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High Steaks

Joe Rocco

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.

And at a steak house, you need marvelous, because the whole idea is reminiscent of American robber barons and 16th-century British monarchs — meat and wine! Wine and meat! The starters are just talented opening acts for the show you've come to eat. Our scallops were delicious (two medium gulps, and not "jumbo" by any stretch, and pricey at $14) in their butter pool of lemon and thyme sauce with the sweet crunch of fresh yellow corn and a scattering of green soybeans, and our foie gras paté smeared on a toasted baguette was fragrant and velvety. But for diners more interested in the main event (beef, beef, beef!), I'd skip the appetizers and cut to the chase.

We ordered the Cajun-spiced pork porterhouse, a 16-ounce New York strip steak cooked medium rare, and the rare lamb chops. Plus truffled creamed spinach, which came served in a cute copper pot, and another wonderful invention — a rounded, golden cone of fluffy potatoes loaded with and brushed in goose fat, so it forms a delicate, sigh-inducing crust. Both these sides, along with the meat, make any long drive and any battle with the savage Humvees in the "parking" lot very much worth the trouble.

The pork porterhouse had been brined in a tenderizing sugar-salt-star anise solution for a couple of days, rubbed with olive oil and blackened seasoning, broiled, and sliced into medallions; it was as juicy and complexly flavored and scrumptious as pig meat gets. My four conjoined Colorado lamb chops arrived with a deep-red, almost purplish middle, just the way I like 'em (you wanted it that rare? my dinner mates asked in horror); they'd been marinated in rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, and mustard seed, pan-seared, coated with fresh herbs and bread crumbs, and then briefly oven-browned. These babies were served over a lamb-fat-infused white bean stew made with balsamic vinegar, tomato, and more thyme and rosemary, along with hints of what tasted to me like orange zest (my conversation with manager David Giardi, who kindly walked me through the list of ingredients, didn't confirm this, though). The lamb melted on the tongue — it was dense, rich, and velvety, with no hint of mutton. As for the New York strip, the old man at my table, a longtime meat aficionado (and the guy I blame for my affection for "rare" — he used to feed me lightly salted balls of raw hamburger to shut me up when I was 9), pronounced his entrée "possibly the best steak I have ever eaten." It was charred crisp on the outside, grilled an exact medium-rare, texturally toothsome and tasting of grasslands and fire and melting fat. It came with a full head of roasted garlic.

All I can say of that truffled spinach, loaded with cream and butter and truffle oil, is that this concoction is much too rich and decadent even to qualify as a vegetable (and forget about counting it as one of your "five a day"). It's the food you'd want to have on your desert island (makes a useful breakfast cold the next day, particularly when eaten with the goose-fat laden potatoes).

There are going to be ten quadrillion fat calories in your meal at Strip House anyway, none of them "good fat," so you may as well go ahead and order the amusingly orange-scented, ethereal crême brûlée ($9) to eat while savoring your praline petits fours. Loaded down with doggie bags, you'll be able to face the canines guarding the valet station (your 12th and final trial) with all that much more equanimity.


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