lackluster and while juicy lacked flavor, especially the former. Certainly it lacked the crispy skin that Hill Country achieve with their hot links. The sausage at Wildwood also fell behind their rivals in terms of flavor and smokiness. Similarly I found the Denver lamb ribs to be rather chewy and hard to eat, the flavor was good but texturally it was not successful.

I was also not a big fan of the sauces on offer, although most of the barbecue was so good that it really does not need any adornments. The classic Barbecue sauce was just a bit to thin on the palate and perhaps a tad too sweet. Big Lou's Secret Sauce had a nice kick to it from the chipotle but also had an underlying sickly sweetness from the raspberry that was disconcerting. The side items are worth mentioning, the kettle cooked burnt end and bacon baked beans had a hearty flavor, the creamy coleslaw was tangy and d crispy and the honey drizzled corn bread was sweet enough that it could have been a desert item. The creamed spinach was just OK but perhaps my steady diet of steakhouses has left me a bit jaded.

I appreciate the fact that one can order ice cream by the scoop and at only $2 each it is quite a bargain. I must take issue with the use of disposable cutlery and serving dish however, B.R. Guest make a big deal about "going green" on their home page but the use of disposable utensils seems to belie this.

The room in which all this barbecue unfolds is designed by David Rockwell and while not as tiresome as the design at Hill Country, which tries very hard to make you think that you are in Texas, the room here echoes the menu in providing a sort of universally generic amalgam of what a contemporary smoke joint might be. The space is dominated by the bar that runs almost the whole length of the restaurant, huge slabs of aged wood and steel poles compose the rafters as garage doors hang above the denizens of the bar. The lighting, which was lowered during the meal is warm and inviting. Unfortunately the table I dined at, with four other people was far too narrow for the task of holding the plates and dishes, a fact that was exacerbated by the geometric variety of the dishes some of which where so long that they almost spanned the table itself. A manager assured us that the table was to be replaced, I wonder if the designers have ever actually eaten a barbecue meal.

It is probably not fair to judge the service on the first night. While my waiter was effusive and knowledgeable of the menu there where some gaps in the service, a drink order took far to long to fulfill and a request for the furnishment of pickles to accompany some of the meats showed up when almost all the meat was gone. Never the less just as with my experience at Primehouse NY on their opening night, the problems where minor and the food overshadowed any short comings at the service end of things.

As I stated at the onset of this piece this is only a preliminary report but I will most assuredly be back at Wildwood, the potential for some consistently great barbecue is apparent. It will be interesting to witness the fine tuning of the operation in the weeks to come. The comparisons to Hill Country will be inevitable given Big Lou's history but the restaurant is closer in spirit to Blue Smoke, with its upmarket design and aspirations. Whether the neighborhood really needs another barbecue restaurant with a wine list remains to be seen but if the high standards I experienced tonight can be maintained I see no reason why Wildwood won't be a success.

Wildwood Barbecue
225 Park Ave S. (at 18th),

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Smoke Joint

In my recent review of Fette Sau I commented that they produced a style of barbecue that might one day be known as "NYC" style. I was unaware at the time that the term had been coined by Fort Green, Brooklyn barbecue restaurant The Smoke Joint, who do indeed eschew regional allegiances in favor of a unique style that favors local inspiration. The Smoke Joint actually predates Fette Sau and while the menu is less ambitious I found that they turn out a more consistent product.

The Smoke Joint is well named. Despite its Brooklyn moorings the wood paneled interior and simple chalk board menu, coupled with a the smoky aroma from the kitchen could easily be situated on a dusty country back road.

The food is where the The Smoke Joint reveals its local roots. The short ribs might look like classic 'cue but it is served with a spicy soy based sauce which is thinner than regular barbecue sauce. Similarly the hot dog is something that you don't see on barbecue menus that often.

The blue cheese wedge, a staple at NYC steakhouses, makes its way on to the menu again emphasizing The Smoke Joints local roots. While it did not quite match up to to what you will find at a chophouse it only costs $4. The coleslaw was also quite tasty

The beef shorts ribs cost $16 for two and proved to be a bargain. While I did not much care for the soy based sauce that comes with them I thought they were succulent enough to stand on their own, no sauce required.

