January 3, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable
    Sizzling Steak Wars

        Why?

        Why now?

        Why, after a decade of fussing over our arteries, red meat cast as the enemy, are steakhouses jumping?  Especially expensive steakhouses, now, in a limping economy. Nation's Restaurant News headlines track the sizzle. Steakhouse traffic has spurted 12 per cent, compared with a one percent increase nationwide ---even as American consumption of beef has tumbled every year for the past fifteen.

        It's cholesterol denial says the cardiologist.

        It's atavistic dating from caveman days says the anthropologist.

        It's a way to celebrate, expensive a sign we're doing well says the sociologist.

        It's real food. Something to chew on, says the male-chauvinologist.

        After all that fish oil and vegginess, don't we deserve a reward? asks the health spiritualist. And each bite is doubly delicious, because it's forbidden fruit, like sex with a stranger in the seventies.

            

       The mania is not just a steakhouse phenomenon, either The red-meat renaissance is everywhere. At "21" one out of ten customers orders the steak. At Mesa Grill, women dining together ignore the smoked shrimp and grilled salmon for steak with a potato-corn taco. You can't order steak on a date. Explains an unabashed prefeminist woman. It isn't feminine. And you can't order just salad. He'll think you're anorexic.

            

       No wonder. Now that rents have gentled, America's fast-growing steak chains are invading Manhattan with sudden bovine bravado. How dare they peddle their prime in the town that gave its name to the boneless shell! There's the New Orleans Ruth Fertel, of Ruth's Chris, in a full-page ad with her boxing gloves on. And Morton's of Chicago, promising to knock the town on its ear. With primal devotion, steakhouse fans stand ready to make mincemeat of cocky pretenders. Pit a Peter Luger loyalist against a Sparks diehard or a Ben Benson partisan and watch friendly persuasion shift into sniggers of disdain.

            

       We're swept away, too. Here we sit, two pounds of crusty charred cow before us. There's a communal gasp. That sensuous sizzle.  Cheeks flush. There are manly ahas. The testosterone soars. And then an embarrassed giggle. Our all-star gastromaniacs tuck in, debating.

       The results a tip sheet on the new Bull Market, restaurants ranked (on a four-steer scale) in  overall excellence.

                                               

***

                Oh, the desperate ignominy of it. Morton's of Chicago takes the prize partly by default. Just typing the words breaks my chauvinistic New York heart. Alas, Sparks seemed to be having a salt fit last time I checked, So Morton's hippopotami double porterhouse ($59.90), a Pavarotti of cowdom, is the champ singing with flavor and rare as can be.

       What's the rub? Could be salt and pepper, then a searing bolt of flame. No one will tell. One bite, and we've already forgotten the Saran Wrap sideshow, how we had to be rescued from under the table in a laughing fit. Nicer folks than we will be kind, perhaps mesmerized, as Morton's waitress holds each sani-sealed steak and chop aloft, lyricizing. This is our famous filet. Tra la. Now for our amazing asparagus (to dip into a hollandaise glue).            

       No need to saw away with your monster serrated blade. Tender is the night. Butter and sage cooking produces perfection in a whalish lobster too. Humble potato skins demand a triumvirate of fats -- butter, sour cream, and bacon bits. True, the tomatoes are ghosts, the crabmeat stingy, the hash-browns glorious one night, stale the next. Anyone who would order scallops wrapped in bacon with apricot chutney deserves them.            

       Tripping through the wine list in the dim as Sinatra throbs is a workout so many Cabs, so many magnums, such ambitious tariffs. Order a soufflé if you fancy chocolate-scented air. Give me the rousing chocolate velvet.      

       Uneven? Yes. Will Morton's wise up, tighten ship, truckle into our hearts? Can so many high-roller chophouses survive the next oat-bran craze?   Three and half steers

             Morton's of Chicago, 551 Fifth Avenue (enter on 45th Street); 972-3315.

***


       Is Peter Luger the meat-eater's Valhalla? Was it ever? Even certifiable fussbudgets and congenital critics can be disarmed by nostalgia. Still, for native know-it-alls, there is simply no other steak. They stream across the Williamsburg Bridge in blinded Town Cars, joining raucous, over-extended families and good old boys in sweats. They giggle and lather with the sheer hormonal sweep of anticipation for that sweetly charred side of cow -- the double porterhouse for two or three or four ($54.50 to $109).

