February 11, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Arlington Club Stakes


It’s impossible to stop eating these cheese-laced crisp potato ribbons.
It’s impossible to stop eating these cheese-laced crisp potato ribbons.


          There were about 24 hours two and a half months ago when a mere mortal with no Q rating or nightlife connections could hope to get a table between 7 and 9 p.m. at Arlington Club. Then, with instant combustion, the visigoths descended – obsessed eaters and night life hotties, aging playboys, media darlings, every phylum of our town’s self-styled entitled.

By 10 the bar will be hidden by a seething crowd panting to be seated.


          Chef Laurent Tourondel, partnered with a posse of investors from the club world, was back in town after too long an exile. As the cunning behind the excess of BLT Steak, this Gallic transplant had divined exactly what we want to eat. Then, in a tiff with his partner, he was out. Now he’d arrived in the supposed desert of the gastronomically deprived Upper East Side.


          The placid parlor that used to be Payard Patisserie & Bistro, exuberantly thrown open by skylight and smartly decked out to look like a turn-of-the-century train station, is under siege. It’s painfully noisy.


Noise bounces off the vintage train station glass ceilings above.


          You shoulder in, lashed by mink flung indignantly, bruised in the aggressive scrum at the welcome stand, trampled in the scrimmage at the bar. One friend too elegant to assert her boldface bona fides waited more than an hour for her reserved table. On a Tuesday.


The chef is famous for his excessively lush sides. We want them all


          That first night we’re so out of control we order eight sides for just four of us, practically coming to blows over whether we really need spaghetti squash with honey-butter for vitamins when we already have Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Or shall it be grilled radicchio to offset the fat and salt of truffled gnocchi in Parmesan cream, coin-cut potatoes Arlington (crisp outside, soft inside) and devil-may-care mac and cheese, long tubes standing up in a cosmic emanation of smoked Gouda?


Tourondel’s signature giant popovers now come crusty with cheese.


          We’re stunned by the chef’s signature popovers as big as a baby’s head, reinvented here. Wondrously salty and crunchy from a trio of cheeses, Gruyere, Emmental and Fontina. Instead of the giveaway mousse, there is a chopped chicken liver stew to pile on grilled country toast.


Share the chunky Lexington salad: Stilton, bacom, a shimmering egg.


          The $12 Lexington salad of spinach, frisée, and escarole with Stilton, big lardons of bacon, and a runny soft-boiled egg is enough for the table to share. Of all the menu options, I’d probably never choose figs and Gorgonzola salad—but someone at our table does, and it’s remarkably good, a fragrant bouquet of pancetta, truffle honey and balsamic complementing the sweet figgy-ness. 


Crumbly cherrystone clams studded with prosciutto: a study in garlic.


          Neat cherrystone clams casino, pebbled with crumbs, are super garlicky. My friend can’t stop raving about her roasted chicken. None of us can stop eating from a big bowl of compelling fries that comes with it—thinner than frites, thicker than shoestrings, laced with herbs and Parmesan.


Under the hedge of greens, gloriously fat and juicy Wagyu short ribs.


          Beef short ribs are the killer this first night. Buried under a hedge of watercress with lemon confit and rosemary breadcrumbs, this cut would be fatty enough anyway, but it’s American wagyu, so it’s doubly rich.  And so much better than a stodginess of sirloin, not rare as ordered.


The chef stands his cream-drenched fat macaroni tube at attention.


          My friends sit stunned. I persuade them to share my banana cream pie. It comes with rum ice cream. The waiter pours on hot Nutella fudge. Even to me that seems somewhat excessive.  I must taste it anyway. That’s my job.


We surrender to peanut butter chocolate bar with popcorn ice cream.


          But the chef has sent out the peanut butter chocolate bar with popcorn ice cream. And the red fruit crêpe soufflé, too, with lemon curd, a portion of lime mille-feuille and warm, sticky date pudding with kumquat toffee and ginger ice cream. An embarrassment of riches, all of it shockingly delicious.  A farewell plate with whiskey tartlets and bourbon fudge truffles arrives after the check, which comes to about $100 per person.


          That night I stay up a few hours later than usual reading.  If I’m going to have a heart attack from an insane application of fat and salt and sugar, I want to be awake when it strikes.


Pulses race as busboys in suspenders arrive with ourloaded tray.


