It’s no secret that the restaurant business is, at its highest level, a gambler’s game. Scratch the surface of this mannered, sophisticated world, and you’ll find a rough-and-tumble casino filled with high-stakes operators and dapper rogues, each with his own tale to tell of big payoffs, near misses, and abject woe. Just ask Laurent Tourondel, a supremely accomplished chef who just three years ago was running the kitchen at Cello, one of the finest seafood restaurants in town. Business was booming until one day, on a trip out of the country, he got a call from his staff. He was informed that the owner, a formerly high-flying Internet investor, had closed the restaurant without notice. Like any good gambler, Tourondel took this cruel lesson to heart. And now, after a period of study and reflection, he’s back in the game. Only this time, he’s not chancing his luck in the fickle, expensive realm of high-end seafood. He’s come to the table with a tested, time-honored, possibly bulletproof formula. This time, Tourondel is opening a steakhouse.
BLT Steak is the name of Tourondel’s venture (the initials stand for Bistro Laurent Tourondel), which set up for business about a month ago on East 57th Street, off Park Avenue. This is prime steakhouse territory, of course, a region crawling with hungry tourists and hordes of fat-cat expense-account diners. But BLT Steak has been designed with a more eclectic crowd in mind. There are no oil paintings of giant steers on the walls, no display cases of prime beef aging grimly by the door. The only overt nod to the genre is a daily-specials board listing esoteric dishes like Kobe strip steak and grilled ramps. Otherwise, we could be anywhere in the polished upper realm of dining Manhattan. There’s a long bar in the front of the room and a communal table a little farther back where you can perch and pick at your Kobe beef. The tabletops are made of polished ebony, the banquettes are covered in yellowy shades of Ultrasuede, and if you’re fond of big, fashionably aggressive flower arrangements, there are plenty of those scattered around, too.
But what makes a good steakhouse, of course, is lots of good meat, and there’s plenty of that on the menu at BLT Steak. First, the chef prepares the ground with a barrage of giant popovers—steaming Yorkshire puddings as big as elephant knuckles, and weighted on their tops with crusts of Gruyère cheese. After manhandling one of these, I sampled the steak tartare, which is presented as an appetizer, with a little twirl of thin, crinkly frites on the side. The small patty had a smooth, pasty texture, and tasted the way good steak tartare does, of capers and egg yolk and a mysterious hint of spice. If you’re a steakhouse traditionalist, you can bolster this dish with plates of oysters on the half shell, a robust (though not especially fresh) shrimp cocktail, or a baroque creation called a “Grilled ‘BLT’ with Foie Gras” (at $22, it’s Tourondel’s nod to Daniel Boulud’s famous burger), which consists of apple-smoked bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomato, and butter-smooth slabs of foie gras terrine, squeezed between two pieces of grilled toast.
If you’re feeling rash, then do what I did one evening and pair this deadly little sandwich with the clam chowder (it’s lightly creamy, not goopy, and faithfully salted with nuggets of pork belly), although I wouldn’t recommend this. The delicious white-mushroom soup (poured over a truffle-oil emulsion, which then rises to the top) is a slightly more moderate option before the beef dishes begin to arrive, and if you’re feeling especially chaste, try the fresh beet salad or the heirloom tomatoes decked with basil leaves and tangy, faintly dissolving curls of Stilton cheese.
“What makes a good steakhouse is good meat, and there’s plenty of that on the menu at BLT Steak.”
As for the steak, it’s cut width-wise, in delicate slices (to facilitate fashionable “family-style” sharing), and it comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a suitably enormous porterhouse for two (40 ounces for $72) to a thin, surgically sliced flatiron cut of Kobe beef oozing with fatty, rich flavor. In between, there’s a tough but tasty cut of hanger steak, an absurdly tender filet mignon, and a classic twelve-ounce New York strip. It’s charred and salty on the exterior, so that when you take a bite, the result is a pleasurable candylike crunch.
The only unhappy beef dish I encountered at BLT Steak was an oversize Kobe strip-steak special, which oozes a great slick of oil when you press it with your fork. The rack of lamb (double-cut and sealed in a blanket of chopped herbs) was properly tender and lamby, however, and the rib eye (for two) was properly tender and huge.
If you tire of all this beef, you can take refuge in an expertly cooked rare duck breast, or, even better, the chicken. Tourondel serves his chicken like pot-au-feu in a cast-iron pot, but instead of being tender and wet, the bird (which is roasted) is tender and crispy, with savory deposits of bread crumbs and rosemary stuffed under the skin. The seafood on the menu is about what you’d expect from an accomplished seafood chef, particularly the Dover sole, which is sautéed, de-boned, and finished with a brown-butter sauce. There’s a nice lemony fillet of swordfish also, and a giant three-and-a-half-pound lobster, which, unlike most giant steakhouse lobsters, manages, miraculously, to retain some flavor of the sea.
No self-respecting steakhouse would be complete without a bulging roster of side dishes, and BLT Steak is no exception. There are eighteen of them, including eight preparations of potato, and during the course of the meal, they patter down on the table incessantly, like apples falling from a tree. The best ones (onion rings, creamed spinach, braised collard greens, potato gratin) are plenty good, but most of the others aren’t worth the $7 to $9 they add to the already hefty cost of each entrée. You can’t say the same thing about the desserts, however. I enjoyed the crème brûlée more than the brûlée snobs at my table (coffee-flavored Cointreau is poured on its candied top). There’s also a decent gourmet version of carrot cake, and a nice, fluffy, omelet-shaped creation called a crêpe soufflé resting in a citrus sauce. Then there’s the orange-raspberry sundae, filled with nougat glacée and candied nuts and crunchy bits of meringue. This noble creation comes in a tall, frosty glass, and it’s excavated, in the traditional manner, with a long silver spoon. Like most of the food at BLT Steak, it’s money in the bank, the gambler’s equivalent of a sure bet.