             Armani'd gourmands metamorphose into gluttons before my eyes. Yet I am strangely reticent. What is it? The shrill room lit brightly enough for a precinct lineup. So many laudatory reviews on the walls, leaving no room for rediscovery. Our veteran waiter not even a little bit bossy. A menu? Here? Do we look like tourists? And the old call-board that once summoned the waiters to the kitchen is silent. There goes a beeper --okay, I can accept a few steps into the twentieth century. But the near-tomatoes thick as hockey pucks striped with raw onion -- that's not new. The sauce a failed chemistry assignment, as always. The gorgeous lamb chops (brontosaurs ribs) a shade too mutton. That can happen.

             Wow, what a grump I've become. In an earlier incarnation, when the waiter of-fered a pour of only-the-arteries-know-what to grace the steak, the Molly Bloom of fat cried. Yes, yes,yes, Now silence.

             Still and at last, swept up in the contagion of my ecstatic companions, I must admit the porterhouse is splendid, rich and meaty, almost throbbing but not cool. And the German fries are good enough. Amazingly, the giant shrimp ($10.95 for four) actually taste like shrimp. Yes, order dessert, if only to provide a stage for a crown of world-class schlag (whipped cream)   Three Steers

             Peter Luger, 178 Broadway (between Bedford and Driggs), Brooklyn: 718-387-7400

***

       It's an uneasy truce on Steak Row. I wrote fifteen years ago here. The Prime Sirloin Establishment rumbles with rumor, suspicion, assassination. Sirloin was $16.50, naked on the plate. Brothers Pasquale and Mike Certa had just moved Sparks Steak House uptown from discount isolation on 18th Street, declaring High Noon in Steak Country --  and provoking a scandal over aging. The ruling Dons all dry-aged. But Sparks, they charged, got its beef vacuum-packed in plastic, aging wet in its own enzymes. Peter Luger's matriarch sneered. I challenged Pat Cetta to bare his meat locker. He refused, I pressed, He finally relented: If it's question of integrity, okay. The secret of his meal's intense flavor. Pat said, was his own personal mix of wet and dry. Though I rated Peter Luger and the Palm tied at four steers in 1978, I already had a crush on the explosive flavor of Spark's steak.

             Now the early red-flocked-bordello look has mellowed into mahogany-paneled Victorian parlor, and my palate has, shall we say, matured. That intense, complex savor has been a standard by which knowing carnivores judge. And Cetta's daunting collection of wine, most of it red with a richness of blowsy, lovable Cabernets, had boosted the house to the top.

             No need to advertise. Not since that Mafia sachem got his last hit of indigestion at the curb. Some readers have complained of bum steers at the holding pen. But we are ushered straight to the shockingly bright outer gulag, with its ecumenical throng: the homegrown and high-plains drifters, folks bibbed, even one in off-the-shoulder slink. Is the waiter a tad indifferent? Our ridiculously excessive order quickly wins respect.

             Crabmeat and scallops in a spill of butter are ingredients in search of a dish. Over warmed rolls are a minor annoyance. But the salt attack is terrorism, sabotaging truly great lamb chops and almost maiming the steak. Cetta insists it isn't salt. Apparently, the animal just grows that way.

             Do they poach the lobster in water? It's quite tasteless. But the oysters sparkle, and the buttery hashed-browns are fabulous as always. With a warm and luscious 85 Pauillac, Chateau Pontet-Cannet, everything melds to make us feel rich and immortal. Or is that immoral?  Three Steers

             Sparks Steak House, 210 East 46th Street: 687-4855.

***

       Long ago, the CIA that counted did espionage, not mayonnaise (the Culinary Institute of America was still an embryo). I was fresh from the provinces, and the Palm was the quintessential New York steakhouse. Cranky waiters, no menus, sawdust on the floor, caricatures of newspaper legends sketched on the walls. We groveled and raged, waiting in packs for a table to clear, sure someone with a better byline would barge ahead.

            Now the sawdust is gone. Book ahead if you like. There's even a $19.94 lunch with a 10-ounce sirloin or a reasonably daunting cut of prime rib. And the crankiest waiters must be off coaching the crew in the Palm's far-flung franchises, because ours is a sweetheart.

