By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
I'm going to put my cards on the table: I'm not a big fan of steak houses. I have good friends who continuously scan the Internet for airfare deals to New York so they can make their biannual pilgrimage to Peter Luger's; I know people who've stopped speaking over the question of Keene's versus Delmonico's. And I've sat through my share of those ridiculous "presentations of the meats" like they do at Morton's and Ruth's Chris, some hapless waitress inevitably waving a live lobster in my face.
But here, I'll say it the food just ain't that interesting. For the price of the full tasting menu at Aureole, you get one plain steak sitting in the middle of a white plate, some creamed spinach, a baked potato. Where's the magic?
Turns out the magic is in Palm Beach Gardens. No, seriously. A highly esteemed New York steak emporium, Strip House has taken up residence in the new "Downtown at the Gardens" complex, and for my money, it serves the best steak in the county, maybe in two counties, maybe in the goddamned world. But before you find yourself digging into the Strip's truffled spinach, its seafood plateau, much less its charbroiled rib eye, you're going to have to face certain trials. Big guy want meat? Start thinking like Hercules.
"Downtown at the Gardens" is a pretty euphemism for a gigantic concrete bunker in the middle of nowhere that suddenly everybody is fighting to get into. Should you accept the challenge, you'll have ravenous birds to contend with, savage mares to tame, nine-headed serpents to wrestle, and mad bulls to fell they're gunning Hummers and Lincoln Navigators around a deadly hades of a "parking" lot (another euphemism), all looking for the same minuscule rectangle to cram their ride into. The parking lot, you'll learn, is guarded by the evil dog Cerberus (you can find him at the spot marked "Valet Station.") Plan, after inching up the long line to face this beast, to tip him lavishly.
By the time you've completed your 11 trials and staggered through the door at Strip House, you're going to appreciate the ice-cold martini they serve ($10), shaken at the table and poured into a chilled glass. The place is done up in deep reds and soothing pictures of naked flapper-era pinups ("strip" house get it?). These saucer-eyed dames in their various stages of dishabille are so campy, even a sour old feminist like me can't take offense, particularly when my nose is anyway pinned to the menu and I'm distracted by what's looking like (foie gras torchon?!) the intimations of a very good meal.
Strip House is one of those family-owned strokes of genius that morphed into an empire one has opened in Houston and Jersey, and others are set to try their luck elsewhere after success in the Big Apple. Peter and Penny Glazier and son Matthew also own Michael Jordan's and Monkey Bar in Manhattan. Judging from his photos, Mathew has put away quite a few of those 20-ounce New York steaks and famous Jordan burgers, no doubt washed down with lots of potatoes ladled with goose fat. Strip House has dressed the manly old American steak-house concept in an adorable French chapeau (the goose fat, the truffles, the foie gras), and it's as if little Audrey Tatou had married Joe Namath. You'd never have predicted the match but they make beautiful babies.
At 6:30 on a Friday night, there's nobody in the place but us and one other table, and we're getting magnificent service. By 7:15, the room is half full of comfortably settled boomers. By the time we leave at 9, groups of sexy young things, the girls as skimpily clad as the pinups on the walls, are pouring through the doors. Choose your dining hour accordingly.
This menu, overseen by Chef Mark Van Schaick, who transferred from Houston, is manageable. It differs slightly from city to city we don't yet have Houston's "lamb shank and cabbage flan," on our menu. But the signature dishes are here: a bone-in rib eye ($39); a 16- or 20-ounce strip steak ($39 and $49); veal T-bone ($37); rack of lamb ($38); and the cut of the night a Cajun-spiced pork porterhouse (a thick, center-cut sirloin and tenderloin, $29) the night we were there. Appetizers are standard steak-house starters presented in original ways: lobster bisque with crisp red pepper ravioli ($12), fondue made with gorgonzola and served with warm garlic bread ($7), and shrimp cocktail ($16) fanned out on a plate. There's that foie gras torchon ($16, to share among the table), which, like some dowager at a spa, has been wrapped in cheesecloth and pampered in a steam bath of herbs (without, like the dowager, losing an ounce of fat). There may be a special plate of freshly shucked oysters or the seafood plateau at market price. It's all fresh in concept and execution.
I've heard from several quarters that the service at the Manhattan Strip House is truly awful. But service at the Gardens was flawless, and our waiter (Jim Spinello) was a guy you'll want to cultivate. Not only did he coordinate everything busboys, water, timing, changes of flatware, wine perfectly but he knew his menu and loved answering questions. He checked that I honestly wanted my lamb chop rare ("Cool center?" You bet.) When queried, he explained the origins and pronunciation of the wine term meritage(rhymes with heritage); identified the edamame in our succotash and the pea shoots sprinkled on the foie gras; advised us how to drink an amuse bouche of cold watermelon-pineapple soup ("in one gulp, like a shot"). He was just marvelous.