All this week, as a Classics Week special, Eater is sending correspondents to classic New York restaurants and their newer counterparts, to see how the two compare. They'll report back on the scene at both, suss out the differences, and maybe even shed some light on what makes the classic a classic. Up today Eater NY senior editor and resident carnivore Nick Solares, with a look at two steakhouses:
When comparing classic and modern steakhouses, one can easily choose two restaurants with far more drastic contrasts than Delmonico’s and American Cut. The stripped down, baroque aesthetic of Peter Luger versus the gleaming, over-the-top ostentation of the newly minted Hunt & Fish Club, for example. Or the dark, sullen patina of Keens, with its trove of historical artifacts, versus the moody, glitzy night club vibe of STK, where Bob Guccione might have felt immediately at home. But Keens, Peter Luger, the Palm, and The Old Homestead represent only one, albeit the most distinct, branch of the steakhouse family tree. They spring from the beef steak dinners of the 19th Century, and of the tavern and the beer hall.
The other branch of the steakhouse family tree is older, grander, and starts with America’s first restaurant and steakhouse, Delmonico’s. While most of the city's steakhouses are rooted in very American, and specifically New York tropes, Delmonico's looked to the dining rooms of continental Europe, simply because there was nothing before it on these shores. American Cut certainly has a lot in common with the other branches of the steakhouse family tree, but it's closer in spirit to Delmonico's. Both are expressions of grand steakhouse dining. Not surprisingly, both are built on the legacy of a notable chef, something that is fairly uncommon in steakhouses.
Delmonico’s was founded in 1827 as a small cafe by the brothers Peter and John Del-Monico, who emigrated from Switzerland specifically for that purpose. By 1830 it had grown in to a full blown restaurant, bringing a number of innovations to the American marketplace — Delmonico’s offered the first al la carte menu, the first wine list, and was arguably the first farm to table restaurant, after the brothers purchased a farm on Long Island in 1834 to supply produce.
The restaurant is, of course, most famous for naming the Delmonico cut of steak, but it also claims that lobster Newburg, eggs Benedict, and baked Alaska sprang from its kitchen. Charles Ranhofer helmed the restaurant during its defining golden age (1862-1881) and was America’s first celebrity chef. Successive generations of the Delmonico family (the hyphen was eliminated around the same time that the restaurant opened) ran the original location as well as operating several branches and a hotel in Manhattan for the next century, establishing Delmonico’s as a staid and luxurious brand.
The restaurant has had a fractured lineage in the years since the last of the Delmonico family closed their restaurant in 1927. The name was resuscitated by one Oscar Tucci in 1929, who opened a Delmonico’s at the site of the original, much to the chagrin of the remaining Delmonico family who unsuccessfully sued to stop the use of the name. This particular incarnation lasted until 1977, when the building was sold. Since then it has been opened and closed several times but seems to have maintained an even keel and a steady course these last four years under chef Billy Oliva.
Of course, the chef is bound to certain dishes — the Delmonico steak and lobster Newburg for example, and he handles them with faithfulness and reverence. But they aren't the best things on the menu. According to Oliva the Delmonico steak, which is commonly a boneless ribeye, as it is at Delmonico's today, was historically not always the same cut. Instead, it was simply the best steak available on a given night. So it might have been a ribeye, but could also have been a T-bone or sirloin steak.
Next to the confounding popularity of the filet mignon (tender but with little flavor) the Delmonico steak is the second best seller at Delmonico's. But you shouldn't order either. While the Delmonico is from prime grade beef it is wet aged, lacking the deeper complexity of dry aged beef, which is most assuredly what was originally served at Delmonico's. How do we know this? Because wet aging has only been around since refrigeration became broadly adopted, well after the golden age of Delmonico's.
To get a truer historic Delmonico's experience, in everything but name, look to the rib steak, which is the same cut as the ribeye but with a bone; or the porterhouse for two. Both are dry aged for 28 days. The Delmonico cut is hardly a bum steer. It is tender and lithe, with a clean flavor and a splendid sear – what the steaks pictured on the sides of salt containers in the 1960's might have tasted like. But the difference between dry and wet aging is apparent in the depth of flavor found in the other cuts. They are just as tender as the Delmonico but exhibit a gentle funk from the age box that balances the sweetness of the corn finished beef. Cooked in a mercilessly hot broiler the steak emerge sizzling and smoking with a dense char and are seasoned simply with salt. The appetizers and sides tend to be more ornate at Delmonico's than at more stripped down steakhouses, but the hash browns and creamed spinach are probably the most satisfying, and the Caesar salad is as classic interpretation as you'll find. Dessert? Get the baked Alaska.
