Steak houses exist outside my normal standards for restaurants. Whereas usually I like to observe the subtle choices chefs make in similar dishes and look for merit or fault within these confines, properly prepared meat in a steak house is either the greatest steak in the world or not. There is no grey area. Either it tastes like the best I have ever had or like a miserable facsimile of the best I have ever had and therefore a waste of time.
Over my lifetime, what this steak is has changed. In my adolescence, it was the 4-inch sirloins my dad would grill at least once a weekend. Later, my dad read a New York Times article about dry aging and convinced our local butcher to dry age beef for us. This was a special occasion thing because it involved planning and money, but when it would happen it was awesome. Later, I started buying aged strip steaks at Ottomanelli's, seasoning them with sea salt and black pepper, and grilling them in a Webber kettle over lump charcoal that had been started in a chimney.
This remains the best sirloin I have had anywhere, ever, so why go out for steaks? Lugar's porterhouse. I have heard the tales of butter and rendered lard and so on used to top Lugar's steak, but I believe at its heart what makes their steak great are the same three things that make all the great steaks great: quality meat, the right amount of high intensity heat, and the right amount of coarse salt and pepper for the chosen cut. I believe there is a little wiggle room in making a good steak (which is why you must accept possible change), depending on the cut and the heat method, but the reason one place always so far beats all its competition is there is an exactly right ratio of cut, quality, heat, time, and seasoning. Which is why there is no reason to order anything but porterhouse at Lugar's, and no reason ever to order filet mignon at a steak house.
Usually, I go to Strip House for one of two reasons: either I have an overwhelming urge for a great piece of beef, the kind only to be found in New York, or someone has dragged me to another chop house insisting that it has meat equal to or better than the chops that top my list of the greats (Lugar's porterhouse, Strip House's rib chop and Keen's mutton) and, having tried this person's proposed equal, I develop a taste for my preferred that can only be sated by committing to a big meal.
This time, my Strip House trip was inspired by having gone to Del Frisco's and tried their rib chop. At this point, the rib chop at Strip House is reigning champ in my book for the best rib chop, best steak in Manhattan, and best adaptations of standard steakhouse sides.
When Strip House first opened, to get things rolling they had a special on Sunday nights that offered certain selections on the wine list for wholesale prices. I probably went one Sunday a month in those days. Once I had had the rib chop about 20 times I started trying their other offerings and, after some successful and unsuccessful experimentation, I have settled into a standard order that I probably get 4 out of 5 times.
Lobster bisque. True lobster bisque in that it is not lobster chowder or cream of lobster soup, all heavy and chunky with overcooked bits of lobster meat, but rather the perfect aroma of lobster captured in the luxurious richness of hot cream. It is as if a cappuccino maker was somehow involved in frothing it to keep it as light and sweet as lobster should be. The bisque is poured on a crisp wonton, with a cannel of crème fraiche and a little sliced lobster meat.
The bone-in-rib chop medium rare. In general, I like steaks either rare or Pittsburg, but early in my visits to Strip House a waiter explained that the chef suggested medium rare for this steak because the amount of fat strata inherent to the cut would melt to a more pleasing point at medium rare then my oft-preferred versions of blue. I tried it his way a couple times, tried it my way again, and decided he was right: this steak is best medium rare.
Truffle creamed spinach. I have tried all the sides at least once and I know devotees of all but, compared to the spinach, I feel the other sides all pale. At some point in any chop shop meal, you are going to put some of a side dish and some steak on your fork together. Something awesome happens here between the crusty, black, salty edge of the steak and the rich, creamy, earthy, mouth-staining truffle aroma of the spinach that is unique.
The only other thing I order with this meal (dessert would be a waste) is a glass and bottle of wine. The glass is a white to go with the chowder. A Chablis would obviously be best paired, but any rich white with good acids can play with the soup. For dinner, I have taken trips through the big Bordeaux's and Cali reds, I have ordered off the sommelier's choices on the back page, but I have pretty much learned this meal wants cheap red from the Rhone. There is almost always a decent bottle of something like Gigondas to be found and it seems to bring the best game to this meal. The meal is too rich for a rich red, and too bold for a finesse red. Trust me, go with a cheap, angular, slutty red from the Rhone.
The room is cool; it is dark, dark, in shades of dark red and dull gold. There are black and white photos out of the days when evening gowns and black ties were common. At some point, you realize the patterns on both your napkin and the wallpaper are risqué silhouettes of women posed in pairs. When you mention this to your server you'll learn that they are offered for sale but that the restaurant is out at the moment and it's best to order from the website. This has been the state of affairs for about 4 years.
If there is a chink in the armor of Strip House it is the service. I have had good service there, but on the whole it runs from mediocre to crap. The only time ever in my life I could not find a reason to at least tip a waiter 18% was on a particularly bad occasion at Strip House. I don't mean the brusque badness of a typical steak house where guys tell you what you're having. I mean a waiter who seemed to go out of his way to screw up every step of service, from bringing the wrong steak to one diner who then got to sit, foodless, for 20 minutes while the proper one was prepared, to screaming from the POS terminal to one of the people at the table across the room that his credit card seemed to have been rejected.
When faced with bad execution at places I believe are worth my dining dollar, I prefer to advise management of my experience and give them the chance to remedy the situation rather than just giving up. Since this uniquely bad incident came in a string of mediocre experiences there, I chose to talk to a manager on the way out. None were around so I left a business card and asked for a call back. When no call had come 3 days later, I called and left a voicemail. I am still waiting for a call back from about a year ago. I guess bad management breeds bad service.
Finally, after not having been back in about eight months, I joined a friend for a special occasion and decided at this point I have become so regimented in my Strip House choices all I lose from the potentially bad service is a couple of minutes and exposure to anything new the chefs are trying to do, and in this place that is ok. Steak houses almost encourage a curmudgeonly approach to ordering.
This time, a guy named Gabe was our waiter and did a great job, and my wine was an '01 Thalabert Crozes Hermitage, a little thin but still good enough next to that steak.
Every now and then you need meat, and you don't want to go to Brooklyn, and you are not in the mood to appreciate a uniquely slight game note in an old lamb chop. If you are someone who can overlook occasionally poor service and management, the rib chop at Strip House is probably your best bet.