You don't have to be a keen observer of the restaurant scene to notice that the great Manhattan steakhouse has undergone a bizarre institutional facelift recently. As I discussed in this space not long ago, so-called steakhouses have sprung up around town disguised as TriBeCa hipster destinations (Dylan Prime), megamall Italian pasta joints (Tuscan Steak), and even louche girlie bars (Strip House). In the midst of this stylistic mayhem, let's pause for a minute and redefine, for the current generation of nouveaux beefeaters, just what a real steakhouse is. A real steakhouse is an institution, not a restaurant. It serves steak, primarily, chosen, cut, and prepared according to timeless methods on which the economic and psychic health of the institution depends. The décor should have an old-shoe quality, and the waiters should, too. There may be other dishes on the menu of a real steakhouse (shrimp cocktail, for instance), but these are rarely sampled, and they are almost invariably bad.
So imagine my sense of quiet hopefulness when the shrimp cocktail I ordered at the MarkJoseph Steakhouse, a modest enterprise that opened not long ago down on Water Street, in the South Street Seaport, turned out to be, well, not very good. Not that it was a bad shrimp cocktail, mind you. The shrimps were uniformly huge and served on a bed of mildly limp lettuce. They came with a wedge of lemon and a cup of traditional cocktail sauce, and when you bit into them they tasted roughly two thirds fresh and one third frozen. The residue of seafood frozenness is endemic to any old-school steak palace, as comforting as plank floors sprinkled with sawdust. There were other promising signs as well. The street outside is paved in cobblestones, and when you walk down Peck Slip, before dinner, you can see tugboat lights moving to and fro under the Brooklyn Bridge. My waiter was a rotund gentleman with a crumber in his breast pocket. He waited respectfully as I studied the menu, then said, "Make it easy on yourself, babe, the porterhouse is always good."
Porterhouse is the half-sirloin, half-filet cut revered among traditional steak hounds, of course, as well as the specialty at Peter Luger's, the most venerable steak institution in the city. The co-owner of MarkJoseph, Charlie Blair, spent six years studying the art of beef at Luger's Long Island branch, and he has imported several of the ancient techniques to Manhattan for the first time. There are baskets of squeezy onion rolls on the table and gravy boats of Luger-style red steak sauce. MarkJoseph sits beside an old city bridge, just like Luger's, although there is a TV at the commodious bar, and instead of stamped tin, the ceiling has been painted in a soothing fresco of blue clouds and sky. As at Luger's, however, the beefsteak tomatoes are sliced as big as Frisbees, the creamed spinach has no cream in it (flour and butter, mostly), and the hash browns are served golden fried, by the platter, heaped like tiny Indian burial mounds.
The porterhouse at MarkJoseph is handled with a similar respect for simplicity and heft. It can be ordered in four sizes, from a single sirloin ($33) to a monster platter for four ($130). It's sprinkled with salt and cooked in a Jade oven at 1,100 degrees, then sliced and broiled to order at a lower temperature. The searing heat gives the steak a charred, salty edge, and it's brought to the table unadorned, sizzling in its own burnt fat. You can also order a buttery filet mignon separately or with a single, paprika-covered lobster tail as part of a classic surf-and-turf combination. There's a handsome, brick-size veal chop, a beautifully seared bone-in rib steak, and a flotilla of excellent double-cut lamb chops with a proper cup of English mint sauce (not jelly) for dipping.
If you can't finish all this meat, the waiter will sweep the remains into a tinfoil doggie bag, but if you can, you'll have plenty of company at this joint. Unlike Peter Luger's, which is overrun, most days, with Japanese tourists and drunken bankers, MarkJoseph caters to the original steakhouse clientele. On the days I visited, the room was full of beefy gents with gleaming pinky rings and napkins spread over their bellies. "It was business as usual," I heard someone at the next table say. "They pleaded the fifth and were back at work the next day." If these wise guys were on a diet, maybe they picked morosely at plates of blackened catfish or grilled salmon, but not if they could help it. There's also an unremarkable tuna steak on the menu, plus a roster of uninspired salads (stick with the sliced tomato). There's a variety of seafood appetizers as well (aside from the shrimp cocktail, the baked clams are best) and a rich lobster bisque that was flavorful but thick as porridge.
As befits a great steakhouse, however, these non-steak dishes are mere sideshows compared with the main event. The superior side dishes complement the meat, instead of overwhelming it with truffle cream sauces and fancified piles of sweet-potato fries, as they do at some of the trendy steakhouses uptown. The wine selection isn't bad, and there are 25 varieties of single-malt whiskey to choose from. The desserts are Luger knockoffs, only you get your schlag in a decorative scoop, with a sprig of mint on top, instead of in a vat on the side. There's a stodgy, cinnamon-laced version of Apple Brown Betty, a nice wedge of lightly creamy cheesecake, and an average pecan pie. If you're willing to brave the tourist rabble across the river, you'll find a better version of this pecan pie served hot. If not, pull up a chair and start eating. For a new steakhouse in gimmicky postmillennial Manhattan, MarkJoseph is as close as you're likely to get to the real thing.
MarkJoseph Steakhouse 261 Water Street (212-277-0020). Monday through Wednesday noon-10 p.m., Thursday and Friday till 11 p.m., Saturday 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $10-$25; entrées, $18-$33. All major credit cards.