In the best of times, stability is a rare commodity in the restaurant business. But Michael Lomonaco is acquainted with the vagaries of fate and misfortune in a unique and visceral way. He was the executive chef at Windows on the World on September 11, 2001, and he survived the World Trade Center attacks only because he stopped off on the way to work to pick up a pair of newly repaired eyeglasses.
Now, after a five-year hiatus, Lomonaco has returned to the city’s fine-dining stage, with a new restaurant in the Time Warner Center called Porter House New York. As the name suggests, it’s a steakhouse. And why not? In good times and bad, high times and low, the steakhouse endures. The venerable, timeworn genre was invented here (New York is the home of the porterhouse cut), and the steakhouse is to meat-hungry, expense-account-fueled New Yorkers what the bistro is to Parisians, the clam shack is to Cape Codders, and the barbecue joint is to the sauce-slathered residents of North Carolina and Tennessee. Which is to say, in the high-stakes-casino world of increasingly pricey and baroque big-city restaurants, there’s no safer bet.
There’s also a settled formula to the old New York chophouse, which even the greatest chefs deviate from at their peril. The former occupant of the Porter House space was Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s much-maligned V Steakhouse. At this doomed establishment, the décor resembled the lobby of a second-tier Belle Époque hotel, and steaks were served with ridiculous garnishes like candied kumquats and rhubarb ketchup. Mr. Lomonaco is having none of this frippery. At Porter House, the room is colored in familiar clubby shades of tobacco brown. There’s a bar area up front, where caged magnums of Cabernet are on display and groups of pink-faced corporate lieutenants cluster with their frosty cocktails under a glimmering TV tuned to the ball game. The dining room, designed by Jeffrey Beers (Japonais, Fiamma), is spacious, with beamy rafters and lines of starched white-topped tables looking out over Central Park. There’s a traditional oyster pan roast on the menu, numerous varieties of porterhouse (veal, lamb, pork, beef, even monkfish), and no kumquats or rhubarb stalks in sight.
At any proper steak joint, you have to suffer through a barrage of salads and appetizers before getting to the main bovine attraction, and it’s no different here. Lomonaco and his chef de cuisine, Michael Ammirati, may be virtuoso cooks, but their talents aren’t especially apparent amid the blizzard of chopped salad (overdressed with Italian dressing), lump crab cakes (not bad, but, at $18, not cheap either), and de rigueur platters of recently unfrozen shrimp. My lobster bisque ($12) had lots of lobster in it, but the bisque was lumpy, and the steak tartare, prepared in the usual way, seemed to have been sitting in the refrigerator for a few hours too long. The best salads, my table agreed, were a frisée aux lardons equivalent (dotted with smoked bacon and Humboldt Fog goat cheese) and a superior tongue salad dressed with oil and vinegar and a simple sprinkling of horseradish. If you get one appetizer, however, make it the pan roast, filled with fat fresh oysters and more smoky bacon bits, and swimming in rich spoonfuls of tarragon-flavored cream.
Compared with that of many of the designer steakhouses of today, the beef on the menu at Porter House is, for the most part, refreshingly straightforward. There are no notations on the menu denoting what your cow was fed (for the record, Mr. Lomonaco prefers corn to grass) or how long the beef was aged. And you won’t find waiters pushing outrageously priced cuts of Kobe or Wagyu beef (although on Wednesdays there’s an excellent Kobe-hanger-steak special). The restaurant’s one gimmick is the profusion of porterhouse cuts on the menu, and it actually sort of works. Oddly, the beef porterhouse itself (38 ounces of dry-aged USDA prime, sliced for two, for $78) lacked that sizzly, faintly charred crunch on the evening I ordered it. But the organically correct veal and Berkshire pork chops are decent, if excessively priced ($37 and $34, without sides), examples of the artisanal meat genre sweeping beef houses today, and the generously cut char-grilled Colorado lamb chops were full of enough salty country flavor to merit their $38 price tag.
The most outstanding piece of beef I encountered at Porter House is the chile-rubbed rib eye ($38), which comes from Brandt farm in Southern California. Brandt beef, my friend the steak loon informed our table, comes from roly-poly Holstein dairy cows fed on a natural grain diet for 300 days. When the steak loon asked for his chop to be cooked medium rare (“the color of my gums”), that is exactly how it arrived. The meat was spicy, deliciously charred, and rich with fatty flavor, and as the steak loon chewed his meal, he tipped his head back and rolled his eyes with a kind of mad carnivore’s glee. Seafood lovers may have a similar reaction to the monkfish porterhouse, an impressive, bone-in hunk of fish wrapped in pancetta. There’s also an American-seafood section of the menu, which contains a racier version of lobster than you’ll find in most steakhouses (it’s roasted with a mix of chiles and tomatoes), good grilled swordfish, and a nice hunk of Alaskan salmon served with lobster risotto.
Like most steakhouses (and even many non-steakhouses today), Porter House has adopted the model of menu compartmentalization, which means if you want a little something to go with your beef chop or even your swordfish, you have to buy it. There are nine forgettable $9 side dishes available (macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach and such) and six kinds of potato (the gratin and the hash browns are almost worth the $8).
Not that any of this appears to trouble the assortment of tourists, steak hounds, and business folk flocking to the joint. In fact, Porter House already seems more at home in the Time Warner mall environment than its snooty neighbors, Per Se and Masa. And why not? After browsing at the Aveda store, who wants a twenty-course truffle-heavy tasting menu or $400 worth of sushi? In time, these fads will pass. But in the end, there will always be steak. And if you have room, you can top yours off at Porter House with a spoonful or two of the properly chocolatey mud-pie sundae or a gourmet version of Apple Brown Betty garnished with cherry compote. But for the full boffo steakhouse finish, order the coconut layer cake. It’s an impressive structure decorated with waves of fluffy white frosting and big flakes of coconut stuck here and there like feathers in your grandmother’s favorite hat.
Porter House New York
Address: 10 Columbus Circle, nr. 60th St.; 212-823-9500
Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $21; entrées, $24 to $78.
Ideal Meal: Tongue salad or oyster pan roast, chile-rubbed rib eye, coconut layer cake.
Note: The traditional Porter House New York is open for the traditional three-martini business lunch.
Scratchpad: We’ll give Lomonaco one star for good, old-fashioned steakhouse style, and another one for good luck.