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.
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.
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.
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.
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.