             There are eternal verities; big fat pickles and dilled tomatoes on the table. The bread is top-notch, upgraded to the nineties. The house salad spans decades -- iceberg and radicchio with bitter tomatoes. Two or three croutons lurk in a very ordinary Caesar. But the regular sirloin ($28) is a Palm classic -- caramelized epidermis, rare at the heart, tender and full of flavor. The prime rib impresses too, rare as requested ($23). The creamed spinach is a lesson in freshness. The hashed-browns, cottage fries, and sweet onion strings are impossible to stop munching. Even the cheesecake tastes fresher than most; the pecan pie isn't overly sweet.

             It would be nice to believe there's a scrupulous hand at the fryer and a finicky broiler man calling the drill, but who knows what a full house might do, provoking dastardly short cuts. Three Steers

              Palm Restaurant, 837 Second Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets: 687-2953.

                                                           

         ***

               La Cité launched as A Parisian brasserie, seemed brash and bloated. It suffered from a rude steak-house mentality -- that old hunk of meat solo on the plate with everything extra. But now it's simply Cité, the emphasis on meat, prices tamed-and looking around, I find it the handsomest steakhouse in town. A soaring space with many levels and stylish fake finishes from an Arnold Syrop design. I don't even mind the rolling carts. Once in a while the greeting may be cool or distracted, but the serving crew is smart and snappy. And impresario Alan Stillman has emerged as a certifiable grape nut, bringing depth to the cellar.

             As for the steaks -- our sirloin today is not as tender as some but carefully seared and grabbed from the flames just in time. The filet -- advertised as French Fries, $20 (side order of filet mignon included) -- is worth carrying on about, a crusty fist of flavorful beef anchoring a hill of excellent fries. But please fix the creamed spinach with fennel, too much cream and not enough fennel.

             Meat is just the hard core of the menu, a document that covers every corner form Lyon (sausage and lentils or onion soup) to the Far East (crabmeat-and-shrimp spring roll with herb mayonnaise or  -- thank you, Marco Polo pasta-crusted salmon with smoked shiitake and ginger gravy). Save room for desert, productions big enough for two or more to share: crème Brûlée, rice pudding, almond butter cake with poached fruit, and plump profiteroles with a pour of warm midnight-deep chocolate.

             At lunch a few weeks ago, we ask to have the leftover filet wrapped, then carry it a few dozen fee west to Ruth's Chris steak-invasion headquarters. The two of us are forced to concede that Ruth's dreaded splash of butter sure works its magic Three Steers

             Cité 120 West 51st Street; 956-7100.

                                                                       

***

       How grand can a steak-house get? If you took a meat-and-potatoes guy who liked to hang out at the Art Student's League, gave him a few years at Princeton, and financed his Wanderjahr abroad, he might come home and open the Post House. How well dressed it looks at its proper Upper East Side address, clubby but not snooty, with a collection of Americana spiced up with a Christo here and a Twombly there. And the menu rooted in tradition, well traveled and dernier cri. Mesquite-grilled Denver buffalo. South Texas antelope chop with black currant sauce. Japanese-style fisherman's platter. Plus chophouse classics with all the trimmings ( la carte).

             Not long ago, I fell in love with the Cajun rib steak ($29.50, $34 at dinner). But today, at a serene fall lunch, sparsely attended, my love is listless, with no spice at all. The Caesar is wimpy too, and the cottage fries taste jaded. Happily, crisp corn-meal-crusted oysters with fabulous slaw riding a crisp potato gaufrette, goat-cheese salad,, splendid salmon cakes (four when two would more than do), and sublime frozen crème brûlée lifts the gloom of unrequited expectation.

             The backup crowding the bar at dinner annoys and sours the matter d'. It looks like the male wing of an ABA convention just bused in. Men, dozens of slaphappy guys. A glass of champagne, even an apology, would cool us down. But no, Not till the waiter, a practiced social worker, takes us in hand and we're comforted with homey bacon-scented pea soup, fried calamari to dip in a peppery aioli, and Penfolds cheering Cabernet/Shiraz all around, do the bruises begin to heal.

