In the basement of Cote — the Korean-American steakhouse that opened in Flatiron in June — a curated locker filled with meat sits behind a giant plate glass window. USDA prime strips, tomahawks, and porterhouses rest on steel racks or dangle from hooks. The cuts are marked by tags that flutter like a swarm of moths, each one denoting how long it has been dry-aging.
The room glows red. Owner Simon Kim says the red lighting makes the “meat look sexier,” which is only partially accurate; the steaks aged for half a year look like petrified driftwood.
I think of this museum exhibit of meat when I watch my server torching a rib-eye over a gold-rimmed grill set in the middle of a grey soapstone table in the dining room. I slather the meat in sweet-spicy ssamjang sauce and wrap it in a lettuce leaf, which I promptly eat, and which fills my mouth with the perfume of beef and barnyard. I pair this with a small glass of frozen rosé, also known as frosé, which I suck up through a pink flamingo straw.
In the domain of the American steakhouse, an institution dedicated to blood, beef, men, money, and martinis, few things disappoint the way dry-aged beef often does. That’s not to disrespect this celebrated form of charcuterie, wherein beef hangs in a climate-controlled room to concentrate flavor and develop a funk like a good blue cheese. But more often than not, servings would be better articulated as a single small course in a tasting than an entree the size of a catcher’s mitt. To continue the metaphor: Would you really want to eat an entire wheel of Stilton in one sitting?
Some restaurants get around this dilemma by putting less age on their steaks. Cote, by contrast, allows for a more elegant and flavorful solution: You order your dry-aged beef not as an oversized entree but rather as part of a $45 prix fixe that includes all the food a person needs on a given night — and then some. That heady rib-eye is all of four or five bites. Then you move onto wagyu flat iron that’s not aged, followed by marinated short rib.
The people behind this chic restaurant still know how to overindulge; excess, after all, is the point of a steakhouse. But they also know not to annihilate your palate with the beef they cultivate in their crimson basement quarantine zone.
Cote — a slickly designed restaurant split into bench-tables up front and cushier booths in the back and a standing table that bisects the space — is one of the city’s most exhilarating places to eat beef. That’s an unexpected superlative for a steakhouse that peddles frosé or a restaurant that some might not even consider a steakhouse.
The standard classification for a venue like Cote is a Korean barbecue spot, but taxonomically, an institution that pairs red meat with vegetable sides, starches, and copious amounts of alcohol is just as much a member of the larger steakhouse community as Keens or a Sparks.
What distinguishes Cote from the pack is the fact that Kim and chef David Shim embrace the affinities between Korean barbecue spots and stereotypically American bastions of beef. Some of their riffs are obvious. Shim presents a cool wedge salad with tofu sesame dressing instead of blue cheese, shrimp over ice with a spicy gochujang-laced dip instead of cocktail sauce, as well as a thin fan of house-smoked pork belly with jalapenos instead of steak-like slab bacon.
Others differences are more subtle. Clubby blinds are banished in favor of open windows: Passers-by can see straight through to the bar’s pink neon sign to the modern artwork hanging in back. Expensive combo platters, typical of Korean grill spots, are nixed in favor of that affordable prix-fixe, called a “Butcher’s Feast,” which means even a solo diner can sample a tasting menu of four different cuts — and too many banchan to count — for a fair price.
Almost every meal at Cote includes dry-aged rib-eye –– rarely found at Korean grill spots — sliced from cuts that’ve hung for at least 45 days, versus the more traditional 28 days. Here, that age difference translates into every bite with a nutty aroma that doesn’t detract from the flavor.
Customers with more cash can sample meats aged even longer: A 150-day aged strip, seldom seen in any city restaurant, runs $99. That oversized steak recalls a good Iberico and, with a muskiness that’s almost past prime, is not for everyone. But for lovers of dry-aged beef, what Cote offers here is sublime.
Keep in mind that Cote’s Shinpo smokeless grills, like at most Korean grill spots, don't produce the same level of char as a French pan roast, or a Peter Luger-style broiler. This style of cookery results in a less intense Maillard reaction that’s about browning for flavor. And that’s okay, because the softer cooking coaxes the flavors of the meat regardless.
The meal unfurls at a slower pace than at a high turnover Korean spot like New Wonjo or Jongro BBQ. Your waiter, who does most of the cooking, kicks off the Butcher’s Feast with hanger steak, which she sears for no more than two minutes, then disappears to tend to a grill at another table. The cut tastes of blood and salt, with a tang of offal. The waiter then reappears and prepares the Kobe flat iron, then scoots away again, before coming back for chuck flap (a $38 supplement), which collapses in the mouth with the ease of lobster knuckle and bursts with a clean meatiness. You get used to this efficient back-and-forth which feels less obtrusive than the constant clearing of silverware and re-plating at a tasting menu venue.
The last cut of beef is galbi, short rib marinated in sweet soy mirin. It’s grilled nice and long, resulting in a crusty, sugary chew. If all this flesh and fat, whether dry-aged or not, sounds like a bit much, keep in mind you have a table full of banchan to quell the funk, from jalapeno-topped, pickled chayote, to sweet cured squid, to a giant preserved perilla leaf, to a fluffy egg soufflé that could easily command $20 at a Soho brunch spot.
Unlike potatoes and creamed spinach, banchan delivers balance to the meal, making this Korean-American steakhouse a better spot for enjoying 45-day, dry-aged beef than just about any other restaurant.
The meal winds down with a bowl of spicy kimchi stew to aid digestion, and then a tiny, tart cup of soft serve — a more logical coda than a giant slice of chocolate cake, or a $35 sundae.
That’s the brilliance of Kim and Shim: They put together a menu based on international eclecticism rather than American steakhouse dogma, a lesson that the city’s stodgy purveyors of beef could heed. At Cote, the future of the New York steakhouse is looking outward, not inward.