Wolfgang Puck is an Austrian-born original gangsta of California Cuisine who's been featured on television more than almost anyone. You'll find him on Barefoot Contessa, American Idol, Frasier, 90210 (the new one, not the old one), The Simpsons, Iron Chef America, Las Vegas, The Queen Latifah Show, Ellen, The Tonight Show (with Jay Leno), a random documentary about Orson Welles, Keeping Up With the Kardashians (the one where Kim marries the basketball player), NovaScience Now, CSI (the episode where contestants on a cooking reality show accidentally eat human flesh), The Tony Danza Show, Hollywood Squares, E! Live From the Red Carpet (he's been catering the Oscars after party for over two decades), Tales From The Crypt, The Wayne Brady Show, Who's the Boss, and, wait for it, The Smurfs.
Puck is a creature of Hollywood, but in 2007 he thrust himself into the New York dining fray by opening a restaurant at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Express, as it’s called, is an omnipresent airport chain, a boon for anyone craving turkey clubs, chicken tenders, or "Chinois Chicken™ Salad" while waiting to catch a flight in any of 19 airports in the U.S. and Mexico.
In September, Puck opened his second New York restaurant, this time in a fancier locale. Cut, a steakhouse with its origins in Los Angeles, is in the Four Seasons New York Downtown hotel, and in it waiters peddle white truffles, black truffles, and oodles of pricey steaks — including dry-aged porterhouses and Japanese Wagyu seared at 1200 degrees. Now that’s more like it, right? Classic luxuries from a classic celebrity chef. And bowling-alley Wagyu sliders. And pho sandwiches (wait, isn’t pho soup?). And a questionable text-on-photo art installation that looks like something finance guys would buy at Frieze after a peyote bender.
Cut is not a good restaurant.
None of this is to discount the financial, and occasionally culinary, brilliance of Puck. A meal at Cut’s original location in Los Angeles is as thrilling a way to burn a few hundred dollars in a short time period as dinner in a high-end sushi parlor. If Sqirl is a hipster’s fantasy of Los Angeles, with its sorrel pesto rice bowls and long-cooked porridges, Cut is a rich demi-glace of Hollywood glamour, a modern fairytale of a venue that opened in 2006, the same year one of Puck’s fellow Austrian-born Americans, this one an action hero, was about to begin his second term as governor of California. Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise once counted themselves as regulars. Spago, the restaurant where Puck pioneered the smoked salmon pizza he’d eventually sell in airport kiosks around the world, might’ve been the heart of the chef’s empire in the 1980s, but the apex of Puck right now is the original Cut.
I obtained entry to the Los Angeles progenitor of New York’s newest fancy hotel steakhouse in October, via a process I’ll describe as politely begging with a telephone receptionist. The restaurant occupies the south side of the marble-clad Beverly Wilshire, a 1928 Italian Renaissance-style hotel that starred in the most popular sex-work comedy of all time, Pretty Woman. (The Wilshire once offered a $100K couples’ package that involved reliving experiences from the movie.)
As I entered the hotel, I passed by a half-million dollars’ worth of Lamborghini — a grey Huracan convertible and a silver Aventador — and I walked by a Ferrari on the way out. Heat lamps keep those waiting for the valet warm, in the chilly 70 degree weather. Inside, giant windows let patrons gaze upon the the condo-priced automobiles outside. Tiered seating allows for both people- and meat-watching. I spied two well-dressed women order, for their entrees alone, a collection of tiny steaks that would cost them, after tax and tip, nearly $400. And while my Wagyu strip — part of a $140 one-course tasting menu — was so gristly I had to leave it unfinished, that oversight of butchery didn’t quash the magic of it all. If this was the price for sitting alone, eating too much steak, drinking a strong martini, and vicariously experiencing the truth of SoCal excess before flying back to New York on an economy class flight, then so be it.
A month later, at Cut in New York, I find myself sitting on a purple velvet chair. The windows are curtained off. The entrance area is drab and empty, and when I arrive, a host ignores me. Parts of the restaurant’s packed front room glow an eerie neon red, which is great if you like both your dining companion and your raw scallops to look like a photo negative in safelight. The bartender pours a lousy room-temperature red, and a sommelier does the same. A waiter brings out a glop of one-note macaroni and cheese and spoons it over my already-dirtied share plate. A $135 porterhouse sports none of the buttery tenderness of that same cut at Peter Luger — in fact it packs less beefy flavor than the $15 Pathmark version my father fired up on the grill last weekend.
Two giant canvases, displaying zoomed in photos of fireworks mid-explosion, hang on the east edge of the dining room, with text in all caps printed over them: "Sometimes you know it in your head, the chef whispered. Sometimes you feel it in your stomach, she smiled, buzzed." The doggerel sends me into a reverie, in that it makes me think about how I’d be sternly disciplined by my editors if I ever tried to use "to smile" as a verb of speech. Then, more practically, I wonder how to tell my expense account auditor that my louche dining companion actually blew $33 of our bill on Evian still water.
It’s tempting to say that Cut New York, bereft of its West Coast glitz, is just another steakhouse, but such reductivism denies the venue an indisputable superlative. It is, by most observable measures, the city’s most expensive steakhouse, a venue where cocktails can cost more than a typical steak, and where steaks can cost more than a typical tasting menu.
If the cost surprises you, you’re not alone. None of the online menus, in any of the locations, show prices. There are no wine lists on the website. And if you’re particularly unlucky, you might encounter a drinks list in the restaurant without any prices. When buying a round for four, expect to spend over $110 after tax and tip for potables that range from unbalanced and saccharine to decidedly average and forgettable.
