The fact that Andrew Carmellini’s new Carne Mare in the Seaport District serves one of the city’s greatest steaks comes as a bit of a surprise, to me at least. When people ask for a beef recommendation, my almost reflexive reaction is to send them anywhere besides a steakhouse.
I send those folks to Cuban restaurants for vaca frita, Korean barbecue spots for tabletop galbi, Colombian diners for affordable skirt steaks with sugary maduros, and to French bistros where you can at least get a decent order of frites with your au poivre. In short, I send people to places where steaks are modestly-portioned and just a smaller part of a larger bill of fare — not where they’re the obsessive focus of a menu hellbent on upselling folks with mediocre, carbon copy, edible Chevrolet Suburbans that run $100 after a side dish, tax, and tip.
Carne Mare on Pier 17, a bloody and anachronistic counterpoint to the city’s plant-forward zeitgeist, is precisely the type of place where one will spend that much for a single steak. The gorgonzola-cured wagyu strip, which sounds like something misbehaving British schoolchildren would be forced to eat as punishment in a Charles Dickens novel, costs $72.
It is a perfect steak — a 12-ounce ode to earth, fat, and funk. The mineral-y, blue cheese aromas clinged to my memory afterward the way a brilliant song lyric stays with you after a single listen. That is to say: This steak stands apart from the larger pack of interchangeable strips and ribeyes because of its cronut-level distinctiveness. In five years you’ll be able to serve this steak to a beef aficionado blindfolded on an airplane, and they’ll know it’s from Carne Mare. There is nothing else like it.
Carmellini, who learned a thing or two about global flavors at Lespinasse and Cafe Boulud, has smartly toyed around with the chophouse formula before. When he opened the Dutch in 2011, he placed dry-aged strips and large-format ribeyes on the same menu as hanger steaks with kimchi-fried rice, braised tripe, and head-on gulf prawns — a rebuke to the cardboard shrimp cocktails that plague most bastions of beef.
Carne Mare, by contrast, adheres more closely to the ways of a typical steakhouse, albeit with an Italian-American twang and a hint of whimsy. That roughly translates to lots of steaks — 10 of them to be precise — including a prime rib rubbed with porchetta spices and a beet steak topped with goat butter (that giant root vegetable tastes like a one-note supermarket beet garnished with margarine and is precisely the type of thing a meat eater might mistakenly assume a vegetarian would enjoy). There are also spicy platters of lobster spaghetti, king crab lettuce cups with chile crisp, and fried mozzarella sticks with caviar (why not). And for those who appreciate a bit of Vegas in lower Manhattan, the grand staircase might be the city’s most ornate since TAK Room or Del Posto.
I kept things simple during a recent visit, stuffing myself with bivalves, heirloom tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, bacon, and beef. Grilled oysters ($10) came out plump and drenched in oregano butter. Red and purple tomatoes ($18) with scallions and oregano boasted the same wonderful garden aromas I recently encountered at a more expensive tasting menu restaurant. And a wedge salad ($17) acted as a refreshingly watery and salty side to the beef, boasting a sturdy supply of iceberg lettuce, blue cheese, and salty pancetta.
The wagyu steak, however, is where things became truly interesting. “We dry the strip loin with Gorgonzola on the outside until it gets dry and crackly, then we pull it off and cut the steaks,” Carmellini told Eater in July. Cooks place the steak under the broiler and serve it with no garnishes. The meat boasted a uniform char on the outside while the interior sported a fully crimson interior, with no discernible bands of gray. The cooking was so precise the beef almost looked fake, like a computer-generated image of a steak tucked into maillard wrapping paper.
Carmellini sources from Double R Ranch, using a Washington State wagyu that doesn’t quite have that intricate spider web marbling of pricier Japanese wagyu. That’s a good thing, as the restrained ratio of fat to flesh allows for a steak that doesn’t destroy your GI tract with richness. The strip boasted the texture of a filet while some well-marbled sections seemed to wobble in the mouth like pork belly.
As for the flavors and aromas, they varied from bite to bite. The strip’s scent, on average, was about on par with that of other long-aged steaks, packing a mid-level musk that never veered into putrid territory. Thing is, that heady aroma didn’t seem to fade away like it often does elsewhere; it persisted throughout the chew, while letting the meat’s nuances come through, be it the iron-y, roast beefy tang of the flesh; the wonderfully greasy, griddled-burger punch of the exterior; or the brisket-like oils of the fat. And sometimes, for about five seconds, the steak would taste exactly like sweet gorgonzola. If that flavor ever overwhelms you, take advantage of the side of red wine sugo, whose round, almost tannic notes shift things back to a middle-ground of pure, concentrated beefiness.
I usually stop eating a steakhouse steak after a few bites because it starts to bore me with its flat sameness, a generic meatiness that recalls chewy, textured salt water. I also don’t typically like eating at places that perpetuate the endless stream of new steakhouses that always seem to pop up in shiny new developments. But this steak, perhaps more than any other since one I tried in 2014, kept my interest like a compelling novel. Maybe not a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, but at least a pulpy murder mystery page turner.
Even though I’m not particularly keen on classic steakhouses as a genre, I’ll admit a few of them are good for very specific things. There’s the dry-aged prime rib at Smith & Wollensky, as well as the prime rib hash and mutton chop at Keens. And now there’s the gorgonzola wagyu cut at Carne Mare. I haven’t delved too far into the rest of the menu, but for now, this dish for one, which easily feeds two, easily ranks among the city’s essential steaks. I’m rating it as a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).