The grand, old restaurants, the ones that turn a profit year after year after year, possess their own curious kind of alchemy. The signature recipes at these venerable establishments (the Oyster Bar’s oyster pan roast, plain pizza at Lombardi’s, Peter Luger’s porterhouse) are uncomplicated and easily taught to successive generations of cooks. The rooms they’re served in exhibit durability and functionality instead of style, and they rarely ever change. And as the decades pass, a comforting sense of timelessness settles over the proceedings. Familiarity turns a simple meal into a kind of cultural excursion, and eventually the timelessness of place becomes a draw in itself. This elusive quality takes many years to produce, and unlike good wine you can’t bottle it or franchise it, and as a rule, it doesn’t travel well.
So, will someone please explain to me why the porterhouse at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, which opened a little more than three months ago on a hectic corner of midtown, tastes so fresh and familiar and so, well, Peter Luger–like? The unlikely answer, it turns out, is Wolfgang himself. As all the city’s steak hounds know by now, Wolfgang Zwiener toiled at the original Luger’s in Williamsburg for 41 years. As a waiter and then the headwaiter, he was privy to all the secrets and quirks of that great institution, many of which are now on display at his own eponymous establishment. There are the dangerously hot steak platters, all scuffed and burnt around the edges from incessant cooking. There are the waiters, many of whom are Luger transplants, who rush through the crowd wearing long aprons and slightly askew snap-on bow ties. There is even a “Wolfgang’s Steakhouse Old-Fashioned Sauce,” which is a near-exact facsimile of the famous Luger’s Steak Sauce, only it’s slightly sweeter, and contains a touch more horseradish. I took an old Luger acolyte to Wolfgang’s, and when he tasted this apostate sauce, he closed his eyes for a minute, as if taking a communication directly from the steak gods, then whispered, “It’s actually better.”
You can’t say that about the beef at Wolfgang’s, but it’s awfully close. At least that was the consensus among the Luger faithful on the evenings I visited. The consensus also was that the room (it’s in the bottom of the old Vanderbilt Hotel, and has low, vaulted ceilings tiled by the great turn-of-the-century craftsman Raphael Guastavino) is properly august, but entirely too small. Steakhouses traditionally attract a boisterous clientele, and, especially in the evening, Wolfgang’s is bursting with crowds of youthful, pink-faced gentlemen all braying at the top of their lungs. “It’s as if someone decided to open Peter Luger’s in the men’s room of the Oyster Bar,” declared my Uncle Frank, the family gastronome, as he tucked into his slab of porterhouse.
“The beef at Wolfgang’s isn’t better than Luger’s, but it’s awfully close.”
But noise or no noise (lunchtime is the time to visit Wolfgang’s if you prefer the latter), the porterhouse is exceptionally good. It’s salty and a little crunchy on the outside and tender in the middle, and it comes with a huge T-bone in tow. The filet mignon was equally satisfying (it’s tender, too, and looks liked a well-charred softball), and so was the tougher, more flavorful sirloin. There is also a nice quartet of lamb chops available, and refined pieces of swordfish and salmon, should you wish to abstain from the red-meat frenzy. You can bolster these dishes with very good creamed spinach and several kinds of potatoes, including great Frisbee-size cottage fries, and old-fashioned German potatoes (hashed potatoes fried with onions). The desserts—a tall ice-cream sundae, wedges of cheesecake, Key-lime pie, and fat, flaky strudel—are all good enough, provided you have the room. For city slickers, Wolfgang has also produced his own non-Lugeresque version of Park Avenue crème brûlée. It’s fine as crème brûlée goes, although it’s difficult to resist anointing it, in the ancient Luger tradition, with cloudlike spoonfuls of schlag.
Taboon means “oven” in Arabic, specifically the ancient, arched-stone oven used to bake the Middle East’s numerous varieties of flatbread. And the bread alone is reason enough to visit this tidy, whitewashed restaurant, which opened for business a few months ago in the wilds of Hell’s Kitchen. The bread arrives just after you sit down, on a little butcher board. It’s piping hot and golden brown and pooled on top with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of sage, rosemary, and sea salt. “You don’t get this kind of bread at Bouley,” said a chef friend of mine, and he’s right. You can gobble it whole, or dip it in a bowl of tzatziki, or enjoy it in tandem with any one of fifteen inventive varieties of meze. These include, in no particular order of preference, a mound of tender, warm calamari (sautéed in olive oil, on a bed of shaved fennel and yogurt), sweetbreads and olives softly cooked in tomatoes, or a kibbeh-like steak tartare made with chopped filet mignon, parsley, bulgur, and fresh mint.
Not surprisingly, most of the food at Taboon is cooked fresh in the stone oven. This includes, among the entrées, a trio of savory ground-lamb kebabs, an impressive lamb osso buco, and a rich helping of oxtail stew heaped over a mound of fat, slightly crisped gnocchi. My taboon-seared lamb chops were tough and gnarly (they’re heaped over artichokes, fava beans, and yogurt), but a piece of barramundi came out of the taboon steamy and fresh, with a crackling slip of skin on top. This kind of delicate fusion technique (the fish was served on a pile of sorrel with mashed chickpeas) extends to exotically named desserts like malabi (baklava and berries all bound up in a rose-infused whipped cream) and silan, which consists of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with tahini, caramelized pistachios, and date honey. Best of all, though, is a confection called tocinillo. It’s a silky, light flan, laced with cream and crumbled walnuts. Slurp it down whole, or do what I contemplated doing, and spread it daintily on another loaf of that superior taboon-baked bread.