Cut isn’t just a steakhouse. It’s an international luxury brand sporting six locations from Asia to the Middle East to London to Las Vegas. The Persian Gulf outpost is nestled in a hotel that’s sort of shaped like the letter H and that, conveniently, sits on its own exclusive island in Bahrain. The Singapore location is housed in the $8 billion Marina Bay edifice famous for a rooftop infinity pool that entitled international types love to Instagram. And Cut in New York, not to be outdone, is on the ground floor of a hotel-residential complex where apartments can run up to $60 million.
The restaurant’s lofty prices are not completely without merit. One of Cut’s chief selling points is that it is the rare meatery to adopt (some of) the comforts of fine dining. As the cost of beef has turned ribeyes and strips, long a semi-affordable culinary luxury, into a veritable financial hardship, I’ve argued that rough-around-the-edges steakhouses will need to do a bit more to justify $100 plus per person tabs. Puck, accordingly, breaks out the decanters for even cheaper bottles of wine. A single order of chestnut soup is split into three separate bowls. The sound levels and space between tables are closer to a venue like Gabriel Kreuther than, say, Keens. About fifty percent of my meals began with excellent gougeres (I guess they forgot to bring them out the other times). Giant bread baskets, even when the contents are as icy as a martini, provide free carbs. And caramel petits fours accompany the check, even if you don’t order dessert.
A devotion to fancy also means appetizers veer from the standard steakhouse shrimp cocktail or iceberg wedge with blue. So the kitchen sends West Coast-style shellfish Louis (crab and lobster slicked with Thousand Island), as well as bibb lettuce drenched in a sweet-sour dressing and stilton — a cloying waste of a salad for $19.
There is no Caesar at Cut.
DIY pork belly bao come with steamed buns so comically small you can’t actually wrap anything in them. Whole lobsters, no less than two pounds each (when I dined, $63), are drenched in black truffle butter; they taste as fantastic as they sound. And bone marrow comes not as a gelatinous mess but rather as a creamy, veal jus-drenched custard served in a hollowed out bone.
I’m half tempted to bestow that marrow with my prestigious Flan of the Year award, were it not for just one thing: That preparation, like virtually every other dish here, is available in a near carbon copy at the other five locations of the restaurant. If a waiter substituted the Singapore menu for the New York one, nothing would make you say, "wait a minute, wrong part of the world!," because Cut isn’t about sense of place. It is about expensive beef and everything that comes with it as a replicable, exportable, global commodity, just like the films of Puck’s beloved Hollywood. It’s a bleak vision of the gastronomic landscape, even more so when you cut into a steak, and realize the restaurant’s chief commodity isn’t worth ordering.
An hour or so into Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio’s con man character seduces his mark with the following phrase: "I’d like to cash this check here and then I’d like to take you out for a steak dinner." It’s a brilliant line, because unlike, say, duck a l’orange or foie gras, you don’t need to explain a night out at a steakhouse to a general audience. It is a prima facie American indulgence. A steak dinner is never quite affordable, but it’s always approachable, a guaranteed way to spend about as much as you would on a tasting menu but with a third of the courses, none of the tableside speeches, and in half the time. And yet you’ll feel twice as awful afterward, which is precisely the point of such largess.
A steakhouse, in other words, is fine dining for everyone (if you can afford it). This is why a culinary novice is more likely to be swindled at one of the city’s myriad mediocre steakhouses than by one of its few chef’s counter tasting venues. And this is why I get a touch angry when I hear waiters actively recommending an $89 steak for one, like they do at Cut.
At other restaurants like Roberta's, that steak, an American Wagyu strip from Snake River Farms, is a gorgeously aged and prepared cut of meat. At Cut, the American Wagyu is simply a squishy rectangle of tender, one-note beef, with little notable finish.
I’m sure there are meat aficionados who think every cut should be aged just to the edge of tasting like a semi-rancid cheese in a varsity locker room. I’m not one of them, but I believe — and I don’t think this is revolutionary — that if Cut is going to serve 16 different cuts, Puck should showcase a variety of different flavors. He doesn’t. Almost every steak here is a study in the same degree of blandness. The steaks lack aromas of beefiness as much as they lack stronger overtones of stilton or offal. They are the bovine equivalents of chicken breast. The only noticeable difference between a dry-aged strip and a wet-aged ribeye is the price tag, and that the latter has more moisture. Only the grass-fed filet justifies its $50 price; the meat packs a gentle, natural acidity that tingles like a good Riesling.
Miyazaki Wagyu, typically enjoyed in small quantities due to its obscene richness — imagine a slab of foie gras seasoned with concentrated beef stock — is available, with one exception, at no less than six ounces ($150), which would mean ingesting enough fat to wreck havoc on even the sturdiest digestive systems. That one exception, incidentally, is a two-ounce steak that comes as part of a $125 tasting of New York sirloin. It was, and I mean this as someone who loves Japanese Wagyu, objectively terrible. The morsel, grilled over hardwood and finished under a broiler, is charred so heavily that any subtly beefy flavor is overwhelmed by the carbonized exterior. It is akin to consuming charcoal-covered fat.
You finish with an excellent baked Alaska (filled with passionfruit ice cream), but by this point the culinary and financial damage is already done. The irony is heavy: Puck, the chef whose California cooking long ago helped pave the way for the style of healthy-ish dining that New York is excited about in 2016, is now making his big Manhattan debut with a lugubrious chain steakhouse, a follow up to his chain airport restaurant. But at least the pho sandwich is off the menu.
Cost: Most appetizers in the $20s; steaks at $45 or higher.
Sample dishes: Steak tartare with beef tendon crisps, slow cooked pork belly with comically small bao buns, black truffle lobster, grass-fed filet mignon, pretty much any of the sides, which are all fine. That’s about it.
Bonus tip: For better steaks, try most any other good steakhouse in the city, like Minetta Tavern, Keens, or Peter Luger.