For Immediate Release:
May 20, 2009
Beef and Decor, Aged to Perfection
By FRANK BRUNI
THE minute you heard that Keith McNally was dusting off Minetta Tavern - that musty, sputtering Greenwich Village relic from the late 1930s - you probably figured he'd get the look and atmosphere right. This is a project perfectly suited to a restaurateur with a gift for breathing fresh life into familiar genres, for grafting the present onto the past.
You also knew he'd conjure buzz. He always conjures buzz. Where Mr. McNally goes, models, movie honchos and magazine scribes follow, because they're sure to find themselves among other members of their slavishly fashionable tribe, coddled in an environment that's as much stage set as mess hall.
And maybe, just maybe, you counted on decent food. Even when his restaurants miss their mark, they usually reflect at least some culinary thought. He cares about cooking, more than he must. Balthazar, for example, has typically been about twice as good as it needs to be.
But were you prepared for a côte de boeuf like Minetta's, a sublime hunk of glorious meat that you dream about hours later, pine for the next day and extol in a manner so rapturous and nonstop that friends begin to worry less about your cholesterol than about your sanity?
And did you expect that Mr. McNally, with the chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, would come up with the best steakhouse in the city? That's what Minetta Tavern turns out to be.
For starters it's serving some of the most expertly aged, flavorful and exquisitely prepared prime beef in New York. This beef is showcased in one trailblazing burger and two titanic steaks, the côte de boeuf for two and a bone-in New York strip, that have for two months now been the incessant talk of insatiable carnivores, who can't get enough of them.
Are you better off with the côte de boeuf, which is more generously marbled with fat, or the strip, with its steelier, brawnier taste? You could ponder, discuss and dither over this question as long as you could any stimulus package, only it would be a lot more fun. You could dedicate half a dozen visits to Minetta in the service of a resolution and still it might elude you.
Or you could abandon the debate for a while and explore other areas of the menu - and you wouldn't be disappointed. Although little of the rest of Minetta's food rises all the way to the extraordinarily high level of the beef, much of it is terrific. Minetta's claim to being New York's best steakhouse rests in large part on its versatility.
While Sparks has a justly renowned strip of its own, it doesn't have appetizers as quietly sophisticated as Minetta's creamy mussel soup. While the best porterhouse on the best night at Peter Luger can be an amazement, there's no seafood there as fine as the tender, sweet lobster in a big, crisp salad at Minetta or as this restaurant's trout meunière, buttery and bedecked with crab meat. And at Minetta the servers don't bark at you.
Minetta's potatoes Anna, which are like a love affair between scalloped potatoes and hash browns, rival the best sides at Strip House, where the beef itself isn't in Minetta's league. Minetta has a succinct selection of American cheeses so accomplished you could mistake them for European - you don't get that at Keens. It doesn't charge tariffs as steep as Craftsteak's or the BLT empire's.
And with just 70 seats in two rooms, it feels more intimate than, say, Primehouse New York or Porter House New York. Yes, it's cramped and loud, but that's in keeping with the genre and, as such, a facet of its charm. Minetta captures the clubby, chaotic spirit of a handsomely timeworn saloon to a T: the long, heavy wood bar up front; the glowing tiers of liquor behind it; the tiled floors; the tin ceiling. Plus there are all those framed etchings of celebrities on the walls and the gauzy painted murals in the back.
Mr. McNally has buffed what needed buffing, added what needed adding - the dark red booths, for example, are new - and left the rest of the place intact. It's high-gloss nostalgia: McNally assoluta.
It finds him in a more ambitious mood than at other restaurants he's opened over the last decade, in terms of what's on the plate. Neither Pastis nor Schiller's Liquor Bar seek to do any food as superior as Minetta's meat, including the crisp lamb saddle and succulent veal chop.
And Morandi doesn't compete against the city's Italian standouts the way Minetta takes on the most prized temples of sirloin.
As Mr. McNally put this restaurant together with Mr. Nasr and Mr. Hanson, who are veterans of Balthazar and Pastis, the three arranged through the distributor Pat La Frieda to get their hands on the fantastic grain-fed Black Angus beef from Creekstone Farms, which has a richness that's indulgent without crossing into unctuous overkill as wagyu sometimes does.
They had Mr. La Frieda set up a special aging room where Minetta's strips, its côte de boeuf and the rib-eye used in a blend (with short rib, brisket and skirt) for its much-ballyhooed Black Label burger are stored for six to seven weeks.
And in the kitchen they installed a high-temperature broiler that gives the meat precisely the char it wants. The steaks don't develop a surface that's too crunchy, which can happen at Luger, and they're not finished with an excess of butter, another Luger liability. They're spot-on - at least the ones on the "grillades" section of the menu, where the best cuts are clustered. A lower-priced bar steak elsewhere isn't prime or dry-aged.
Wrongly, the Black Label burger has received more public attention than the steaks, on account of its $26 price tag. It's without question a riveting experience, because burgers seldom pack the discernible tang and funk of aged beef. But for that same reason, it's unsettling and arguably too intense.
Besides, the Minetta burger, a blend of short rib and brisket, manages a comparable juiciness at a price of $16, including a heap of crunchy, salty, addictive fries. And with a burger, you look to be comforted, not awed.
Comfort, all in all, isn't this restaurant's strong point. Good luck penetrating the bodies around the host station after 7:30 p.m. And good luck nabbing a reservation any time between 7 and 10 unless you have and use an inside phone line, which I didn't.
Minetta has additional drawbacks. The desserts need slight improvement, especially the coarse, flat-footed sorbets, though you'll have no complaint whatsoever with the sumptuous chocolate dacquoise.
The wine list, better than those at older and squarer steakhouses, can nonetheless be frustrating, with too few accessibly priced reds that beckon you.
Should you want to tread more lightly than the $36 strip and the $90 côte de boeuf - both generously portioned and neither out of line with the cost of prime beef these days - the trout is $24. An equally fine grilled dorade is $21. A large carbonara-style pasta dish that's better than three-quarters of what I had at Morandi is $16. The excellent fried pig's trotter, served over lentils, is $19.
Given his name and his stardust, Mr. McNally didn't have to provide this reasonable a path through his newest restaurant, not even now. But at Minetta he's made a series of decisions that go admirably beyond the bottom line. And he's made the kitchen the focal point of a resuscitation that's ultimately about eating more than anything else.
By all means take delight in the vintage decor. Stay for the steak.
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