One of the myriad ignominies of post-crash Manhattan is that recreational activities that are normally free or affordable in more quaint parts of the country will still burn your wallet in the Big Apple. Anyone who’s dropped big bucks throwing strikes at Brooklyn Bowl or encountered the $40 hourly fee at Royal Palms Shuffleboard knows this pain well. So it’s a relief that you don’t have to pay top dollar (or even pop in two quarters) to play billiards at The Clocktower, a too-cool-for-school bastion of beef by mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr, an upscale British tavern that's surely one of the only fancypants New York restaurants with a pool table; could you imagine shooting eight ball at Masa? The downside, alas, is that everything else at The Clocktower will cost you. The cocktails are $16. The steak for two is $125. And during a recent lunch I spent over $30 after tax and tip on three bespoke, booze-free sodas. One could purchase a Nebuchadnezzar-sized bottle of coke for less.
The setting for such largess is Ian Schrager's New York Edition Hotel, located in the MetLife Tower on Madison Square Park — which commanded the title of world's tallest building back 1909. Today, it commands the title of very expensive place to sleep. Rooms hover at around $500 per night, with the Penthouse going for a cool $6,000.
Such is the spendy state of affairs in and around the first stateside establishment by Jason Atherton, a 43-year-old U.K. chef who's built himself a 16-restaurant empire that stretches across some of the world's financial capitals: London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Signapore, with Dubai being the next business class hub on the list. It's all enough to make Manhattan seem like yet another notch on Atherton's belt. The Gordon Ramsay acolyte is, after all, the latest outsider to ride into town and charge a lot of money for comestibles and potables that are already available elsewhere for a lot of money. Think: large-format steaks, Dover sole, and chicken that only comes in a "for two" size. But believe me when I tell you Clocktower is one of New York's best new restaurants. Allow me to explain.
The Fish & Chips Will Haunt Your Dreams
The preparation is traditional: white, beer-battered Icelandic cod with verdant peas and golden fries, the classic English tricolore that, to the chagrin of no one, evokes the Irish flag more than it does the Union Jack. The execution is stunning. The closest earthly equivalent would be a twice-fried Korean chicken wing, which is another way of saying this is no delicate tempura; the hefty, salty, golden crust takes on the puffy, three dimensional texture of a chicharron. It eats like a lobster, a treasure meant to be cracked open. Inside lies sweet flesh, the natural piscine sugars amped up by a mount of mushed and minted peas. It costs $21 and it's only available at lunch. Sure, there are healthier ways of eating fish, but that's not really what The Clocktower is about. And that brings us to point number two.
The Clocktower Is a Refreshing Counterpoint to NYC's Healthy, Plant-Forward Zeitgeist
In a city that's justifiably become laser focused on a healthier and more casual style of epicurean enlightenment, where everyone (myself included) is addicted to shared plates, bar dining, moderate portion sizes, and vegetables seasoned with lilliputian bits of meat, Atherton provides the polar opposite. The Clocktower's idea of small plates appears to be a bunch of appetizers and its approach to vegetarian fare seems to be a trio of salads. Also: no dining is permitted at the bar. The restaurant's only true pasta dish this July is a wintry macaroni and cheese, a bevy of al dente rigatoni in a pool of cheddar and parmesan sauce, with bits of ox cheek for oomph and chanterelles for aroma. The stellar preparation is eons lighter than the typical gut busting dish, but it's still mac and cheese.
In a city that's justifiably become laser focused on a healthier and more casual style of epicurean enlightenment ... Atherton provides the polar opposite
Want crab? It might be folded into creamy risotto with uni, stuffed into an eggy thermidor sandwich, or slicked with mayo and topped with fried uni, a preparation that looks and tastes like something out of a Michelin-starred state fair. If you're eyeing the raw hamachi, keep in mind that it's slathered with creme fraiche, and if you're considering the seared scallops, understand that they're drenched in burnt butter with raisins and cauliflower. The salmon, to be fair, sounds nice and light, which is precisely why I didn't order it.
This Is Your Eleven Madison Park Lunch Replacement
Ever since Will Guidara and Daniel Humm went tasting menu-only at their three Michelin-starred flagship, the Madison Square neighborhood has been in need of a high-end, a la carte spot for a midday meal that can get guests in and out in an hour, not four. The Clocktower is that spot, with the light of the park illuminating the restaurant's gorgeous interiors, from the gold bar, to the marble fireplace (which illogically burns in the summer), to the mahogany paneling, to the purple pool table. This is when you order the $9 creamsicle soda — chock full of vanilla orange flavor — and use it to help digest the bacon cheddar burger. The burger is built tall, which means you need to squish it down to get all the components in a single bite; the reward for such jaw stretching is a clean, dry-aged flavor at a discount, sort of. The price is $24.
The Clocktower Serves Some of the City's Finest Red Meats
In this era of sky high beef prices — the best cotes de boeuf now cost more than caviar service or a shaving of white truffles — eating big steak has become an Instagrammable act of conspicuous consumption, not to mention more relatable than a Flickr photoset of dinner at Noma. So the logical corollary is that eating a big steak isn’t just about flavor. It's about power. It's about death, the blood of an erstwhile steer ready to be spilt under the weight of your sharpened cutlery.
The smart people behind The Clocktower understand this, which is why you eat the twenty-ounce strip on a gold-rimmed plate depicting a human skull, wearing a crown (naturally). The accompanying utensil is a 13-inch staghorn knife, with a handle, forged from deer antlers, that's longer than an iPhone 6, and a blade, curved at the tip, that mimics a 15th century Central Asian murder weapon. Use the knife's bend to negotiate around all the nooks and crannies of this epic bone-in steak. Take a bite; the char is subdued, the beefiness apparent, with a more muscular heft than other dry-aged cuts, and rightly so, because this is steak, not foie gras. Expect a bodacious tang that persists throughout the chew, a lovely mid-level funk that's more vaguely livery than assertively blue cheese-y. Cut, chew, repeat, and watch as the fat-laced blood drops down onto the ocular cavity of the skull on your plate. Call it a Faustian bargain for just $52.
So how’s the $125 cote de boeuf? Couldn’t tell you. I have a new policy; I don’t order the biggest steak anymore. It's just too much. But I can tell you about the $33 skirt steak, which packs as much greasy, heady awesomeness as the beef at Ignacio Mattos' famed Estela. And it easily feeds two. For one, the right call is the pigeon pie, a gamy pithivier of squab, foie gras, duxelle, and puff pastry. Now you know: The Clocktower instantly ranks with Minetta Tavern as one of the city’s finest restaurants in which to consume red meat.
The Classic Desserts Totally Slay
Finish off with a $18 tartin for two that really feeds four; the caramelized apple and buttery puff pastry acting as a futuristic postcard from the autumn that's yet to come. Then come the kick-ass petits fours – shortbread cookies and aromatic rose marshmallows – a more common touch at formal set menu venues. Such classicism, giant portions, and an apparent aversion to seasonality confirms that The Clocktower belongs to a small collection of restaurants, like the red sauce-inclined Carbone or the souffle-laced Cherche Midi, that find their inspiration not from predicting the lean future of food but rather by tipping a hat to its indulgent past. So have a cocktail, eat some red meat, and play some pool, daddy-O.
Cost: Starters at $14-$23; mains at $23-$54; large-format chicken at $65; steak for two at $125.
Sample dishes: Uni risotto, pigeon pie, macaroni & cheese, dressed crab, bone-in strip, tarte tatin.
Bonus tip: Come during weekday lunch for the stellar fish & chips.