October 9, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

PrimehouseNY: The Bull Dare Not Sit and Smell the Flowers

Sara wisks up a marvelous Caesar dressing for crunchy romaine. Photo: Steven Richter
Sara wisks up a marvelous Caesar dressing for crunchy romaine.  Photo: Steven Richter

            By Wednesday of its first week, Primehouse New York already throbs with the pulse of the week’s imperative destination. Business powers, foodniks professional and amateur, are scattered about the room. Even Steve Hanson and his wife have claimed a table and are surrounded by rolling carts tossing sensational Caesars, trundling glistening slabs of cow. Of course, congenital first-nighters and restless nocturnal nomads know how quickly that early pulse can flicker and fade. (No need to name names though I find myself remembering the brief fierce heat at Barça just down the street.)

            But this is meat, my friends, this is Hanson’s vision of a steak house complete to exploiting the $250,000 Black Angus bull whose semen he shares with chef David Burke for the Chicago Primehouse they created together.  (Now run solo by Burke. There’s an untold story waiting to be overheard somewhere. Hanson hasn’t told me and I’ve been a friend for years))  If you worried about the bull getting tired or lazy, let me say no way will the house run out of sirloin for generations because an ounce of this bull’s business can father hundreds of well-marbled calves. I asked. They told me. The treasury of cow dry-ages in the glassed-in cold box below.

         In Primehouse's vault, chef Jason Miller and feeding mogul Steve Hanson.                         Photo: Steven Richter

            The space is vast, outlined in black, rather like a bank with grey marble walls and retro dining chairs.  It might be a bit of a yawn if it weren’t for the handsome black and cream pattern of the floor.  The Yabu Pushelberg design picks up more sizzle in a smaller back room.

            What I liked about dinner at an earlier friends-and-family freebie outing, besides the unabashed greed in the room that drove me to order one of everything, was discovering that a Hanson steak house isn’t afraid to be a classic.  It isn’t yet another Peter Luger clone.  And it doesn’t stand on its head to deconstruct old favorites.  Those are old-fashioned onion rings (okay, Spanish onion ring), sensational corn pudding (it’s gone when the corn goes), unadulterated creamed spinach (no lemongrass, no cardamom). And I don’t mind a few liberties with the macaroni because it’s solidly stuck together, not too cheesy, and mostly crispy.

A pyramid of crunchy onion rings.                Photo: Elisa Herr
            I definitely vote against the witty show of donut-hole bread – not that the bread isn’t toasty, crusty and good. It’s just that layering four kinds of bread on a spike means you’re handling everyone else’s bread as you dig to the bottom for the one flavored with olive.  I bet I’m the lone curmudgeon here.  Mere mortals will love this presentation.  I’ll take great bread in a basket although given the carbs and calories we’ll put away tonight, I could live longer without the bread.

            That night the $46 Kentucky rib eye had more flavor and texture than the $49 Kansas City sirloin and the $42 “unrack” of lamb is even better.  A few cutseys will creep through. Like Kobe Tootsie Rolls on the bar menu.  Chef Jason Miller’s exposure to David Burke impressed him with “how to mesh creativity and fun with business.”  Mainly the wording will get whimsical, he says.  There will be no lamb with cotton candy. In this case, the loin is cut off the rack and grilled separately from the bones, the actual spare ribs that get braised, crisp-fried and stacked log cabin style. Original and marvelous.  And what did he learn from all those years with Smith & Wollensky? “How to cook 1200 perfect steaks a night and not get any of them returned,” he boosts proudly.

        Now we’re back with a foodie pal who’s flirting with our server even as she pulls up a Caesar car to toss our salad. When I say something about garlic, she quickly offers to hold back on the garlic…“No, no,” I cry, “I’m saying we loved the garlic.”  And don’t worry about raw eggs.  The eggs on the cart are just for show.  That’s a dab of pre-blended Caesar dressing the kitchen supplies to get the emulsion going…all she has to do is look savvy and add more or less garlic, more or less anchovy.  Three of us are sharing starters:  a single salad plus a side of macaroni and small dish of salmon tartare and caperberry toast (featured on the raw bar pyramids) -- a genius blend of hot and salt, citrus and ginger oil already replaced by ceviche.

            Two steaks -- a perfectly good hanger steak and an unremarkable Kansas City sirloin (brought by mistake -- we’d ordered the bone-in rib eye) are more than enough for three or even four.  The steaks need to be crustier and more seasoned. But as I realized on my first visit, I would be in heaven sharing a few of those $9 sides.  The corn just sliced from the cob in what tastes like a thick corn puree is a last rose of summer.  Get it fast.  And don’t miss divine asiago truffle fries, crispy beyond imagining, salty with cheese blobs.  A thriller.

            The bananas Foster sundae is a lush homage to the New Orleans original but it’s not bananas Foster.  That demands bananas sautéed in rum, butter and brown sugar, not bourbon.  I must admit I was surprised not to see carts flambéing bananas around the room.

        “The cooks are pushing me to do everything tableside,” the chef quips.  “But I thought we’d start with what we could do without fire. Till we get going.”

         “Where can I take a client that’s hot and fun?” a friend asked me last night.

            I sent him to Primehouse New York.  I didn’t promise him the best steak in New York. I promised him famous faces, big action, tableside fun, Kobe Tootsie Rolls, good steaks and some of the best classic steakhouse sides in town.

381 Park Avenue South at 27th Street. 212 824 2600