          I survive to return. The tsunami of fans has struck. I’m assured sound-proofing is on order. Early critics have dissed the side focus of sushi, sashimi and crudo, a lifeline for x-ray fashionistas and calorie counters.  Granted, there’s a departure from serious Japanese style in the Disneyland cuteness to the spider dragon roll. It just happens to be delicious.


Bluefin toro with dashi, nori salt, shiso and jalapeno, a fine $28 starter.


          I could be happy to make my supper of luscious bluefin otoro in a puddle of dashi, with a ball of avocado under a leaf of sushi and a ring of jalapeño—a concerto of sensuality—plus a side of the macaroni.


It’s not rare. The captain offers to take it back. “We do it all the time.”


          But Arlington is a steakhouse first of all, offering beef that’s, as the menu advises, “hand-selected USDA prime and dry-aged for 28 days.” And in these first early days, something is amiss. The thick wedge of sirloin has more flavor than the bland porterhouse, but not enough—and both are overcooked. I said “rare.” A guy in a suit offers to take it back and start over again. He actually offers twice. “We do it all the time,” he says.


I love the look, the style, the chef’s handle on what we love to eat.


          Work distracts me, but two months later I’m back with a pair of fussy food pals. Tables are so tight, servers stand on tiptoe to get by and customers just barge through. The kitchen sends out three big squares of mortadella draped in a cheese sauce to show how special we are.  And a big fat, sour pickle.  The popovers we went bonkers over the first night strike me as too soggy now in the middle and impossible to finish.


It’s unusual to get crab cakes so pure, no binder, just petals of flesh.


          A pair of crab cakes, all crab with no binder, in a spankingly spicy sauce, are remarkable. I’m wild about my Caesar with lemon and parsley, an excess of parmigiano threads and a whole school of anchovies. Am I imagining it, or is there twice as much Stilton in the Lexington salad?


A lesson in how to do fried onion rings, crisp and neat.


           “Too much cheese,” cries one of my pals, a retired chef.  The other agrees.  “Tell the chef not so much cheese in so many dishes.” The crisp onion rings stand out for their perfection.


My Caesar has too much of everything, cheese, anchovies. I love it.


          I know everything is too big and too much. Partly I love it; sometimes I don’t. The macaroni we didn’t order sits in a big puddle of cream. I send back the shockingly wilted shoestrings that accompany the chicken. I’d promised my friends, here for the first time, they would be addictively crisp.


Third try: The kitchen finally got a steak right, this perfect aged sirloin.


          But the sirloin we are sharing is thrilling, exquisitely caramelized, rare, meaty and delicious.  The night’s special duck, partly roasted partly confit’d is half wonderful and the collards are exceptional.


          I like the banana cream pie even with its excessive nutella fudge pour.  And I love the warm sticky-date toffee pudding with  kumquats and ginger ice cram.  But then, I love American desserts.


Chocolate-Gianduja Napoleon with cracked coffee bean cream.

          The week before the storm, I am back. The backup at the bar seems feistier than ever. I run into friends who live nearby, cooling their jets on their fifth visit, peeved when we move ahead of them.  As we learned in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some animals are more equal than others. I don’t mind being treated like an aging diva. But it could be dangerous if some Don were to feel slighted.


          The $120 porterhouse three of us share is almost rare enough, but only the filet side was really worth eating. The other half has no flavor at all. The creamed spinach is gluey. And so are the fabled gnocchi that were perfect on that first evening.  There are no fudge truffles and no whiskey tartlets at the farewell.


          I suspect that turning over 130 seats three times a night would tax any kitchen. But I’ll be back. I’ll try for another perfect sirloin. I’ll try to persuade my friends to share the too-cheesy-but-not-too-cheesy-for-me Lexington salad or that exquisite toro sashimi and the grotesquely bizarre and sometimes luscious stand-up macaroni. Maybe I’ll have just one slice of steak and one bite of date-toffee pudding. I won’t complain about the indifferent hordes corralled up front impatiently waiting. Times are tough in the restaurant business. I’m thrilled to see a big score. 


1032 Lexington Avenue between 73rd and 74th Street. 212 249 5700. Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 5pm-midnight; Thursday through Saturday till 1 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday. 11:30 am to 3:45 pm.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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