             Now the sirloin ($26.50 at lunch, $29.75 at dinner) is first-rate, the hashed browns (though salty and greasy) are delicious, and the Cajun is seductive again, full of flavor, perfectly cooked. Coconut shrimp with curry is not the kitchen's best effort, and the swordfish is near-sashimi (we'd said medium rare). A taste of raw flour spoils the onion rings. Dessert is a test of endurance, each big enough for the table to share: apple crumble, Brooklyn blackout cake, a mousse-filled chocolate box, and that not-to-be-missed crème brûléee on its coconut-tuile big as a satellite dish.

             A note for singles: Men at steak, like men at football, are not easily distracted. Three Steers

             Post House, 28 East 63rd Street: 935-2888.

***


       The restaurant associates bigwigs who feed us in Rockefeller Plaza sniffed the wind, and overnight, the American Festival Café became cow country. True, the house has tempting fodder in every category, but the fixation is certified Angus beef.

             The Kansas City sirloin (on the bone. $22.95) is a tad mushy tonight, but the outsize T-bone ($26.95) is first-rate. And the prime rib ($19.95): superlative. The boneless cut served with soup or salad or fabulous crab cake, horseradish sauce, baked potato, and dessert for $24.95 is the absolute buy of this voyage. And that could be our town's best baked potato (truffles and caviar excluded, of course kosher salt is the trick).

             Indeed, the kitchen seems better than ever, dispatching splendid swordfish thick and rare with marvelous chive mashed potatoes, plus addictive onion frizzies and farfalle with impeccably cooked salmon and scallops in cream. Wines by the glass and boutique beers are a thoughtful dividend and desserts have always been special. Bananas Foster and the old-fashioned ice-cream sundae are more for the kid in you than the custardlike bread pudding. You can break midway for a fast half-hour on skates and come back for coffee. Three steers

             American Festival Café. 20 West 50th Street.

                                                         

***


       At Les Halles the cow speaks French and so does the pig in this cruelly rowdy bistro boucherie, with its nicotine-yellow walls and echoing cacophony. Indeed, the racket is so painful one night, we abandon our table and retreat to Ruth's Chris. Rollicking celebrations intensify the din on the Saturday night we return. We huddle close, shouting, in the smoke-thickened air. If you only live once, let it be Gauloise and the giant crusted cote de boeuf for two or three carved tableside on its wooden board. In the shadows between the glare form the glassed-in kitchen and the illuminated butcher-shop display up front, we could be in Paris, though the classic celeri remoulade has a New World wrinkle: chopped walnuts.

 Rillettes, leeks vinaigrette, snails, onion soup, shades of the Parisenne Les Halles in its glory days. The fine assiette of charcuterie could be a late supper or lunch. And there's beef, seven cuts of Black Angus, from $15.50 to $22.50. Alas, both the bavette (flank) and the onglet (hangar) are fiercely over-salted, though we console ourselves with first-rate fries and the accompanying salad, wilted deliciously in the saline jus. With three inches or so of rare and juicy red mate between saltings, the cote de boeuf is quite perfect, its béarnaise an unnecessary benediction.

             The waiter (from a small town north of BordeauxLondon) proposes dessert. crème brûlée gateaux Basque. The Morning Sun. Your robe and slippers. Char mars the apple tart, but the distinctly chewy crème brûlée is quite luscious. Two steers

             Les Halles, 411 Park Avenue South, near 28th Street: 679-4111.

***

       Ben Benson's may be suffering from too much love. At a time when our town's classic steakhouses were famous for rudeness, hauteur, and plastic phobia, Benson's made a point of hominess. Now the crowd paws the ground waiting for lunchtime tables, and solos hunker down at the bar for a midday fix. There is a great exuberance of flowers, and folk art everywhere. But where is the waiter?

             Perhaps half the staff has taken the day off. The mature'd offers a glass of wine in apology. There's a gasp when my guests ask for the day's special, Opus I ($13), and a lordan Cabernet ($9). When the kitchen gets into the soup, there's almost no way out. The hosts face says it all -- he looks like a marathoner lost in the wilds of Brooklyn.

