My venerable English friend describes himself as a “steak man,” and he has dined on his favorite dish around the world. He has ordered steak in Tokyo, in Singapore, and in Norway near the Arctic Circle (“It looked lovely, but it turned out to be whale”). Good steak in Britain, he says, is an oxymoron, and in France, “they don’t really understand the concept; they never get it thick enough.” A certain T-bone he once had in Rome was “a splendid piece of beef,” the steak man says, though not quite as splendid as the greatest beef of all, which is served, according to him, right here in New York City. The steak man considers New York steak to be the city’s great gastronomic specialty (he’s right), especially when it’s served on the bone (“I enjoy chewing a good bone”) and when it’s not tarnished by some ridiculous sauce. “Nothing holds a patch on a properly aged, properly butchered New York steak,” the steak man declares, “provided the meat is allowed to speak for itself.”
This disquisition takes place at Quality Meats, the latest in a seemingly endless cavalcade of fanciful, modern beef palaces to open in the city over the past decade or so. The midtown restaurant is part of Alan Stillman’s monolithic Smith & Wollensky empire—it’s the brainchild of his son, Michael, and is being touted in beef-eater circles as a radical reinterpretation of stodgy old formulas, the steakhouse equivalent of the next new thing. Visually, at least, this could be true. The space, as conceived by the trendy downtown design group AvroKO, is a kind of fever dream of quaintly realized butcher-block references. A white-plaster cow’s head is affixed to the entrance wall, and the bar is lined with decorative jars of bourbon mash. The walls and ceilings are covered with planks of polished brown walnut (“an homage to a traditional meat locker,” according to my press notes), and as you sit down to your meal, one of the first things you notice is that portions of the room are lit with industrial-style chandeliers fashioned from giant steel meat hooks.
Despite such Freddy Krueger–like touches, the room feels polished, albeit in a contrived sort of way, and it’s been designed, like everything else about Quality Meats, with one purpose in mind. “I can’t get my wife into Smith & Wollensky’s, but she’s happy to come here,” says the steak man as he eyes a menu filled with aggressively feminized dishes like corn crème brûlée (horrible), flatiron steak with blackberries (surprisingly good), and buttered edamame with mint salt (good). Order roast chicken at this particular steakhouse, and it comes smothered in sweetened kumquats. Order the very nice steak tartare, and it arrives in a dainty wooden bowl with an equally dainty wooden spoon on which the tartare spices (you mix them in yourself) are arrayed like a little rainbow. Instead of mealy beefsteak tomatoes and slabs of onion as an appetizer, you get sweet, porridge-thick corn chowder (which the steak man’s wife happily gobbled) and a tasty, even decorative beet salad deftly arranged on the plate to obscure large amounts of calorie-laden bacon.
Like most serious carnivores, the steak man is a pragmatist who’s willing to suffer almost any indignity for a good piece of meat. “They’re making some concessions to people who are not true steak aficionados,” he observed between diplomatic spoonfuls of corn chowder. “This is admirable, as long as they don’t muck up the main course.” Before you get to the main course at Quality Meats, however, you must negotiate helpings of generic, vaguely rubberized tuna tartare, acceptable though extravagantly priced crab cakes ($16 for a single one), and a nice gnocchi appetizer fiendishly designed to taste like macaroni and cheese. Not surprisingly, there’s also a healthy roster of fish dishes, my favorite being the halibut, which was crisped on its exterior, flaky white inside, and set over a healthful mixture of white and green asparagus and pea shoots. The seared tuna’s good, too (it’s served in decorous, ladylike squares, with a spackling of cracked pepper and a dribbling of caramelized soy), although fish snobs should avoid the Dover sole, which costs $44 and is obscured by a brackish butter sauce.
There’s plenty of steak to be had at Quality Meats once you’ve waded through all this ephemera, although it doesn’t come cheap. I enjoyed my neighbor’s bizarre flatiron-and-blackberry combination ($27) much more than my own bone-in sirloin, which lacked the charred crunchiness of a great steak and cost $42 for a meager eighteen ounces. The steak man attacked his bone-in rib steak (24 ounces for $44) with commendable gusto, but if you want to enjoy the full flavor of this great fresser’s specialty, order the 64-ounce double cut, a huge, Rabelaisian haunch of beef, carved tableside in thick dinosaur slices for two. The similarly sized rack of lamb tasted curiously bland to me, although there are good lamb chops on the menu, covered in a nice mint sauce dotted, weirdly, with a few too many Mission figs. In a city teeming with mediocre veal chops, the one at Quality Meats is among the best I’ve tasted, but the best dish of all was the suckling pig, cooked to a kind of melting, crackly crispness and mingled, ribs and all, with a savory apricot sauce.