July 18, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Beating the Menu Rap at BLT Steak

House giveaways can include cheese melts, salumi, chicken liver mousse. Photo: Steven Richter
House giveaways can include cheese melts, salumi, chicken liver mousse. Photo: Steven Richter

Recently two of our food-loving pals have been alternating between serious dieting and serious economizing.  Their favorite gambit when not counting calories has been to walk to BLT Steak and wallow in all the house’s bountiful giveaways, share a salad and divide a hanger steak, sipping a glass each of red wine.

        “I’m filled up just eating the freebies and sharing the Caesar,” Nina confides. “But they sort of know us now and we feel we have to at least get a steak.”

Huge balloon popovers are a signature freebie of BLT Steak. Photo: Steven Richter

        I hadn’t been back to BLT Steak since just after it opened in 2004 when, like any other raging gourmand, I succumbed to the surprising excess of Laurent Tourondel’s unparalleled amuses. Actually, so much more than amuses - they were an amusement park on the table.  The luscious chicken liver mousse, a wooden board with prosciutto, sausage and speck, and popovers as big as a toddler’s head.  By the time we looked up from the truffle gnocchi I might order as a starter, to nibble a battered onion ring or two from a tower impaled on a wooden prong, our bone-in double sirloin for two would arrive, raging rare, almost beside the point, impossible to finish. When I complained that the steak wasn’t properly caramelized and didn’t live up to the prologue, Tourondel used my beef to lobby partner Jimmy Haber for a serious steak oven.

Fans know to check the listings on the wall for evening specials. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now, many dozens of New York steak houses later, we’re back with Nina and Carl to prove we can be world class cheapskates too. We slip into an Ultrasuede padded booth with woven mats on slick polished ebony, facing the blackboard specials of the day – not exactly economy class seats - and sip New York tap while waiting for the giveaway goodies. What a teeny little doll house dish. I remember the chicken liver mousse bowl as larger. Memory is like that, I guess.  It’s a little too salty under a salty gel but I love it and memory becomes a smear on grilled country bread. The waiter, in his striped navy apron, is kind of a yo-yo – here and gone, here again, gone. Maybe they weren’t expecting such a big crowd on a sizzling summer night. We ask a manager for a chicken liver mousse encore. No problem. Here it is.

        “Where are the popovers?” Nina asks the waiter on a rebound.

Steak lovers keep tables turning even on a torrid summer night. Photo: Steven Richter

        And then suddenly, as if someone switched on a light bulb over our table, I’ve been recognized. A manager brings triangles of melted cheese canapés and a selection of salumi – speck, prosciutto and chorizo - an extra largesse that the house offers apparently on a whim for regulars and VIPs. And the inflated Yorkshire pudding-like balloons arrive with the recipe on a small card tucked into the wooden bowl.  Some people are wild about popovers.  I like the first three bites and then I can live without them till next time.  It’s like molecular cuisine, more about the chemistry of creating than eating.

Each couple will share a commendably crunchy Caesar salad. Photo: Steven Richter

       A brace of Caesars are delivered, mostly interior crunch, whole baby leaves, long cheese embedded crisps and two naked plates for dividing them into four. I like that the parmesan is grated the old fashioned way not into hairy fuzz, though I wouldn’t mind more than an illusion of anchovy.  For $26, The Road Food Warrior and I could share lemon-rosemary chicken, but we’re here for cow. Eyes linger only briefly on our favorite rib-eye at $47, the 12 oz. filet for $43, tonight’s special New York strip with marrow butter at $50, and the $84 porterhouse for two.  Each couple will be sharing a $29 10 oz. hanger steak. I ask for ours whole, not sliced, so we can divide it ourselves. It’s tough and chewy, as rare as we hoped, a cut that we both like. Alongside the luscious velvety parmesan gnocchi come herb-crusted Provencal tomatoes, a gift of the house.

I wager we’re the only penny-pinching foursome splitting hanger steaks. Photo: Steven Richter

        “It’s from the chef,” says a manager who has obviously followed our debate over what one side we will share. I would have gone for carbs with the hash browns, but I’d already used up my vote with the gnocchi.  We haven’t been rudely evicted yet.

The dazed house awards our shabby thrift with an extra dessert. Photo: Steven Richter

        Desserts are just $10, I point out. Still a bargain, given our town’s rampant dessert inflation. The calorie counters let me order lemon-blueberry meringue pie, but then the house adds this peanut-butter confection in a cloak of melted chocolate and, of course, we all have a taste.

        I can hardly claim a fair test of the subsistence supper at BLT Steak, but considering that our friends have done it several times without getting the fisheye from the brass, I pass it along to you as a find. If this BITE draws legions of penny pinchers, I can’t guarantee what defense BLT Steak might launch.

106 East  57th Street between Park and Lexington Avenue. 212 752 7470. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 am to 2:30 pm, Dinner 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11:30. 

Jean-Georges Goes Molecular

Nougatine guests can see kitchen action invisible to the Jean Georges room.

        It is yet another of those in-and-out-of-body lunch experiences at Jean Georges. A dizzying roller coaster ride into sensory bliss.  “Oh my God” moments where I imagine my pupils are dilating and I want to jump up and down but I’m afraid my head will hit the copper-leafed ceiling.