             At last, chopped salad. Delicious. But is this the dregs of the beef-barley soup? It's so salty. Veal ordered pink arrives gray and dry. The special sirloin on the bone is mostly medium, timidly rare only near the bone, not seriously rare as I asked. The prime rib, a cheerless beige, grazes in what tastes like essence of bouillon cubes. We can always fill up on a mountain of fried onions and zucchini to avoid the weary spinach and ossified cottage fries. Only the filet ($30.50), rare as requested and the biggest hunk of cow since Elsie, impresses. Of course, the wine cellar is stellar and we have our heady sampling.

             A small child could drown in the giant apple cobbler. Not complaint, it's so good Two Steers.

             Ben Benson's Steak House, 123 West 52nd Street: 581-8888.

***

       Smith & Wollensky has that landmark-steakhouse look and aggressive steaks, bigger than most, with outsize knives to match (for sale). Urban cowboys who herd together between deals over sirloin like the welcome; its bare oak floors and raffish air, the bustling waiters wearing service stars.

             There's surf and turf aplenty, improvisations from the chef at lunch (shrimp Natchez, Cajun filet), and an enviable cellar with a flaunt of Cabernets. A flier on the table offers Opus I 90 $13.50 the glass. Trundled in on rolling carts, the thick pea soup proves justly famed, and a devilish mustard sauce sparks the first stone crab of the season. Luscious scallops a generous tumble, need their tiny muscles trimmed. The salad is drenched,  the cottage fries taste stale, but the sirloin ($29.75), George Hamilton-tanned and cooked as request, is fine. Not as rich-tasting as some definitely in need of seasoning. Two Steers

             Smith & Wollensky. 201 East 49th Street; 753-1530.

                                                           

 ***

       Feisty Ruth Fertel in her red boxing gloves, the self-styled First Lady of Steak, has 51st Street quaking. As the materfamilies of her unpronounceable Ruth's Chris Steak House chain, she's determined to rewrite the language.

             All our lives. New Yorkers have said rare when we want it crusted, red, and warm. We agree that medium means rose pink. Forget it, Sign up for Ruth's Berlitz blitz. The menu instructs you firmly-rare is very red, cool center. What you in your Manhattan provincialism thought was black and blue. If you want your steak rare, Ruth insists that you say, medium rare.

             I want it seriously rare but not blue, I tell the waiter.

             You want it medium rare, he says. We fence, but neither will budge. Finally I say, I don't care what you call it as long as its seriously rare and not cool. He retreats to fire up a cow medium rare. By now I desperately need the Mount Veeder Cabernet he's keen on. I like the concentration on that cork he says.

             Do I detect a stately-mansion vision in the swath of this vast space? With the discreet flowered walls, the thick carpet, and the almost-dry Victorian oils, dramatically lit, we could be in Toledo or Cleveland.

What a shock; the steaks are top drawer. Following Ruth's commandments, they are wet-aged, butchered daily, seasoned generously, seared at 1,800 degrees, doused with butter, and delivered to your fiery hot plate, butter sizzling. Not only do you risk scarring if you touch your plate, but the steak keeps on cooking. In no time, it doesn't matter what language you speak everything's gray. By my third meal, I'm clever enough to move my filet to a cold bread-and-butter dish.

     Too bad. Because with or without the butter bath, that hulking filet ($26.50), the sirloin strip ($27.50), and the porterhouse for tow ($55) can hold their own even in this Cowtown. So let's give the migrant time to wise up, to smooth the welcome at the door (and not lose our reservation), to summon our gang from the bar and not lead us to a table that's already occupied, and to coach the dining-room team so they don't look like they just stumbled off the bus from Biloxi.

     For now, expect surprises from the kitchen. The gumbo is pleasant enough, but icy shrimp in remoulade sludge, and snails with artichoke hearts in butter soup are a mess. Flutters of leaves with bacon bits will not pass for a spinach salad. Thick, ugly batter slides right off the onion rings. Start with smoked salmon. Tonight, at least, it's fresh and full of flavor. Homesick for Wisconsin? Order the potatoes au gratin in Ruth's take on Cheez Whiz. The nonchalance of the unseasoned lobster delivery makes the $67.50 tab rather rude.

     The cheesecake with its sour-cream topping, and the warm pecan pie or berries in sweet creamy custard make a pleasant finale, butcrème brûlée lessons are in order. As for the chocolate sin cake  -- in our town, it rates a mere misdemeanor. Two Steers

     Ruth's Chris Steak House, 148 West 51st Street; 245-9600.

