Nothing in the restaurant world lends itself to over-the-top self parody quite like a steakhouse. To stand out amid the thundering herd of artisanal chophouses, Peter Luger knockoffs, and Kobe-beef parlors, restaurateurs resort to all kinds of gimmicks. They hang samurai swords from their ceilings (Kobe Club), advertise their cattle’s pedigree to a ridiculously effete degree (Craftsteak), and lard their hamburgers with Kobe beef (Old Homestead). So you have to admire Stephen Hanson for at least choosing his gimmicks carefully. You will find no weaponry dangling from the rafters of Hanson’s new steakhouse, Primehouse New York, and the menu is mercifully free of Kobe or Wagyu beef. There is, however, a discreet “Himalayan Salt Room” where special cuts of “limited availability” are set to age. And as far as I know, Primehouse is alone among local steakhouses in having its own Black Angus stud bull, named Prime, who lives on a farm in Kentucky, where he works tirelessly to sire choice beef cattle on the restaurant’s behalf.
Hanson is running a global brand now (his B.R. Guest restaurant group recently partnered with the international Starwood Capital Group), and if everything goes according to plan, Prime the Bull should be busy for years to come. The large stripped-down space on lower Park Avenue seems to be designed with an international franchise in mind, and looks like it could be anywhere from Vegas to Dubai. The walls of the barn-size bar area are covered in black ceramic tiles and devoid of the usual steakhouse pictures of cowpokes and steers. Nor are there folksy decorations in the lofty, grandly impersonal dining room, which looks almost antiseptically polished and clean, and also slightly monolithic, like the anteroom to some grandiose Shanghai bathhouse, or the inner sanctum of King Tut’s tomb. Diners sit in curved, black-leather banquettes, hefting big, Bowie-size steak knives, and as dinner progresses, processions of waiters stream through tall, curved archways at the ends of the room like extras on a movie set.
This kind of showmanship produces a sense of occasion that the food at Primehouse New York sometimes lives up to, and sometimes does not. To get to the generally excellent steaks, you must run the usual gauntlet of salad wedges, beef tartares, and seafood platters. Possibly the best of these pre-beef treats are little rings of fresh ciabatta bread, baked plain or with olives, and placed on the table on what look like upright paper-towel holders. They go well with roast Kumamoto oysters (drizzled with lemon and garlic) and the artisanally correct beet-and-goat-cheese salad (the chèvre comes from Coach Farm, upstate) tossed with green apples and pistachios. I liked the jumbo shrimps in my jumbo-shrimp cocktail, too, although the showy, tableside preparations of those other aged steakhouse totems (overgarlicked Caesar salad with what seem to be store-bought croutons, and a feeble steak tartare dressed with too few capers and a single measly quail egg) could have been better.
My beef-obsessed colleague, the Steak Loon, compares dining on fish in a chophouse to “taking a sobriety pledge at an Irish wake” or “driving a Vespa on the autobahn.” But if you must engage in such heretical behavior, there is a decent piece of Scottish salmon at Primehouse (it’s properly organic, and dressed with salsa verde), and a well-seared, if slightly watery, hunk of Chilean sea bass balanced, next to some shiitake mushrooms and a bunch of bok choy, on a sushi-rice crisp. In the “Other Meats” section of the menu, you will find a respectable grilled veal chop (served bone-in, and muffled in possibly a little too much steak-Diane sauce) and a deconstructed rack of lamb, less notable for the portions of off-the-bone lamb, which were overcooked, than for the stack of greasily pleasing, citrus-flavored lamb ribs set on the side.
The steaks, for their part, are transported to the table on narrow wooden trolleys, without sauces for the most part (those cost extra) or side dishes (extra, too), and only one of them costs under $30.
But the price of entry to any reputable steakhouse is high these days, and if you have the appetite, and the cash, Prime the Bull generally won’t let you down. The Steak Loon recommends the comparatively cheap $24 hanger steak, which is frosted, like a cake, with a layer of fresh, herb-rich chimichurri sauce. The thick-cut porterhouse has less charred sizzle than you’ll find at Luger’s or its many imitators, but the beef is demonstrably better, particularly the filet portion. Ditto the dry-aged New York sirloin ($48), which has a pleasant, slightly fatty, Kobe-beef-quality finish, and the delicious bone-in Kansas City–cut sirloin ($49), which is aged for 35 days in the fabled Himalayan Salt Room. Among other Salt Room products, the larger, $72 center-cut “reserve” sirloin tasted okay but wasn’t worth the extra investment, in the estimation of the assembled steak fiends at my table. Neither was the truncheon-size 65-day-aged rib eye ($62), which wasn’t nearly as salty or concentrated as the “Kentucky” bone-in rib eye, which retails for $16 less.
Not that such piddling sums seemed to matter to the crowd of Runyonesque figures who milled around Mr. Hanson’s restaurant on the evenings I visited. Even on weekday nights, the big King Tut dining chamber was filled with the usual steakhouse crowd of mid-level managers out with their molls, and beef-eating wise guys, dressed in starchy banker outfits or floppy, Vegas-style leisure suits. They grappled with the usual assortment of heart-clogging side dishes (get the velvet-thick mac-and-cheese, and the crunchy “Old School” hashed-browns), and monster steakhouse desserts. In my humble estimation, the best of those were the baked Alaska (set on a dainty pile of berries), and the impressive bananas Foster sundae, made with bananas, caramel, rum, and ice cream capped with a giant pecan tuile. If these don’t hit the spot, order the box of fresh-baked doughnut holes, which you can inject with little plastic bottles of chocolate and butterscotch sauce. Sure, it’s a gimmick. But like the other gimmicks at the city’s newest big-money steakhouse, it sort of works.
Primehouse New York
Address: 381 Park Ave. S., at 27th St.; 212-824-2600
Hours: Dinner: Monday through Wednesday 5 to 11 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday to midnight; Sunday to 10 p.m. Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $18; entrées, $24 to $86.
Ideal Meal: Beet-and-goat-cheese salad, 35-day-aged Kansas City bone-in sirloin, “Old School” hashed-browns, bananas Foster sundae.
Note: The restaurant is open for lunch and weekend brunch; try the sandwich made with 28-day-aged rib eye.
Scratchpad: This is an almost subdued performance for Steve Hanson, and that’s not a bad thing. One star for the room and another for the beef.