All the dining establishments in the world can be divided into two categories, a wise old restaurateur once told me. There is the obsession restaurant, which is run by its proprietor with a singular kind of fanatical devotion (Prune, 71 Clinton Fresh Food, etc.). Then there is the business restaurant, which is run as a business, often by several proprietors, to make lots of cash (Tavern on the Green, Burger King, etc.). An obsession restaurant can be sizable (witness the room at Le Bernardin), and a business restaurant can be small (your local diner). An obsession restaurant may devolve into a business restaurant, but a restaurant conceived purely as a business rarely turns into an obsession. And you don’t have to be a wise old restaurateur to taste the difference right away.
In the case of Tuscan Steak, the new midtown megamall restaurant from Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba, Hudson Cafeteria), you can even smell the difference. It’s the thick, industrial scent of truffle oil, mingled with traces of burnt fat. It swirls in the air on the sidewalk outside, above the limos and courtesy cars idling two and three deep. It smells of commerce instead of cooking, like the whiff of cigarette smoke hovering over a busy casino floor. Inside, the designer, Jeffrey Beers, has transformed the space – which once housed a bank – into a kind of swank, corporate ballroom. There are catwalk skyways, a mezzanine bar, and lots of roomy, Steven Seagal-era power banquettes made of shiny black vinyl. To control the mob of diners, stony-faced gentlemen troll the floor with listening devices stuck in their ears. Even our sommelier wore a wire, and when he departed, my wife gave a little frown. “I don’t think I want to be Jennifer Lopez,” she said, “not even for one night.”
Possibly Jennifer Lopez has chewed her way through an entire 50-ounce serving of chef Dewey Losasso’s “famous più grande grilled Florentine T-bone” – it’s hard to know. Chef Losasso oversees the original Tuscan Steak restaurant in Miami, where he developed a voguish steak-house version of Italian “family-style” cuisine. In this case, family-style is a euphemism for “tsunami-style,” since the dishes are very large, and once they begin pelting down on the table, they don’t stop. Within two minutes of ordering appetizers, our party was inundated with marshmallow-size gnocchis and enough gooey risottos to caulk a ship. Most of these dishes were recognizable, but a few, like a special beet-flavored risotto, gave off an eerie, Martian glow. My guests held steady under this strange gastronomic deluge, except for one demure Englishwoman, who momentarily lost her wits. “Let’s leave,” she murmured. “I feel like a guest at an extremely expensive gangster wedding.”
The food at Tuscan Steak isn’t quite that bad, but it’s not very good either. Chef Losasso’s “famous white-truffle garlic bread” was fragrantly oily, but not worth the bull-market price tag of $13.50. The antipasto was an odd heavy lifter’s mélange of salmon slivers, chunks of beets and fennel, and inedible squares of polenta. My favorite of the pastas was the veal cannelloni, dual torpedo tubes of ground veal, congealed in a creamy mushroom sauce, with flakes of Parmesan sprinkled on top. The dish was tasty but so violently rich, you felt almost embarrassed eating it, like a pimply adolescent snarfing a public bag of candy. Ditto the three-mushroom risotto, a wicked sludge of porcini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms, bound together with slabs of Parmesan and more vats of white-truffle oil.
We wrestled gamely with all this grub, but when the big beef platters hit the table, a few weaker souls (my wife, and the Englishwoman) threw in the towel. Chef Lasasso’s steak dishes have that effect. They’re dressed up in thick crusts of cheese and stuck with ostrich plumes of sage and rosemary, like faded opera stars. The famous T-bone tasted compulsively sweet (it’s covered with an oily pestolike sauce and lemon rinds), but when I reordered it on a second visit, the meat seemed to have been recycled from the evening before. The roast duck was good, and so was the grilled lobster, despite a weirdly glowing sidecar of basil mashed potatoes. But then, glitches happen when you’re eating off an assembly line. The filet mignon ($38), veal chop ($40), and prime rib ($46) were all average cuts of meat, covered in thick toppings of red-wine sauce, and each one emerged from the kitchen blood-rare, despite our requests.
The crowd at Tuscan Steak is strictly expense account at lunchtime, and bridge-and-tunnel on boisterous weekend nights, when 600 or so diners swing through the gates. The wine cellar is not a cellar at all, but a “wine tower,” floating opaquely above the dining room. The list of Italian wines is decent and not unreasonably priced, although you’ll probably need several bottles to fortify yourself for the selection of goofy, towering desserts. The best of these was a densely chewy walnut torte; the worst was the “chocolate voyage,” a bric-a-brac of bland chocolate ziggurats and stale mousse pies. Like most of the food at Tuscan Steak, this dish was built to be gazed upon instead of eaten. The fact that it looked ridiculous didn’t keep the waitstaff from peddling it vigorously. After all, business is business.
I never caught a glimpse of Jeffrey Chodorow among the mob at Tuscan Steak. But you can’t loiter for ten minutes at the bar in Jimmy’s Uptown, or sit at one of the curved, half-moon banquettes, before Jimmy himself looms into view. “Jimmy” is Jimmy Rodriguez, a restaurateur in the old tradition of George Rector and Toots Shor. He’s a glad-handing, big-suited impresario, a special friend to millionaire athletes, movie stars, and neighborhood grandmas. Compared with the wild, nightclub vibe at his Bronx Café, this latest venture is a decorous place. The space, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, is filled with shiny French tabletops, white Lycra lamp shades, and glowing chairs made of pale-yellow Italian leather. You get a discombobulating sensation coming off the dimly lit sidewalk, like landing in a bit of Las Vegas.
The menu has a little twist to it, too. Jimmy calls his new cuisine “Latin-soul fusion.” That means grilled slices of filet mignon perched on a neat mass of grits, flavored with horseradish and bacon fat. You’ll also find corn-bread croutons in your Caesar salad, and a helping of hickory-smoked barbecue ribs, served as a dainty appetizer, with relish made from Bartlett pears. Chef Linda Japngie, who did time as a line cook at La Caravelle and a chef de partie at Bouley Bakery, has come up with other improbable combinations, like a macaroni-and-cheese soufflé, and a sizable portion of foie gras matched with sweet calabaza squash. The ribs I sampled were too dank to taste hickory-smoked, and the soufflé could have worked better going one way or the other, but the filet was decently cooked, and the foie gras tasted as original as many of the oddball foie gras experimentations percolating further downtown.
That’s the novel concept behind Jimmy’s Uptown, of course. “This is a little bit of SoHo in Harlem,” says Jimmy. “It’s like opening the first pizza stand in Little Italy; you can’t miss.” Judging by the hopping weeknight traffic, he’s right. The crowd is a debonair mixture of elegant neighborhood couples and uptown aristocrats (Johnnie Cochran, Derek Jeter). Those who don’t have a taste for SoHo can dine on plump catfish fillets (pecan-crusted, with tomato chutney) and a whopping pork tenderloin, smothered in plantain bread pudding, with a side of double-dipped fried okra. There’s also an erratic but very reasonably priced wine list, and a seviche bar, serving, among other things, fresh king-crab legs with three kinds of dipping oil. The kitchen’s specialty, though, is a series of elegantly down-home desserts. I liked the apple tart (with a rich buttery crust and fresh pecan ice cream), and the intensely caramelized Mexican tres leche torte. As for Jimmy, he’s partial to the sweet-potato pie. Talking about it, he smiles a twinkly car-salesman smile. He looks like a man happy in his work.
Lunch, Monday through Friday 12 to 2:45 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m., Sunday to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $18; entrées, $19 to $65. All major credit cards.
Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $7 to $15; entrées, $19 to $29. A.E., M.C., V.