Callaro's Prime in Manalapan Serves Up Old-Fashioned, Beefy Indulgence
My friend and New Times theater critic Brandon K. Thorp recently planned a pre-play dinner at Sushi Bon in Lantana. Soon after he arrived, his date called to say he wasn't going to make it; worse, Sushi Bon's credit card machine was down. He decided the best thing to do was to comfort himself with an exorbitant meal and deal with the damages later.
He headed over to Florida Stage and walked one door east to Callaro's Prime, an old-fashioned steak house that looks lifted out of the 1950s. Brandon plunked his check card down and indulged: two or three martinis ("It's hard to remember," he says), Gorgonzola salad, fluffy mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and a monstrous prime rib, its marbled fat coating both artery and cerebral cortex with deeply happy thoughts. "It was one of the best meals of my life," Brandon explained later, his heart still obviously swollen with seared beef.
The story intrigued me, mainly because I thought Brandon would find Callaro's out of date. Perhaps his experience says something about the part nostalgia plays in dining out. After all, in a time when the stagnant economy and advancing trends have conspired to put so many restaurants out of business, steak houses aren't just hanging on; they're thriving. The more times get tough — the more stressed-out and scared and out of our element we get — the more we're turning to the classic American steak house to fulfill our indulgences.
The concept was enough to persuade me to join Brandon for a pre-theater dinner at Callaro's. When we arrived prior to opening night at the playhouse next door, a gang of theatergoers congregated on the patio. Most of them looked like they'd been putting on their sport coats and tossing back martinis in this very same way for 50 years. We passed them by and snagged a booth in the raised bar area outfitted with a thatched window that peeks out across the dining room below. As I slid into the worn leatherette seat, I felt it crackle beneath me, the peeling fabric making a snuggly fitting, derriere-sized indentation. It was so familiar that I felt like I'd been there before.
If I had, it would have been with a scotch old fashioned in hand, tightly gripping the low-ball glass like a shift stick. There's nothing like a stiffly made drink; not something frilly or light or squeezed from a grape but a drink that burns on the way down, setting your mind in that pleasant place just above your skull. This barkeep's old fashioned was like good foreplay: slightly sweet, warming, a feeling you never want to end. Brandon — after an exchange with our penguin-suited server over what gins Callaro's carries — settled on a dirty Tanqueray 10 martini. If liquor's not your bag, switch to beer, because Callaro's wine list is composed largely of overpriced, overproduced bottles.
Our waiter reminded me of Richard Lewis — he displayed an amusing neuroticism as he rattled off a list of house specials that took him five minutes to complete: South African lobster tail with a ten-ounce filet; the same filet could also be halved and grilled and spooned with béarnaise and bordelaise sauce and a jumbo prawn. Or a martini glass could be filled with lump Maryland crab meat and chilled shrimp to be dipped in cocktail sauce. None of it was inspiring stuff, really, though a special appetizer of yellowfin tuna ($13.95) seared with sesame seeds and fanned out around a mixed green salad and a wad of pickled ginger was more appealing than the crab cake and French onion soup starters on the standard menu. The deeply red fish that was delivered could've been nabbed down the street at Sushi Bon or anywhere else. But at least it was tender and fresh.
As in theater, where the reveal is often as important as what you're revealing, Callaro's wait staff shoots around the checker-tiled room, dropping plates in timed sequence and changing silverware out with each course. They often look hurried and harried but never quite out of composure — I can picture the waiters hovering together for cathartic smoke breaks out back to decompress. Our waiter knew drop times so well, he cautioned against ordering a tray of puff pastry-wrapped escargots when we told him we were trying to make the show next door. "That'll take 12 minutes to do," he recounted aloud for us. Instead, we stuck with the salads that came precisely ten (not nine or 11) minutes before our steaks; a caesar for me, lightly dressed and dusted with Parmesan and homemade croutons, and a Gorgonzola salad ($2 extra) for Brandon that sported a cascade of pungent crumbles and thick wedges of beefsteak tomato. A salad at a steak house is usually a concession — pre-repentance for sins yet to come. But I found myself finishing off every last leaf in my bowl before polishing off Brandon's as well.
Callaro's has a sizable list of entrées, a dozen or so nonsteak dishes like shrimp scampi, a catch of the day (salmon), double-cut pork chops, and a 20-ounce Ashley Farms chicken breast ("I'd like to see that bird," Brandon said as he puffed out his chest in dramatic fashion). Vegetable options are simply asparagus, spinach either creamed or mated with garlic, and broccoli; there are gravy bowls of béarnaise or bordelaise and sautéed onions or mushrooms to top your steak, and each hunk of meat comes with a potato, baked or mashed. All the steaks, from the New York strip to the flagship 48-ounce porterhouse (a cool $75), are USDA prime and wet-aged on premises.
Brandon, seeking a reprisal of his first night at Callaro's, ordered the 12-ounce prime rib ($26.95) done "the old-fashioned way," which means they roast the whole slab, cut off rare pieces, and then char them until a deep, onyx black crust forms on its surface. It arrived on a plate saturated with its own jus, a glistening, reddish pool that demands to be sopped up. Rich, buttery, and intensely grassy, it's a steak fit to be torn into, cut off in haphazard chunks, and chomped down with fervor.
My 24-ounce porterhouse ($36.95) arrived with even more fanfare. At nearly two inches thick, it came hoisted on a superheated metal platter, hissing and popping in protest as if the cow were, in some way, still fighting back. Indeed it was an angry piece of meat: It had seared to the tray in places, forming a brilliant black char, and spat juices across the tablecloth for a good five minutes after being set down. I cut off a hunk from the tender filet side and alternated that with bites from the strip and bits of baked potato oozing with whipped butter and sour cream. It's an experience I've had a hundred times before, but this was just as good as the first.
Is Callaro's staid? Yes, of course. It's so timeless that I wouldn't be surprised to see Antiques Roadshow file in midservice and slap an appraisal on the maître d'. The customer base, their bellies full of steer and gin, are equally Jurassic and content to file into the theater next door and promptly fall asleep in the first act.
Still, as a classic steak house, Callaro's works. Hell, it's oddly refreshing to see a menu devoid of Kobe sliders or anything with the prefix truffled. That said, there's also nothing local (or so indicated), inventive, or inspiring. But if you're looking for a slab of beef bold enough to make friends with half a bottle of Dewar's, Callaro's delivers. Yes, it's nostalgic, expensive, and hopelessly outmoded. And this is one case where that's really OK.
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