Arguably more charming than the food is the room. While it has obviously been remodeled several times, it maintains the grandeur and sweeping feel of a ballroom. And the service is more obsequious and intimate than the stereotypical gruff but affable steakhouse waiter. Delmonico's might not have quite the clearly defined lineage and unsullied reputation that it wants to evoke, amid the ups and downs of its recent history, but it has gone fair way towards doing so. Eating there feels like an authentic experience, especially the steaks.
If Delmonico's is patterned on a historical legacy, American Cut is a thoroughly modern restaurant in almost every regard. It is part of a prolific, national restaurant group. It is helmed by a celebrity chef. The room is art deco with hints of the speakeasy; it could fit right in to any number of locations and doesn't seem particularly rooted here, despite being quite pretty and comfortable. It isn't, despite being deemed the flagship, even the original location of the restaurant, an American Cut having previously opened in Atlantic City. While that location is now closed, there is a branch opening soon in Buckhead, Atlanta and more are certainly in the works. These are not necessarily ingredients that make for a particularly inspired steakhouse, especially in a city like New York, where there are more than a few options. Except that the celebrity chef in question is Marc Forgione, who is as about as close to restaurant royalty as one gets in America. He also knows a thing or two about cooking steak.
The son of pioneering chef Larry Forgione, who has been referred to as the "godfather of American cuisine," Marc Forgione is an accomplished chef in his own right, in addition to being a television personality. The chef found wide acclaim for the rib steak he served at his eponymous restaurant, so it's not surprising that he opened a steakhouse on the back of that success. American Cut is named as a homage to his father's ground breaking restaurant An American Place, and the menu is a nod the grand dining style spearheaded by Delmonico's and a broader homage to the city of New York itself.
Rather than a simple parroting of the generic steakhouse menu, the one at American Cut is more considered, and the technique for cooking the steaks is more deliberate than a simple searing. Forgione brushes the steaks with what he calls the "mop," a mixture of rendered dry aged beef fat, butter, garlic, and herbs. He also bastes the steaks with butter, garlic and thyme after broiling them, adding flavor notes usually absent from the repertoire of most steakhouses.
The NYC cut is even more complex in preparation and flavor. It is Forgione's "love letter" to the city combining two of its most iconic dishes — the dry aged steak and the pastrami sandwich. The beef is smoked with apple wood and then rubbed in pastrami spices before being grilled and anointed with lashings of caraway infused brown butter and spicy brown mustard. It might not satisfy the steak purist, but it is a compelling dish in its own right, using steak as a starting point and embodying the spirit of Ranhofer to take it further.
The rest of the menu is equally playful, yet reverent toward the classics. The chili lobster looks like an homage to lobster Newburg, but is really based on the Malaysian chili crab. The Caesar salad is chopped table-side, using a menacing looking mezzaluna blade, and the bone marrow comes dotted with escargot. The service at American Cut is brasher and faster paced than at Delmonico's but that is true of the restaurant in general.
The death nell of the traditional steakhouse continues to be sounded by naysayers, yet the genre more than endures, it thrives. Conversely the "nouveau" steakhouse trend of middle aughts, which sought to replace the traditional institutions, has been thoroughly discredited. One need only think back to V Steakhouse, Primehouse, Kobe Club and CraftSteak to see that those seeking to "redefine" or "reimagine" the steakhouse have a solution in search of a problem. The traditional steakhouse is essential to the dining life of the city, and especially those that seek to elevate the experience beyond a plate of meat and potatoes. That's not to say that modern interpretations of the steakhouse like M. Wells Steak and Bowery Meat Company are unwelcome. They strengthen the dining scene over all, and offer a fascinating juxtaposition to traditional steakhouses. But they don’t invalidate or supplant the traditional model. Delmonico’s and American Cut both offer steakhouse dining on the grand scale. Despite the seeming differences between them, they embrace the ethos that steakhouse dining is not just about the steak itself, but about the totality of the experience.