 ***

            No one in the food-world cabal speaks of Pen & Pencil, I'd tucked it away in a dusty corner of my brain. And forgive me, John Bruno (grandson of the bootlegger founder), but I'm amazed to see it alive, I feel cocooned by the rogues gallery of deities on one wall (Ed Sullivan, Dorothy Kilgallen, Ctare Boothe Luce, Brooks Atkinson, Liz Smith).

     Why so quiet? The joint should be jumping. Though our well-intentioned waiter is still in training, the sirloin is classic, the real thing. A side of beef rides on a silver platter for our inspection. Defiantly nude. The waiter sculpts a massive steak. Again, he presents the platter, our steak ($29.75) riding the rack like a triumphant quarterback. And it's amazing, first-rate, full of flavor -- a candidate for steakdom's hall of fame. With it, good roasted potato chunks and odd cuts of carrot, celery, and bitter garlic. The Caesar is a theatrical production, too, good but not the noble Caesar of Pietro's. A dollop of crab sits atop a delicious crab cake whose lumps have disappeared into an anonymous mash. And the cheesecake would be the best encountered on this marathon except for an odd, elusive burnt taste.

     Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man sweeps in, grabs each diners hand and announces, I'm John Bruno. And then he disappears, a neglected hero. Two Steers

     Pen & Pencil, 205 East 45th Street; 682-8660.

                                   

     ***

            Gluttony at a discount. How brilliant. Imagine steak and all the trimmings from clams Casino and deep-fried onions to profiterole, just $29.93. So the room's a yawn and no one you've ever read about is here. But Opus II, host Bruno Selimaj's homage to a legendary Cabernet, Opus I, is proof that if quantity is what counts, more is more. How pleasantly eccentric that the Napa Valley offspring of two noble kings, Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, should bathe this debauchery.

            Whatever you choose -- sirloin, filet mignon, rack of veal, lamb chops, or fish --the price is the same, all inclusive (lobster alone is $10 extra). Brace for the attack, a parade of platters to share, the specifics always changing. Perhaps stuffed mushrooms and a Caesar, or shrimp cocktail and a crunchy clean-out-the-crisper salad. Then mountains of fried zucchini, onion rings, and creamed spinach. Pork chops are juicy, the sirloin rather good, the swordfish delicious, cooked exactly as ordered.

     There are less-expensive wines on the list, but in the interest of wanton excess, why not elevate dinner with that elegant, pedigreed grape juice in signature goblets? The 89 Opus 1 at $65 is practicallywine shop priced.  Can Bruno possibly break even? Two Steers.

            Open 11 242 East 58th Street. 753 3300

                       

 ***

            When the Old Homestead opened in the heart of the Village meat market, it was an adventure for the hoopskirted, top-hatted citizens of 1868 -- our earliest foodies -- to trot uptown in horse and carriage. Even now, by kamikaze taxi, it's a voyage to a night-time no-man's land. Raffish and worn, with dust on the edge of the red leather banquettes. Old Homestead wheezes. As you struggle to snag a waiter, busy yourself with a grilled red-pepper half from dozens piled like rugs on the platter. These are outsize steaks for sumo wrestlers, especially the Kobe beef at $100 a pound. Billyl Joel has his delivered. Ah, that Kobe, from cows fed beer and massaged lovingly. It's unlike any steak I've ever tasted, baroque, like eating butter. That import makes the double porterhouse ($56) with its tough gristled edge taste dull. The three-or-four-inch mountain of roast beef is staggering but flavorless. A good red wine from the marketing department of J.P. Moueix blurs the rest, thank heaven.  Two Steers

     Old Homestead Restaurant, 56 Ninth Avenue, neat 15th Street; 242-9040.

 ***

     Funny Face, a brand new Gershwin musical starring Fred Astaire, was playing next door in 1927 when Gallagher's opened as a speakeasy hangout for sports stars, gamblers, show folk, and their scribbler groupies. With liquor legal again, the steakhouse emerged, and its street-side window with rows of hanging racks of beef aging at 36 degrees became a Broadway fixture.

     I like to think Gallagher's always looked like this; wood-paneled and vast with its convivial square bar, captains chairs, checked tablecloths. And, everywhere, photographs of their old gang, from Ethel Barrymore and John Lindsay to Walter Hoyt (The Flatbush Mortician) and Jackie O.

