As our steak houses go, so goes the economy. That's the conventional wisdom anyway, a tale of woe passed from Slate.com to the Wall Street Journal to the Nation's Restaurant News.
Trend watchers post charts and graphs to illustrate the synchronicity: You can trace declining profits at Morton's and Ruth's Chris as a parallel of the S&P 500. Others explain how rising energy prices have affected the cost of corn, which feeds the cattle, which make the steaks, which pleasure the captains of industry. Last year, beef prices went through the roof. The party, my brothers, is over.
Now, farmers in Dayton, Ohio, are drastically cutting the size of their herds while CEOs on Wall Street and Madison Avenue slash their expense accounts. Plush steak houses, with their velour banquettes and tuxedoed maitre d's, look as decadent in this atmosphere as turn-of-the-century Russian Romanovs.
And yet, we love them still, these doddering symbols of bygone prosperity. Just look around and see what's happened in South Florida. The very idea of steak house as we know it is undergoing a totally schizophrenic metamorphosis. Steak houses are opening faster than you can say truffled mashed potatoes. Most recently, we've seen added to an already lengthy list: Cut 432 in Delray Beach, Ruth's Chris in West Palm, and Bova Prime and Morton's in Lauderdale. What are we going for here, one chophouse per city block? If you count Brazilian rodizio steak houses, there are a dozen in downtown Fort Lauderdale alone. And Stephen Starr is debuting Steak 954 at the new W Hotel even as we speak.
What does it all mean?
Nothing clears the fog of conundrum like a strong martini, and that's one thing I knew New York Prime could supply. This high-end steak house in Boca Raton, with sister restaurants in South Carolina and Atlanta, has been given top scores by Zagat raters. Unlike Morton's (see Side Dish) or Ruth's Chris, New York Prime hasn't been advertising any recession specials. There are no all-you-can-eat prix fixes here to tempt the impecunious.
We headed to our curved banquette, following the nearly naked hostess — hot pants, backless halter-top, waist-length hair, in the manner of Lady Godiva. It was clear that New York Prime was as exclusive and well-defended as ever. On a Sunday night at 7, half the tables were engaged; by 8, they all were. Golden light streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows, bathing the occupants of this grand ballroom in a glow perfectly calibrated to exhibit their assets. Ladies in big straw hats displayed acres of décolletage; the men sported jowls formed through intimate moments with expensive cigars. It was a room full of caricatures from New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton (well-dressed couple leaving party, to their hosts: "Thanks, it was great. It's just so relaxing to be with people who aren't leveraged.")
Had I ever toyed with the notion that this recession was affecting everybody, rich and poor alike, that misconception dwindled at about the same rate as my beautifully frosted gin gimlet until finally the notion was no more than a spent lime peel at the bottom of a glass. Our bartender had been liberal with the pour: Both Mummy and I were quite drunk before we chomped our first sliver of spiced cheese wafer. "You look like a movie star," we confided to our waiter, a regal black man in an impeccably pressed steward's jacket. Possibly, we were slurring.
Oh, the prices! "Every item on our menu is the best that money can buy," a blurb reassured us. Of course, it's your money they're talking about, but no matter. Actually, the menu's verbiage was not so much a blurb as an essay; the entire back page was given over to self-congratulation. "We serve only USDA grade prime for every cut of beef... our steaks are aged a minimum of four weeks for flavor... we are one of the only steakhouses in the U.S.A. that uses only prime for filets..." Right down to the provenance of the coffee (New Orleans), brand of broiler (1700° Southbend) and the ergonomics of the tables ("designed to exact dimensions"). Maybe the reading material gives captains of industry an alternative to conjugal conversation — a menu held at chin height just about blocks all that crepey cleavage across the table.
A place like this, you just have to go for it; there's no messing around. Order the jumbo lump crab cocktail ($18) because, just like they say, they're using fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, previously persuaded from its shell by some invisible prep cook, served very cold. If you divide it carefully, there'll be sweet morsels for everybody. Stone crabs, oysters Rockefeller, and baked shrimp would make fine backup plans. Don't make the mistake we did with the chopped Italian salad ($9.50). The salad contained multitudes (three colors of pepper, tomatoes, onions, hearts of palm, almonds, blue cheese, anchovies) but very little flavor — it needed both acid and salt.
Two of us split the 40-ounce porterhouse ($84). The porterhouse is a two-in-one cut: a tenderloin fillet attached to one side of a T-bone and a sirloin on the other. They're named for the 19th-century porterhouse coach stops, our earliest "steak and ale" houses; the porterhouse was Mark Twain's favorite cut of beef. This one was beautifully seared and exactly cooked (because of the way it's designed, you'll get med-rare to med-well in a porterhouse cooked "medium"). But it lacked character. The char was delicious, but the interior had a dull, watery quality instead of the condensed, slightly gamey flavor you want in dry-aged meat.
I had the same concerns with a 22-ounce rib steak ($42). These rib cuts, like the porterhouse, are usually intense, because the bone generates so much flavor. Again I found most of the pleasure coming from the carmelization and the char, not from the meat; one bite even had the weird consistency of jelly. I thought back to the aged New York strips a houseguest brought us from Whole Foods not long ago. He gave them a light rub, tossed them on a charcoal grill, and served them with chive butter. You took one bite and you wanted to kiss the hooves of every steer that had ever traded its life for your dinner. New York Prime's steaks weren't in the same ballpark; they weren't even playing the same game. Note to the tightwad: You can do this at home, and better. We ate our steaks with a yummy bottle of 2005 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), one of the best bargains on a gigantic and pricey wine list.
There were glass-shattering high notes to this meal, but they had nothing to do with the meat. The cheese mashed potatoes ($11.50), made with American cheese, were a pot of creamy-salty-starchy bliss. How we wished we'd nixed anything remotely healthful (garlic spinach, at $12, was bitterly disappointing) and gone instead for the creamed corn, the onion rings, the hash browns, or the giant Idaho potato loaded with bacon, chives, sour cream, and butter.
Still, we got our calories in when the key lime pie arrived ($9). Southerners really know how to make a girl pucker up: double lime custard, the right ratio of sweet to sour, topped in waves of freshly whipped cream. This pie is the key lime to aspire to.
Our bill came to $205 without tax, tip, or drinks. Drunk, stuffed, and considerably poorer, we'd relinquished any lingering revolutionary ardor. And maybe that's the hidden agenda. Eat the rich? It's so much pleasanter to eat with them.