What: Steak and seafood
Where: Midtown Manhattan, 49th St & 3rd Ave
How much: All in with wine $150+ pp without tip
There are many places my father has told me about many times with many details, which have been useful in creating mental pictures of places I am sure I will never go to. In a surprise turn, the previously mentioned 2015 NYC trip removed Smith & Wollensky from the Probably Never list. Now for a public record massive Thanks Pops for this experience, which we really wouldn’t have done without his provision of both air miles and a dinner kitty.
S&W NYC is the original Steak & Chophouse that has lead to many namesakes worldwide but should be noted as the only one still owned by creator Alan Stillman who sold the rest of the group some years ago. Before you ask, there is no Smith or Wollensky, unless you count the lines where a pin (allegedly) fell in the local phonebook when Stillman was naming the venture. S&W has stood in this midtown spot since 1977, a pleasingly short walk from Sir Harry’s Bar at the Waldorf where you might like to kick off your All American dining night with a Manhattan or 4. For the sake of posterity, I had a couple of gins but the point is we arrived well lubricated for a 9 o clock table on a Saturday night in the Big Apple, and I think it outdid our expectations on many fronts.
I, and I think many other non natives, consider two things when I think of American food and those are oversized portions of fried stuff and offensively large lumps of cooked animal. Smith & Wollenksy certainly caters to the latter point and expands upon it, in a marvelously shameless way.
Decor on entry is classic- wood and cream and metallic mounted award plaques about wine and meat and the like. You pass the lively, less ‘formal’, Wollensky’s Grill sprawling through a large bar room downstairs- on the list for a drop in should I find myself in town again. One is guided past this, upstairs to the main dining room- a pleasingly open space crammed with heavy linen and over shined cutlery. Your menu is presented in a dark wood, fully glazed picture frame and your service staff all wear spotless butcher’s aprons. You could be in any high end European restaurant of choice but for two things: The noise and the portions. If I hadn’t had a couple of drinks beforehand I might have found S&W a tad intimidating but in the mood, as it were, it was something of a revelation and a highly appropriate setting for our blow out meal of the trip- for it just felt all so perfectly New Yorky. Noisy, bright, a little tight on space but just that little bit bigger and better than you’ve had it anywhere else.
I should now issue you with Daddy Boomboom’s recommended menu at S&W which is:
New York Cut Steak with a side of fries and/or onion rings,
A ‘slice’ of apple pie if you are still able to breathe unaided at this point.
If you had been able to see him at the point we were ordering some handful of thousands of miles away you may have noticed a dark shadow pass over his face at the disturbance in the force caused by his children going against his will. We started out going straight to the protein- possibly a mistake with hindsite but a learning experience worth the taking. The older male sibling went for the calamari, I took a Colossal Lump Crabmeat Salad. How do you turn down Colossal and Crab in the same menu description? Flawlessly executed calamari and for my part a wonderfully fresh (big) dish of white crabmeat served simply with a lemon wedge and two pots of optional sauce, a garlicy one and a spicy one. Both would have easily made a dinner in themselves and were wonderfully complimented by a glass of American white as expertly selected by the OMS. Perfect. I hardly ever drink US wine, it might be time to revises this practice.
How do you follow that up? Obviously with a massive steak and some mac n cheese. Hindsite observation no 2- fries do a lot less damage to your stretched, soused stomach than a tub of cheese sauce smothered pasta will. A 24oz NY cut for the OMS and a slightly more modest 18oz sirloin for me. Medium rare, thank you very much with a bottle of Turley– approved by our waiter with a scrunchy faced nod and the simple confirmation of ‘Nice’.
I will take a moment to mention the service- I’m not sure our sommelier actually had the powers of conventional speech however our main waiter was a bloody gem. Friendly and smiley with a booming, textbook rough New Yoik accent, forthcoming with the recommendations. He also didn’t make me feel like a total pratt when I asked what a Littleneck Clam was vs a normal clam. It’s a place if you’re interested. Littleneck is a place. Anyhoo, he was lovely and maybe yes something of a stereotype playing it up for the tourists but if he did, even better. He made his money that night. He also offered us the well needed hand of restraint when I opened my mouth to ask for a second side after the mac n cheese order. Never before has a waiter told me ‘Nah, that’ll be enough’. Sadly he seemed to lose this power when it came to a seriously ill advised dessert request. But before that, there was the steak. There was a plate, with a big old steak on it and that was all.
And what a steak.
I think I’ve said before that I don’t do well at the proper flowery foodie terms. I can tell you, as a confessed happy carnivore, that this was an amazing steak. I will admit to suspecting from the blackening outside that it was going to be overdone but after a breath holding second all fears laid aside as my knife pretty much fell through it to reveal a perfectly pink, butter-soft piece of beef. It didn’t need anything else on the plate, it was perfect. Perfect and oh so very terrible because with an 18oz bit of meat like that, you have to eat the whole bloody thing even though you know you’re full and you can’t stop until that plate is empty but for an artistically pink grease smear and you are soaking your new frock in Tribiani meat sweats. Oof.
Ah but what a steak! The (also dinner sized) mac n cheese was pretty awesome also, though I didn’t partake in too much of that. On to dessert, that I knew I didn’t want and wasn’t going to eat. Unfortunately one minor sentiment of encouragement from our waiter resulted in ‘not for me thanks’ turning into ‘I’ll try the carrot cake’. OMS had pecan pie, or something similarly suicidal. The dessert was, unfortunately, the defining moment in which this meal tipped the balance of ‘amusingly huge’ over to ‘downright intimidating’.
For the first time in my life, the presentation of a slice of cake was a thing of depression. It was enormous and there was no way I could eat it and I think my face told this story as I was quickly informed that I could take it to go if I preferred. I managed perhaps two bites and yes, it was fantastic spicy soft carrot cake with wonderfully sharp creamy frosting. I did indeed break my doggy bag virginity and continue to enjoy a few bites of it for a sneak breakfast the next morning and as a comfort food to aid packing on Sunday night. And after that I still left about a third of it in the fridge for the cleaners. Herein lies the great culture shock between the Euros and our trans-atlantic cousins: The Doggy Bag. We don’t take our restaurants home with us here, and to be honest I prefer that. I would have rather a smaller dessert I could have a decent bash at than to take home my Godzilla Cake and carry on considering my defeat/gluttony for the next three days. It was an amazing meal and I can’t fault any of the food but for me part of a posh Saturday dinner is having space for a cheeky martini afterwards. This was certainly not the case after S&W. Taxi!!!!
I should quickly add that S&W certainly isn’t ‘posh’ in the traditional sense, it is gloriously laid back and comfortable without any of the snoots and graces you are likely to come across in many restaurants where £100 a person is considered a cheap table. No snoots, no posh, no sneers at Smith and Wollensky it was just fun, welcoming and familial. If you have the kind of family who like to eat themselves to the edge of consciousness and wash it down with a heavy red, which I obviously do.
So why not 10/10? The food was brilliant, the steak was expert, the wine was great and the service was exceptional. Quite simply they lost 0.1 points for the portions, the belly slaying gargantuan portions. So if you find yourself in Midtown* and you enjoy seafood and steak then treat yourself and let yourself go at the same time at Smith & Wollenskys. But maybe consider starting with a salad. Maybe.
*when I say ‘find yourself’ I actually mean book well in advance to avoid disappointment, especially at the weekend