The beef rib had a wonderfully tender and flavorful interior, ribbons of smoky meat easily succumbed to the slightest fork pressure. The exterior crust, while not anywhere near as thick as the bark that covers the 'cue at Fette Sau, was still substantial and while it might have lacked a bit of bite it had a pleasing caramelized texture.

Black Angus hot dog

I am sure devotees of Nathans might take issue with the 'Joints claim that their black Angus beef hot dog is the "best in Brooklyn," but I did find it delicious. In addition to the hearty beef flavor it had a skin that literally snapped when bitten in to, releasing a juicy flavor explosion. If I had one criticism it is that the dog is just too skinny, getting lost somewhat in the bun.

You can remedy hot dogs lack of girth by adding hacked beef, a delicious combination.

Hacked Beef

I enjoyed the food at The Smoke Joint, while the menu is more limited than its Brooklyn neighbor Fette Sau the beef items on offer are, pound for pound, more consistent and the sides are better. Just as at Fette Sau, The Smoke Joint won't make me give up my Manhattan favorites and I wouldn't travel a great distance to eat there but if I lived close by I could see myself eating there with some frequency.

The Smoke Joint
87 S Elliott Pl
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 797-101

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fette Sau

Fette Sau joined the increasingly crowded pantheon of NYC barbecue joints last year, a few weeks ahead of Hill Country. If Fette Sau had opened in Manhattan it is likely that it would have been relegated to supporting cast status, overshadowed by performances from the numerous rising stars of the boroughs more celebrated joints. Out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn however Fette Sau has the chance to shine on a solo stage, at least until Zak Pelaccio and Robbie Richter open up their Asian inspired barbecuer. I mention Hill Country because aside from similar birthdays Fette Sau and HC share a similar aesthetic and service system. Both establishments eschew waiter service in favor of a cafeteria system that requires lining up for ones food at a counter. Beyond that both establishments can claim to be spiritual heirs to the German style meat markets that dot the Texas landscape. While HC tries hard to mimic Kreuts Market in Lockhart,TX, Fette Sau is unabashedly parochial, it might share a certain industrial minimalism with the afore mentioned institution but at its heart it is pure NYC (and perhaps more specifically Williamsburg) eclectia. And ultimately so is the food, which does not ascribe to one regional style over another but in a real sense may be at the vanguard of a style that one day will become known as “NYC style.”

The first thing you notice about the barbecue here as you reach the counter, past the rows of communal tables and a plasma TV that plays an endless loop of a fireplace is the sheer quantity of dry rub that is applied to the meat. A thick black “bark” covers almost all the meats and is far darker and denser than any barbecue I have eaten. It seems inspired more by the pastrami of the classic New York delicatessen than the ‘cue from a Southern smoke joint. Fette Sau actually serves pastrami but I have yet to make its acquaintance, a result of the rotating menu system. The items on offer changes daily at Fette Sau, this rotating menu allows for a wide range of options but also means that you may not always get exactly what you want. It is a good idea to call ahead and check on the days selections. The beef menu is extensive with some interesting and none traditional offerings such as Wagyu cheeks and flank steak as well as more familiar items such as ribs (both with and without bones) and brisket.

The beef ribs are probably the best bet as they have always been juicy and flavorful in my experience. The brisket proved to be more inconsistent, while it can be extremely moist and succulent; with a hearty flavor from the dry rub and a more subtle smokiness than other locals joints (perhaps the thickness of the bark minimizes the penetration of the smoke into the meat) it is not always so. Unfortunately, more often than not it has been rather dried out, perhaps because it sits under a heat lamp. I surmise that the juiciness of the 'cue is determined by the length of time it sits there. Get there early and your experience will be better than if you roll in at the end of the evening. I find that the method for keeping the meat warm at Hill Country, which uses large hoppers tends to result in a moister product. All the ‘Cue at Fette Sau is served dry, sans sauce. After tasting the somewhat acrid, ketchupy sauce on offer I am glad that they do. I actually found the mustard they serve to go better with the beef, balancing out the caramelized dry rub. I have never considered using plain mustard on barbecue but after my experience I may be sneaking a bottle of Coleman’s English mustard on might next barbecue meal, sort of like Calvin Trillon’s nephew Cary Fox sneaking Kansas City barbecue sauce in to a Kreuts Market in TX, recounted in Trillin’s endearing “Feeding a Yen.

