I have described before in this space how, during the chaotic feeding frenzy of the last bull market, city restaurateurs devised all sorts of tricks and ruses in an attempt to break out of the stodgy-though-profitable steakhouse box. Not wanting to appear too retrograde (sawdust on the floors, waiters in aprons, etc.), they disguised their steakhouses as sleek, postmodern power hangouts (Del Frisco’s), lavish corporate dining halls (Tuscan Steak), even risqué girlie bars (Strip House). The boom is long gone, of course, but it still takes a confident individual to plaster the walls of his (or her) establishment with hunting prints, dress the waiters up in white coats with gold buttons, and roll out elderly grandpa dishes like Châteaubriand and proper rib roastnot to mention roast chicken and fillet of solecarved for two on classic linen-covered trolley carts.
Terrance Brennan (of Picholine and Artisanal) is nothing if not confident, however, and instead of shying away from the ancient chophouse formula at his new venture, Terrance Brennan’s Seafood & Chop House, which opened recently on the ground floor of the Benjamin Hotel, he seems to have embraced it whole hog. In the tradition of great gastronomes like Bobby Van and Tony Roma, he’s put his name on an awning outside, and the smallish, almost poky dining space (which once housed Larry Forgione’s American Place) has been done up with with scarlet-and-gold flock wallpaper. Scarlet lampshades hang from the ceiling, and the walls are covered with an assortment of ye olde knickknacksaged maps, aged street scenes etc.like those of the dining room of an upmarket suburban hotel.
There’s nothing suburban about the food, however, which is a competent and often delicious amalgam of classically elegant seafood dishes and old-fashioned beefeater largesse. The first item I ordered off the appetizer menu was bone-marrow toast, which Mr. Brennan’s chef de cuisine, Tony Acinapura, leavens with a thick spread of mashed spare ribs. After that came lobster bisque, which had the kind of tangy, almost-chocolate richness my great-grandmother would have approved of, followed by a buttery little mound of pastry pithiviers stuffed with escargots, chopped garlic, and fresh parsley. The menu offers a full complement of raw-bar items, most of which seemed overpriced, and if it’s caviar you want, order the deviled-egg trifle, an exotic turn-of-the-last-century mixture of chopped eggs, shallots, and crème fraîche served in a martini glass and decorated with a generous spoonful of osetra.
If all this sounds almost comically retrograde, that’s because it is. Mr. Brennan offers his diners not two but twelve fancy sauces with which to slather their food. I enjoyed béarnaise with my fine sirloin, dijonnaise with my Dover sole, and spoonfuls of orange-hued romesco with a chaste portion of perfectly cooked arctic char. If you order the thick lamb chops, have them drizzled with anchovy butter; the grilled pompano is good enough to eat alone. That isn’t true of the suckling pig, which was dry and chewy (although there’s a delicious pressed pork sandwich served at lunch), or the porterhouse, which my friend the steak nut pronounced “a little on the wee side.” If it’s a rib cut you like, order the one carved at table for two, and if you’re a duck fiend, the duck à l’orange is one of the best examples of this tired, potentially troublesome dish you’ll find in town.
As at any respectable chophouse, the menu is chock-full of opulent side dishes. The onion rings are as big as doughnuts and too greasy, and the great salt-baked potatowhich waiters unearth like some kind of giant grub at the tableisn’t worth its $12 price tag. I’d recommend the potato cake (it has a crisp, hash-brown exterior and is buttery inside), the sweet rutabaga sauerkraut, or the spinach folded in a creamy Parmesan sauce. For dessert, you can watch bleary-eyed as the waiters prepare faithful versions of crêpes suzette at the table and a flaming baked Alaska stuffed with sorbet and almond cake. Or order the pint-size chocolate soufflé, spiked with hazelnut-flavored crème anglaise. It’s rich enough to share magnanimously around the table, but so delicate and tidy you won’t feel guilty gobbling it whole.