Mr. California, a dapper man with a keen nose for the newest gastronomic trend, ordered his vodka straight up, then peered about the room at Manhattan’s latest example of steakhouse largess. The bread basket at our table was strung with tiny plastic beads, like the ones on a belly dancer’s costume. Around the bar, a new generation of slinky meat eaters lounged among deep brocade pillows, sipping iridescent cocktails through little red straws. Instead of portraits of giant steers on the walls, there were mug shots of old opera singers and antique photos of bar girls in mesh stockings and cocked hats striking naughty poses. Instead of painted blondes on the arms of fat cats, there sat Bret Easton Ellis at a nearby table, laughing big horse laughs with his funky, downtown retinue. “This isn’t a steakhouse at all,” Mr. California declared. “This place is all mixed up.”
But then, as any bluesman will tell you, wild things happen when a stolid old genre tries to get hip. Thanks to an odd confluence of events (protein-diet fads, a sagging but still bloated bull market), the steakhouse appears to be the restaurant of choice during the shank end of this gilded Clinton era. Cuts of porterhouse and New York strip, the power meal of Diamond Jim Brady’s old Manhattan, have obtained a fleeting, quichelike status among a new demographic of loose-spending, big-city diners. In the past six months, beef houses have sprouted up around town disguised as power-lunch destinations (Del Frisco’s), clubby downtown hangouts (Dylan Prime), and now, with the opening of Strip House, a louche, Parisian girlie bar.
Peter and Penny Glazier (Michael Jordan’s The Steakhouse, Tapika) are the impresarios behind Strip House, and it’s hard to know whether their concept represents the flowering of this Zeitgeist or its dismal end. For decades, the East 12th Street space housed the venerable Asti, another tightly themed restaurant, known for its operatic waiters. Now David Rockwell has rewired the Depression-era room with dim, lounge-lizard lighting and colored the walls in overripe, bordello shades of scarlet and gold. Executive chef (and co-owner) David Walzog’s menu is simple, in the grand steakhouse tradition, but larded with lots of dainty, French options. Among special “table share” appetizers, you can feast on a fairly bland rendition of the brasserie-style seafood plateau (for a cool $58). There’s also a special short-rib terrine, and foie gras torchon, two velvet discs of goose liver, which the waiter delivered to our table with an un-Sparks-like “Bon appétit.”
Mr. California ordered a delicious tomato-and-red-onion salad and was amazed to see this old steakhouse standby appear in the shape of what he described as a “giant, hydroponic sushi roll” wrapped in cucumber, with a tomato vinaigrette. The Strip House version of a shrimp cocktail tasted more or less correct, even if the shrimps were reclining on the plate diva-style, in the shape of a fan. Chef Walzog’s Bibb-lettuce salad contained a satisfactory crumbling of bacon lardons and Stilton cheese but could have been double the size for my Beefeater appetite. A “flan” of braised short ribs had a musky, barbecue taste, but I was overwhelmed by its saltiness after a bite or two. When I polished it off anyway, Mr. California’s eyes got big as melons. “Mr. Platt, you’ve ordered an avalanche of food,” he said. “I worry about your liver.”
I worried about my liver, too, but when a true feeder gets going in a steakhouse, he’s hard to stop. And despite his restaurant’s strange visual trimmings, Chef Walzog’s different varieties of steak are superb. Strip House is named for his signature New York strip, which you can order singly or sliced on a cutting board for two. Either way, the aged Nebraska cut is expertly broiled, with a salty, almost crunchy crust. If you’re dining on a Wednesday, try the Filet Rossini, a stately combination of filet mignon, foie gras, and truffle shavings. The braised lamb chops were greatly admired by my friend the lamb snob, although my helping of pork shoulder tasted rubbery and dry. Fans of a big, double cut will like the porterhouse better, but my favorite was the rib chop, a truncheon of beef broiled to a peppery crisp, with an intense juicy flavor seared inside.
Mr. California was pleased with his black sea bass, neatly boned, in a spritzing of lemon water, and the other alternative fish dishes on the menu (yellowfin tuna and arctic char with artichokes) were competent, too. Among side dishes, though, the truffle creamed spinach was dank with cream and the fingerling-potato purée was so heavily salted, we had to sample it with a teaspoon. Chef Walzog turns up his nose at simple frites, but a golden dome of crisp goose-fat-fried potatoes will provide even the most strung-out cholesterol freak with a reasonable fix. There’s plenty of fancy wine to cut through all this fat, and it’s expertly served by George, the dapper manager. George seduced us into shelling out for a $60 bottle of Pomerol (Château La Croix de Gay), and later re-emerged with soothing glasses of pear brandy and Armagnac.
Of course, this kind of service begs the question: Is Strip House really a steakhouse at all? In the great pantheon of beef palaces, longevity is predicated on the comforting rituals of aged waiters, simplistic menus, and the promise of a good, dependable feed. Start behaving like a real restaurant, and you run the risk of being judged as one. Strip House combines the highest (and priciest) culinary aspirations with the vaguely desperate glitziness of a downtown nightclub. After hours, the house lights dim and diners dressed in bridge-and-tunnel leathers start drifting through the dining room.
Techno tunes thrummed over the sound system as we inspected desserts like raspberry crêpes suzette and an elaborate chocolate fondue, with starfruits and caramelized bananas for dipping. There was also a Frankenstein-size profiterole and an ambitious apple tart capped with brown-sugar sauce. All these dishes aspire to greatness, and some, like a selection of sorbets (lychee and sparkling rosé flavors) are very good. Whether that’s enough to turn this faux steakhouse into a first-class restaurant remains to be seen. After all, the Clinton years can’t last forever.
Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse shouldn’t actually count as part of the greater Gotham beef boom, since it’s not a local steakhouse at all. It’s part of the expanding empire of L.A. megachef Joachim Splichal; there’s a Nick & Stef’s in downtown Los Angeles and one in Washington, D.C., too. Last month, Splichal opened his Manhattan beachhead on the haunch of Madison Square Garden itself. Each one of the Nick & Stef’s has a blond, breezy, West Coast feel, although it’s doubtful the L.A. dining crowd gets treated to the midnight spectacle of police wagons strung out along Penn Plaza. The cramped little space has been crammed with a small granite bar, and a curved glass wall runs the length of the room fronting 33rd Street. The impression you get after an hour or two is of sitting in a revolving motel restaurant that’s about to take off.
Chef Splichal’s menu is almost as disorienting. It’s divided evenly into five parts with exactly twelve varieties of meat, twelve starters and salads, twelve vegetables, twelve potato dishes, even twelve types of steak sauce. Both the New York strip (twelve ounces for $31) and the filet mignon (ten ounces for $29) were diligently prepared, with nice sides of watercress salad. Among the twelve starters, the steak tartare was my favorite, with cubes of coarsely chopped, instead of ground, beef. The creamed spinach had a topping of bacon on it, with a light garlic crust. Other vegetables were generally dank or over-oiled, and, with the exception of nice sweet-potato fries (decorated with a crisping of fried ginger), the endless procession of potato side dishes blended inexorably into one. To prod your appetite, there’s a transparent meat locker by the bar, so diners can watch their beef artfully age on little steel trays. This Tussaud’s-like display is less appetizing after Knicks’ tipoff time, when the joint empties out and you find yourself dining alone by the phosphorescent glow of the streetlights outside.