Second acts can be dicey propositions. Especially, as F. Scott Fitzgerald knew, if your first act happens to encapsulate a period of exuberant largesse now suddenly vanished and forgotten. Not so long ago, it was possible to belly up to the bar at Patroon, on 46th Street off Third Avenue, and order a single shot of brandy (Courvoisier Succession 1911) for the extravagant sum of $1,000. There were four-figure bottles of wine available, too, and illicit Cuban cigars that owner Ken Aretsky sold to high-rollers until the Feds made him stop. A lavish cigar lounge upstairs was for private, fat-cat soirées (fitted out with 250 private humidors), and a fancy chef in the kitchen (Geoffrey Zakarian) served artful renditions of filet mignon, smoked-duck sausage, and a lunchtime hamburger priced (at $23) to be the most expensive in town.
Tastes change with the times, however, and after the fizzling of the great bull market, Aretsky quietly closed the curtain on the old Patroon. Now he's opened it again, reconstituted into what my press release calls "a casual and fun New York steakhouse." The formerly gray Gotham façade has been painted a dull, institutional beige, and there's an American flag hanging, firehouse style, over the glass-door entrance. The upstairs lounges are still intact, but the walls of the main dining room have been muffled with toffee-colored padding, like the inside of a recording studio. The menu, as composed by executive chef Craig Cupani (formerly of Butterfield 81 and Brasserie), is stocked with wholesome seafood (lobster, fillet of sole), standard cuts of beef (porterhouse, fillet, Delmonico), and the usual cavalcade of side dishes. When I wistfully inquired about the Courvoisier '11, my waitress gave a quizzical smile. "I think they drank all that stuff up," she said.
It's still possible, though, to drop a sizable bundle at Patroon. On an early visit, I plunked down $37.50 for the privilege of chawing my way through four reasonably tasty slices of porterhouse, which is several dollars more than you'll pay for a superior piece of beef at Sparks down the street. The fairly meager twelve-ounce sirloin isn't worth the price ($30.75), although I liked the brick-size filet mignon, and the deliciously charred steak Delmonico. Patroon's steak sauce is a watery approximation of the Peter Luger recipe, although my fatso, beefeater companions raved about trimmings like creamed spinach (not too creamy) and the savory mushroom sauté, spooned from a little copper pot. If you want to go hog-wild, order the grilled lobster ($21 per pound), which had claws like boxing gloves the evening I sampled it, with flavor to match.
Chef Cupani is a seasoned professional, however, and many of his non-surf-and-turf dishes are as good as you'll find in any steakhouse. Delicate eaters can take refuge in the butter-smooth risotto, folded throughout with wild mushrooms cooked in a rich veal stock. The house short ribs are suitably melting and tender, as is the duck-confit appetizer, which is dripped with a mildly sweet cherry sauce. Uncle Frank, the family gastronome, was a stranger to the original Patroon but remembered the room when it was occupied by the venerable old steakhouse Christ Cella. He was pleased to hear that current management kept a framed doggie bag from the old joint upstairs, and watched admiringly as waiters deboned his very fine grilled sole into two neat fillets. "They didn't know what sole was at the old Christ Cella's," he said.
Whether the new Patroon measures up to the old Patroon is another question. The high-rollers have mostly disappeared, replaced by an innocuous crowd of expense-account burghers wearing slate-colored suits. The wine list is stolid, if not spectacular, and if you're feeling frisky, you can knock back a single glass of '55 Sandeman's port for $115. For dessert, there's a nicely crunchy coconut-ice-cream sandwich and a modest pudding cake made with Valrhona chocolate. Steakhouse gluttons might enjoy the baked Alaska (with Meyer lemon), but I thought it tasted like something out of the back of an ice-cream truck. My wedge of cheesecake was better than that, and so was the house chocolate sundae, served in a brandy snifter with a dense chocolate brownie at the bottom. Competent is the word I'd use to describe these dishes. That's a good description for most things about Patroon, but it won't bring the buzz back to the old joint anytime soon.
Patroon, 160 East 46th Street (212-883-7373); Lunch, Monday to Friday, 12 to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8.50 to $15.50; entrées, $17 to $37.50. All major credit cards.