        My friend has been urging me to make time for lunch to try a new foie gras dish he recently tasted. Finally, Thursday evening at Marea, I said, “okay, tomorrow.” I might have known as soon as I taste the trio of amusements that some sorcery is in the works. “Compressed watermelon with Thai spices and Roquefort foam,” our captain announces. “The soup is corn miso with kombu and chilies.  The chef suggests you save the cucumber for last as a chaser to cool your mouth.  It’s lightly fermented along with cornichons, the juice is mixed with agar agar for the gel.”  I didn’t really catch it all. Then I popped the Roquefort bubble in my mouth, releasing its biting salty tang against the torrid sweet watermelon. The complex corn soup was fiery too and the appointed cuke cooler had a delayed action finish, both citric and hot. “What did we just eat?” I asked when my brain came down from the clouds a few seconds later and my host cooled his palate with an Arnold Palmer in a burgundy glass.

Jean-Georges relishes actually preparing a classic like this egg-on-egg. Photo: Steven Richter

        “How do you remember all those details?” my companion asks her.  She is one of three young women captains in trim men’s suits with hair pulled back into a knot. Sexy cross-dress.

        “She’s probably an actress,” I answer for her. “Used to memorizing scripts.”  But no. It seems she wanted to know more about each dish, so she got a nod from the chefs, put on kitchen whites and trailed as they prepped.  Now this is ambition.

        Another amuse?  We talked about ordering the scallops and decided against.  And now, here they are: scallop sashimi crostini, if I may mix a metaphor.  Cool satin sweetness of scallop round like a wide-brimmed chapeau on a nutty rectangle of risotto pancake. Two favorite tricks cleverly joined.  A bite fills my mouth with a dribble of torrid mayonnaise, setting off the fireworks alarm and shudders of pleasure.  

A distillation of summer peas is poured over a thick parmesan emulsion.

       When our actual first courses arrive, there are few surprises in hit parade favorites, except perhaps how quickly the powerful scent of pea wafts toward me - spring in a bowl - as a server pours it steaming from a little pitcher on top of parmesan foam, where toasted croutons bob.  And though my senses always shimmy from the intense citrus rush of lemon foam, turbulent below the sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs – invariably unleashing an involuntary gasp as if for the first time - it is in fact the first time I get a strong horseradish smell from the peppery crisps before actually dipping my fork in this wildly complex dish.

Cool cubes of sea trout sashimi cling to the bowl above a swirling lemon sea.

        The miracle of the foie gras unfolds next. Unlike the boy who didn’t hesitate to say the emperor was naked, I hold back my initial reaction.  It looks awful. A large beautifully caramelized filet of foie gras half buried in clumps of wet sand. Black olives, dried and pulverized, beside an oval of lychee purée with scattered petals of gelled lychee. A mess.

       “I do not believe Jean-Georges created this dish,” I say. “I can’t believe he imagined it. Some Ferran-Adria-bedazzled chef cooked it up for Jean-Georges’ approval, his editing, his embellishments.

        “It’s just not his style.”

        “You have to put a little bit of everything on each bite of foie,” my friend instructs. I taste.

Sweetly caramelized foie gras under olive-lichee crumbs.

        And again. This unlikely ménage à trois of the vaunted enlarged liver of a duck, lychee and black olive, “motley and rude” one could say, or “genius” if one so deemed it. I try the liver on its own, encounter a small vein, try it again with a half teaspoonful of olive sand and a dab of lychee. I’m just not getting it.

Salmon sheds ho-hum status with tomato brilliance and crushed toast.
       Meanwhile, my host is alternately whimpering and exclaiming over the salmon he didn’t really want or have time to consume.  I taste. Slowly cooked, barely gelled Scottish farm salmon, a tangle of smart flavors, sweetness and tang from crushed tomatoes, tiny cherry tomatoes peeled and whole, tomato water slurred with olive oil, shards of toasted croutons piled on top. An historic moment for salmon, I decide.  Maybe Vongerichten didn’t totally create this revelation either. Maybe chef de cuisine Mark Lapico seized on tomato water and nutty crushed toast to summerize the inevitable salmon. Even so, this has all the qualities of a Jean-Georges dish.

        Pastry prince Johnny Iuzzini materializes at our table to drop off extra chocolates, a VIP plate of a dozen and fruit gels, plus an extra box each to take home. Since the economy tanked everyday customers on the $32 two-course lunch get only one macaroon each, two bon bons and a few hand-scissored marshmallows. “There was so much waste,” Iuzzini says.

        Now J-G joins him, standing alongside our table, grinning and folding his arms across his chest as if to bounce off my companion’s grenades of praise. I’m cheering too: the raw scallop on rice cake, the miracle of salmon, the bubble of Roquefort.

        “Jean-Georges,” I say, looking him in the eye, “that foie gras with olive powder, it is not really your dish, is it?”

       “Don’t listen to her,” my host commands, flinging his arms in the air in a paean to the foie gras wizardry, nearly clipping a busboy.

        Vongerichten nods, accepts authorship, and agrees the concept of black olive and lychee is genius.  “There is tapioca too,” he says.  As if that was a virtue.

        “I don’t think it’s you,” I repeat. “What would your mentor Louis Outhier say if he tasted that dish?”

       “He’d kick me in the ass,” he says.

        Of course I know chef stars, video matinee idols and global entrepreneurs are not personally designing every new dish that comes out their kitchens.  Genius also lies in finding and grooming a second who can channel one’s vision and go beyond it with their own. Apparently the new foie gras in the sand is a solid hit on the dinner menu now, regardless of what I might say.

        After the marvels of dinner at Marea, followed by a fusillade of astonishments at Jean George, I am forced to admit there is more to the sensuous life than sex, as I tweeted when I returned in a fog to my desk that afternoon. Just kidding. Haven’t I always said that?

1 Central Park West between 60th and 61st Streets. 212 299 3900. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 5:15 to 11 pm.
Cafe Fiorello

Patina Restaurant Group