After being closed for three years, Harry’s on Hanover Square officially reopened last week as Harry’s Café and Harry’s Steak, two separate restaurants. The entrance for the café is on Hanover Square, under the India House, and the steakhouse’s entrance is on Pearl Street. They are joined at their respective backs in the middle of the building, but other than that are separate entities. Harry’s earned its reputation as a “seven hundred three-martini-lunches-a-day” place in the 80’s, so I decided that on their inaugural eve, I would eat like a Wall Street guy. I took a booth in the bar area of Harry’s Steak.
The room is all new, the lacquer on the tabletops still shiny; the newly sandblasted stone walls look almost modern New Mexico rather than actually the hundred-plus-years old they are; and it generally has a new car smell. There is space around the tables but not enough to lose an intimate feeling. The room is sub terra by about five steps with ground level windows that allow you to be aware of the degree of light outside, yet don’t do anything as silly as allow outside light to come into the room. There is a sense that, over time, the luster will fade into the patina of a comfortable room in which people eat steaks and talk deals.
Business dinners start with cocktails, so we had one. With all the innocence in the world I let my Glow choose, and she decided on Cosmos. This being Wall Street, where no deal gets broken without a penalty, I decided to stick by my trade, but modify the details. I asked for a Cosmo with just a touch of cranberry, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice, in combination with whatever citron vodka they used. They gave me exactly what I asked for, and it was good -- as good as it was before everyone in the world watched Sex and the City and started calling kamikaze shots with cranberry in a cocktail glass a Cosmo.
Before Harry’s closed in 2003, it was a wine geeks’ secret getaway. Harry Poulakakos, the owner then and now, had purchased wine from 1972 to 2003 and amassed quite a serious, yet fairly priced list of about 60,000 bottles. When Harry got out, his son Peter took over the collection and sold it in the restaurant upstairs, Bayards. I am told the intention is to offer the same collection again at Harry’s in the near future. At the moment there is a good sampling from around the world but nothing like the famous old list.
I saw some decent wines at decent prices but they were all pretty current vintages and more fairly priced than great deals. There is one horrible indicator though and that is that they use Riedel O series glasses. As far as I understand it one of the younger generations of the family behind Riedel was frustrated by the space the stems on stemware were taking up in his small cabinets in his small apartment so he took them off. Indeed the most important part of the wine glass is its bowl. The depth and shape of a bowl can have drastic effects on how your palate perceives a wine. The stem, although not as important, is still key to the glass functioning as part of the wine experience. It may save space in small places and there may be logic in keeping them for guests, and they do make very cool water glasses, but serious wine deserves a proper wine glass, with a stem.
So from the truncated list in the silly glasses we had a glass of Zinfandel (pretty heady, acceptable as a fruit bomb) and a Bordeaux (pretty simple, much more suited to the steaks then the Zin). On the whole there were about seven reds by the glass to choose from, spanning a good sample of grapes and regions.
For food we tried:
Beefsteak Tomato/ Three Ways: One slice of a tomato topped with very thinly shaved Vidalia onion with tomato ranch (what’s tomato ranch? is it dressing? then you need to say that), another slice with chopped bacon and crumbled Maytag blue cheese, and a third with a slice of mozzarella, a basil leaf, and a drizzle of olive oil. It would be insane to bash tomatoes for being out of season after ordering them in May, so I won’t, but I suspect if they source them locally this will be a great dish in the third fiscal quarter.
Dry Aged NY Strip on the Bone: Aged in-house 28 days, this was a decent steak with nice browning, not overly charred. There were both sweetness and richness, good salt and pepper, and no need to do much more to this than apply a knife and fork. I ordered it medium-rare and felt it favored the medium side. I would bet that very many people polled would concur that the steak I was served was medium-rare so I won’t complain, but going back I would order mine rare.
Dry Aged Rib Chop: A fine steak, although it wasn’t as good as the strip. Also aged 28 days in-house, it was not as well marbled as other rib chops I’ve tried, which I guess makes the next critique useless, but a rib chop is a cut of meat that does its best work under insane exposure to very high heat. This was very nicely black, but due to its low marbling ratio, it just wasn’t succulent. This chop had good, beefy flavor borne out in a substantial, yet giving chew, but it wasn’t genius, just good. It went very nicely with the house steak sauce, which says great things about the sauce but not necessarily good things about the steak.
Hash Browns: A light pile of sliced potatoes fried with a golden brown surface of clarified butter. Well-executed, but maybe better with steak and eggs.
Creamed Spinach: Rich and thick, with a taste of nutmeg. More about cream than spinach, this was probably exactly the dish that was first written down as a creamed spinach recipe.
Salt Crusted Baked Potato: As great as great baked potatoes are, they are truly nothing more than baked potatoes. I imagine it must be quite frustrating to make an exceptional baked potato; the good news at Harry’s is that it is not as much an exceptional potato as an exceptional presentation, which may just be what the baked potato needs. This is New York -- if you can’t genuinely be fabulous, dress yourself up as fabulous. Here, a large Idaho baking spud was baked in a salt crust, basically adding an intense thermo level to the classic diner foil-wrap. It arrived at the table in its crust, which was broken open with a hammer. It was then sliced into disks and served with five accoutrements in metal soufflé cups perched on a winding piece of metal that looked as if it could be an Ikea candleholder. In the cups were chopped chives, bacon bits, sour cream, cheddar, and corn with black truffle. I loved the potato if only for the corn, which was very good both on the potato and on a spoon.
For dessert we tried a cheese plate, cheesecake, and mixed berries with cream. Crossing the finish line with a boom, all these classic desserts were plated and served with far more ornamentation than the rest of the meal by someone who enjoyed flourish class in culinary school. We had a short time for dinner and the restaurant had done a great job of getting us everything in a timely manner, such a good job that we thought we had the time for dessert. After the extra attention given to plating we were only left with about 5 of the 25 minutes we had allotted.
Like most of Harry’s fare, the desserts will satisfy a craving if not create one. The berries were those very pretty, out–of-season, tasteless berries sold by companies like Driscoll. The cheesecake was a small, light, pretty version of classic New York Cheesecake, and the cheese plate was “a cow, a sheep, a goat and a blue,” served with walnuts, dried cranberries and raisin nut bread.
Harry’s always traded in no-nonsense, classic food that is exactly what is expected by most of the people in America, and that seems to be their plan going forward. If there are three levels of steak house in New York, on its first night Harry’s was solidly at the top of the middle -- far better than many, and only subjugated to a few. It will do its best work as a local place for people looking for good food in a neighborhood with copious dollars to spend on vittles and not a lot of close outlets offering solid fare. Once the wine list gets up to speed, it may be awesome, but at this point, just being pretty good puts them at the top of the game for their neighborhood, as well as for most of their competition.