     The waiter is so chummy we can't get rid of him except by sending back the lamb chops -- ordered rare, delivered medium. What desperate food designer dreamed up the froufrou of onion soup ladled over a disk of cheese? The chunked chicken livers (not chopped at all) insult generations of Jewish grandmothers. The spinach is a salty mush, the Caesar run-of-the-mill. The big sirloin broiled over hickory logs ($29.75) is thick and rare but bland.

     Good news: No one has tampered with the oxtail soup, and Gallagher's own potato wedgies are fabulous. The desserts also are over size: great  if it's the old-fashioned apple pie; awkward if it's a hapless out-of-season strawberry shortcake. Two Steers

 

     Gallagher's 228 West 52nd Street, 245-5336.

 ***

     A Palm for the West Side was what Walter Ganzi Jr, had in mind when he opened Wally's, now Wally's and loseph's in 1970. For palates that came of age in that innocent moment between cherries jubilee and tiramasu, it's still the spot for steak with a side of spaghetti before the curtain. Steak savants tout the double porterhouse.

      Today's lunchers look like regulars, all men, some theater folk having breakfast at 1:15, oblivious to the homely, anonymous room that could be anywhere in America. They can order 12-ounce lunchtime steaks and chops ($18.95 to $21.50) or bow to the nineties with turkey burger or Neptune salad. And they can go whole hog as we do. Wonderful, moist clams Casino. The special salad with iceberg, red onion, and anchovy. And the gargantuan double porterhouse, wonderfully rare, handsomely seared (55 ounces, $61), sliced at the table with no flavor at all. Two Steers

     Wally's and losephs, 249 West 49th Street; 582-0460.
                                                          

***


       Enter the twilight zone of Pietro's, a sincere but tuneless road-show revival of the crowded Damon Runyon scene we once braved for chunky sirloin, linguine with clams, chopped salad. The shock of Pietro's welcoming kiss. Eager and golden, what did we know? Sexual harassment hadn't been invented yet.

     Native New Yorkers between mid-life crisis and denial fantasize: I go to Pietro's for spaghetti and meatballs and the sirloin every time I think I'm strong enough to live through It, says one. Amiable stewards in blue cotton jackets crisscross the charmless room, braking at a wiggle of finger. I'm not your waiter is a language not spoken here.

     This simple unassuming Caesar, a shade too wet, may be the best in town. With its tingle of garlic and anchovy, the classic thickening of egg and cheese blended in (not tossed on top like sawdust), it makes couturier Caesars look pretty foolish. The New York strip ($28) looks great but needs salt to cure the blahs. The half-order of spaghetti and meatballs wearing traditional red is a fine memory of childhood. About that antipasto: Knowing what cans to open counts. Oops, Someone forgot our hashed-browns. First-rate shoestrings arrive as a gift.  Two Steers

Pietro's 232 East 43rd Street; 682-9760.

***

                                                        

            A staid old-boys club that still caters to its aging troops -- men who wear their pants an inch above the instep -- Christ Cella feels like a waiting room at Forest Lawn. With founder Christoforo's son, Brigadier General Richard Cella, and his wife, lvana, semi-retired, grandson Renzo keeps the 1927 legacy alive. The townhouse is freshly papered, austere (or clean-cut, if you want to be kind). A bored waiter recites. Longtime habitus already know.They have the best bay scallops, my companion points out. Except today the bay is somewhere in Florida and the carefully cooked critters are wimpy. Still, the marvelous tartar sauce served with aristocratic lumps of crab perks things up. Cottage fries, arranged on the plate, are remarkably greaseless, and not so good. Grease counts. I guess, The sirloin ($29.95) may look picture-perfect, but it's chewier than some, and it doesn't taste like prime. Happily, the two double-thick lamb chops are fabulous. Two Steers

             Christ Cella, 160 East 46th Street; 697-2479.

 ***

     FREE LANCE STEAKS IN THE NABES

     What about the steakhouse expats, the self-exiled- the staunch converts to the anti-red-meat Falange, the anything-as-long-as-it's-fish fanatics, and those who never liked the chophouse scene at all? When a meat fit hits, where do they go?