I also sampled the pork belly that is frankly too rich to eat in large quantity as it is almost completely composed of caramelized fat. The pork ribs, also covered with a thick bark where more serviceable, not the finest I have eaten but perfectly respectable. I was less enthused with the pulled pork which was less tender and flavorful than expected. While the meat offerings are bountiful and mostly recommendable despite some inconsistency the sides are almost universally disappointing. A cold broccoli salad was completely soggy and pale. The baked beans, which look like they should be delicious, peppered as they are with burnt ends and pork scraps are unfortunately sauced with a soupy, ketchup like mixture that was not appetizing in the least.

The bar has an impressive lineup of bourbons and microbrew beers and would be a draw even if no food was served here. This is not surprising considering that Fette Sau's owners also run the well regarded Spuyten Duyvil across the street.

The outdoor benches double the available seating inside and offers diners a relatively secluded environment despite being quite close to the street. It must be quite pleasant to relax with a brew and some 'cue during spring evenings as the sun is setting. On the other hand the nearby Mclaren Park might also make an ideal place to get take your ‘cue if Fette Sau is too crowded, which seems to be the case with increasing frequency as the days warm and lengthen. It is best to get there close to opening time to not only avoid the line but also to insure that the barbecue if moist.

I should give special mention to the “charts of meat” mural that graces the east wall of the establishment, it is genius.

Barbecue loving denizens of Williamsburg can rest assured that they have some decent barbecue close to home. While I felt that Fette Sau fell behind my favorite joints in Manhattan - Hill Country, Daisy May's and Dinosaur BBQ, it does offer a unique take on the genre. While the thick application of dry rub and the smoking of the meat until it quite literally falls of the bone, as was the case with a rack of pork ribs I tried recently, probably won’t win any barbecue awards, straying so far from the competition ideal as it does, the ‘cue here never the less offers a pleasing diversion.

Fette Sau
354 Metropolitan Ave

Brooklyn, NY 11211
Phone 718 963 3404

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Four Seasons - The Best Steak in NY?

"The best steak in NY" is a claim one expects to hear from a waiter at any of the dozens and dozens of NYC steakhouses. But when the claim comes from a waiter at The Four Seasons, well that sounds like a challenge to someone that has eaten at dozens and dozens of NYC steakhouses. Its not that I am skeptical that The Four Seasons can provide a wonderful steak, especially given its $55 price tag its just that there are so many establishments who specialize in beef and nothing else and who have for decades had a lock on the best Prime beef on offer that I question if they can be surpassed.

I can think of no other room that is quite as beautiful as that of The Four Seasons, it is truly breathtaking, minimalist yet warm and inviting. The service matches the room, a consummately professional staff are precise and effusive, almost the point of being obsequious.

The steak tartar at The Four Seasons is quite rightly well regarded. It is a wonderfully blended and refined incarnation of the dish, served with Osetra Caviar it certainly provides all the luxury commiserate with its price and surroundings. Having said that it was served at a temperature that was a tad cooler than was perhaps optimum to fully realize its flavor.

Osetra Caviar

The NY strip steak is dry aged USDA Prime. I guestimate that it weighed in at around 12oz, a decent size for rational appetites but certainly much smaller than the same cut at your average chophouses , the steaks at the latter usually weigh in at between 16-18 oz. While the steaks at steakhouses are served a la carte The Four Seasons version comes with some onion strings and a perfectly cooked vegetable medley.

There was a problem with my first steak however, it was ordered black and blue as is my custom with USDA Prime steer, but unfortunately it was served closer to medium rare. The replacement steak was much closer to ideal, a wonderful charred crust, blacker in fact than that of the grills of many chophouses, gave way to a delectably cool center. The flesh was very tender and quite flavorful, although in absolute terms it did trail behind the likes of some of my favorite steakhouses - Lugers, Smith and Wollensky, Primehouse etc. Of course none of these chophouses offer cuisine that is on the level of what is on offer at The Four Seasons.

The best steak in NY? Ultimately not, but never the less a very, very good one and the rest of the meal, the service and the room itself all add up to a sumptuous, decadent and wondrous dining experience. Highly recommended for the well heeled.

The Four Seasons
99 E. 52nd St.,
New York, NY 10022
212 754 9494