“I can’t believe you’re going to have to change the name of the restaurant,” said a woman to the hostess at Terrance Brennan’s Seafood & Chop House. Apparently Brennan’s, the famous New Orleans restaurant, had threatened to sue. The customer, who was from New Orleans herself, was outraged. “That’s just ridiculous!” she said. “I mean, after all-this is the chef’s name!”
Alas, after a couple of visits to Mr. Brennan’s new restaurant in the Benjamin Hotel on Lexington Avenue and 50th Street, I could see why he might actually want to remove his name from the awning.
When his steakhouse opened in December, Mr. Brennan was much in evidence on the premises, and reviews were generally positive about the food, if not the prices. But these days, his stomping grounds seem to be elsewhere. Perhaps he’s returned to his first love, Picholine, the great Mediterranean restaurant near Lincoln Center that established him as one of the best chefs in the city. Or maybe he’s checking up on the exotic cheeses at Artisanal, the brasserie on lower Park Avenue that he opened nearly two years ago. His chophouse, unfortunately, strikes me as one of those money-making sidelines that sooner or later seem to become irresistible to a superchef cashing in on his reputation.
Mr. Brennan is certainly packing in the customers-many of them from out of town, perhaps even guests of the hotel. Here they are, their jackets slung over the backs of their chairs steakhouse style, their ties folded in their pockets, as they fork out $74.95 apiece for surf and turf, $75 for Dover sole for two, or $38.95 for a porterhouse they haven’t a hope in hell of finishing. Am I the only one here who thinks it funny to see the waiters togged up like stewards on an ocean liner, in white jackets with shiny gold buttons, carving hunks of meat on trolleys and serving it to guys in shirtsleeves?
The dining room (which used to be Larry Forgione’s An American Place) is cramped and uncomfortable, done up with cheerful red-and-gold striped flock wallpaper, warm cherrywood paneling, brown carpets and pinpoint lighting that hits you right in the eye when you sit down on the navy banquette. “Doesn’t it feel like a suburban hotel?” I asked my husband.
“No.” he replied, “It feels like a Lexington Avenue hotel in the 50′s.”
It’s noisy, too (and, once again, I found myself seated next to one of those women P.G. Wodehouse described as having a laugh that could open an oyster at five paces). The wine list didn’t do much to improve the mood: There’s not a whole lot in the low two figures on this boring and predictable list (how about a glass of pinot noir for $18?). We picked one of the cheapest reds we could see, a 1997 Margaux for $40, imagining it had to be some sort of rare find, the sommelier’s clever bargain, given the usual price of this wine. We swilled it around and around in the glass (“Give it time,” said the waiter), hoping it would open up. It remained like rubber. So we gave it up and got a bottle of Ravenswood zinfandel ’99 for $45, which was very good.
The menu is divided into steaks and seafood and takes its cue from Thomas Colicchio’s Craft, offering a choice of 12 sauces that you mix and match according to your whim. (And they’re free!) To begin, there’s a raw bar, with oysters at $3.25 each. For $12.50 apiece, we got the privilege of watching our waiter toss a Caesar salad the old-fashioned way, tableside (the dressing comes complete with anchovies, croutons and a politically incorrect raw egg yolk). He divided the salad into two large wooden bowls. There was enough to serve a table of eight. But after all that pantomime, it was tasteless. One mouthful was enough; we left the rest. The waiter never asked why.
He was probably used to half the food going back to the kitchen (or being taken away in a doggie bag). For this restaurant is no different from other steakhouses in that it’s about excess. It’s about huge, caveman-proportioned hunks of blackened meat; toast slathered with bone marrow and braised short-ribs that tastes delicious for the first two bites and then makes you queasy; tumblers filled with deviled-egg trifle that’s loaded with chopped egg, red onions and crème fraîche and topped with osetra caviar-even four of us couldn’t finish that. The potato galette is another odd dish, made with phyllo pastry filled with gluey potatoes and topped with two strips of nicely crisped bacon. It’s the sort of thing you imagine starting off the morning before a trek in the Australian outback. I preferred a special of the day, a lovely salad made with strands of seaweed served in a wide bowl topped with uni and osetra caviar.
The main courses are largely unadorned, which means they have nothing to hide behind. One friend ordered the skate, a slice of wing fried crisp. It was perfectly ordinary, served with her choices of truffle butter (which was curdled) and a pleasant, smooth red pepper romesco sauce. The wild striped bass was properly cooked but dull; the olive oil and lemon peel didn’t cheer it up much, nor did the anchovy butter. Another friend had the “wood-fired chicken” (a steal at $19.95), but it was mushy. Three puny lamb chops lacking much flavor arrived with a very sweet, sticky mint jelly and a pleasant Dijonnaise. The sauce that came with the steak Diane, which was flambéed on the trolley with brandy and cream, had too much mustard. The best dish was the porterhouse, aged five to six weeks and nicely charred.
In true steakhouse form, there’s a choice of family-style side dishes ($12 each), including a giant salt-baked potato that arrived looking like an unexploded bomb. It came with a condiment tray that included bacon and sour cream for those who hadn’t had their fill of calories yet. Thin onion rings cut in wide slices were very good, and the creamed spinach, topped with Parmesan, was wonderful. So were the golden French fries.
I liked the sound of the desserts, all 1950′s favorites. But the crêpes suzette-flamed tableside, of course-were leathery and sickly sweet. The flaming baked Alaska was fun, but it was filled with ice cream that had developed icicles. The apple pot pie à la mode was inedible, with pastry as soggy as a wet sponge. Did the waiter ask why we’d hardly touched it? No. But the chocolate soufflé with hazelnut sauce was delectable, as was the pecan praline cheesecake, the pecans adding a lovely crunch to the smooth creamy cheese.
It’s not just the excess and the waste and the heavy, rich food that bothers me about this restaurant. Of course, it’s fun to have dishes like steak Diane and tournedos Rossini once in a while. But the food is overpriced (even for a steakhouse) and mediocre. Dinner for four was just under $500 bucks. For that money, I’d rather have gone to Picholine, where I could have had a really great meal.