     The Wall Street Voluptuary takes the family to China Grill (52 West 53rd Street, 333-7788) for grilled dry-aged Sichuan beef in a sauce of sake, soy, spicy shallots, and cilantro ($26.50 for 8 ounces, $42 for 16). Alas, though I couldn't stop eating the pan-Asian Caesar (with ginger aioli, spiced cashews, and strips of crisp-fried wonton), the steak, ordered seriously rare, was medium by the time it landed.

     Around the corner at "21" (21 West 52nd Street, 582-7200), touted in a flutter of name-droppings by our pal the Sincere Social Climber, we chewed and chewed on the most expensive sirloin of the season. A chubby cut of Black Angus for $37 at least it comes with spectacular fired onion strings, and an unnecessary pool of Cabernet sauce. We share a fabulous Cobb salad and crusty hashed-browns, too, flirting a little. This clubby den with its dangling toys overhead is not strictly a male sanctum but almost.

     The Road Food Warrior can't quite get enough of the Black Angus sirloin ($24.50) at Mesa GrillThree Steers (102 Fifth Avenue, near 15th Street, 807-7400). Trimmed and tender, it comes with a potato-and-corn taco, relish of smoked red pepper and grilled onion, and a sauce that blends maple syrup, horseradish, and vinegar.

     The Prince of Pure Platinum books at Coco Pazzo Three Steers (23 East 74th Street, 794-0205) when he feels a steak craving closing in. The animal that drives us wild is the Florentine bistecca, 25 ounces of spectacular cow on the bone, grilled and scalded with herb-infused olive oil, sliced if you wish ($30 at lunch, $32 at dinner). Tonight ours has a caramelized edge, salted but not too, and comes with baby carrots, Swiss chard, soft polenta, and a few roasted potatoes.

     The bubbling fish tanks and neon lobster in the window signal seafood at KamChueh  (40 Bowery, 701-6868). But Chinatown sages find a spot between salt-baked squid and scallops in black beans for excellent T-bone, wokked to a turn, very rare, served with lots of green flowering chive. Two Steers

     Not necessarily a candidate for the Red Meat Hall of Fame but definitely a best buy is the reasonably tender, judiciously peppered 14-ouncer at Isabella's (359 Columbus Avenue, at 72nd Street, 724-2100), served with mashed potatoes for just $14.95. (Ask the chef to go easy on the peppercorns.) One Steer And the Brazilian steak sandwich ($8.95) with peppers and onions, so greasy and good at the Coffee Shop One Steer (29 Union Square West, at 16th Street; 243-7969), strikes me as beefy satisfaction on a budget?

***

WALTZ OF THE TOURNEDOS

     Time for one more tasting, we are four; a Peter Luger-for-porterhouse, Sparks-for-sirloin connoisseur. A new Morton's convert. A Coco Pazzo stalwart. And an open mind. We have gathered a quartet of steaks, ordered black- and blue i.e., scared and cool at heart so they won't steam in the wrapping- form Peter Luger, Morton's, Sparks, and Smith & Wollensky.

     Scoring the beef was a challenge. We sent a car and driver to Peter Luger. They generously included roll Morton's and Sparks flatly refused to do carry-out, insisting that it ruins a serious steak. Not even for a sick friend. Morton's press agent intervened, so clearly the steak it selected was its crown jewel. I had to go to Sparks (fully booked) solo, beg for a table, eat a few bites, and ask for a doggie bag (the waiters were charming). Smith & Wollensky was characteristically eater-friendly, asking us to order no more than 45 minutes ahead. Here's my score.

     Peter Luger's Best of the night. Wonderful flavor, a merger of beef and butter Tender. Missing the cosmic caramelized crustiness. Hate that preslicing.

     Morton's Extra thick, perhaps extra aged, handsomely scared, luscious flavor, Too tender, Weirdly tender.

     Sparks Fine texture, good flavor, not up to the house's high standard. Excessive char. Curious how it gets that oversalted tingle without salt.

     Smith & Wollensky Bigger than Sparks, perfectly cooked, a respectable steak, Picture-perfect, but not in the same flavor league. Odd aftertaste.

Click here for Vintage Listings Page.

                                                   

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene

Fresh Gourmet



Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers



ADVERTISE HERE