Tourondel’s Frenchified Steakhouse
Gives the People What They Want
It was an odd sight: Two men in open-necked shirts seated at a long zinc bar, eating immense popovers covered with melted cheese. They were drinking red wine in balloon-shaped glasses which they swirled and held up to the light. The glasses were almost as big as the popovers.
BLT Steak is a Frenchman’s idea of an American steakhouse, where onion rings are the size of doughnuts, your meat comes with a choice of over half a dozen sauces-and there’s enough food to take home a doggy bag.
The initials “BLT” don’t stand for “bacon, lettuce and tomato,” but for Bistro Laurent Tourondel. Mr. Tourondel, the chef, was previously at Cello, a three-star seafood restaurant on the Upper East Side that is now closed. There is a B.L.T. on the menu of course-but, it’s French, and it’s made with foie gras.
For many years Le Chantilly, one of the city’s top classic French restaurants, reigned on this block off Park Avenue, frequented by elegant dowagers and their elderly husbands in pinstripe suits. But fashions changed, the clientele moved onto that great banquette in the sky, and the restaurant was empty by 10 p.m. Sono, a Japanese restaurant, moved in, followed by Pazo, which had a vaguely Moorish décor and a bizarre menu. Both failed.
Tourondel, however, has hit upon a formula that works. What do people want these days? Simple, seasonal food, recognizable steakhouse favorites made with top-quality ingredients (hold the carbs, if you wish-they come as side dishes and, in true steakhouse form, cost extra). There’s an extensive, well-chosen wine list and great cocktails. We had plenty of time to enjoy ours (mine a sublime cosmopolitan made with pomegranate juice) at the bar, where we waited half an hour for our table. At last, we were shown into the dining room.
The noise bounced back at us like a tidal wave. Apart from the suede banquettes, there is not a soft surface in the place. The tables are made of a shiny Macassar ebony, and the floor is wood. The lighting, overhead panels inset in the ceiling, emit enough green to make you think you’re looking at a roomful of seasick passengers on the Queen Mary .
“The specials are up on the board over there,” said our waitress, pointing to a blackboard on the far side of the room. Without binoculars, we couldn’t make it out, and so we asked her to tell us what the specials were. “We have cod in … sherry wine?” she replied haltingly, squinting into the distance.
Never mind. A busboy set down a ramekin of creamy duck liver mousse covered with an aspic glaze served with crostini-just one of several appealing free dishes the kitchen delivers when you sit down. Another night, we were sent small cups of a rich tomato gazpacho and a platter of wonderful charcuterie that included Serrano ham and bresaola. And every night you get those terrific popovers, hot and crunchy, topped with melted gruyère.
We looked at the wine list. “I’m afraid this is not going to be a good night for you,” said one of my companions to the sommelier after flipping through the pages of the Haut Brions, the Petrus and-a category new to us-”Bordeaux satellites.” “We have to stay within two figures.”
The sommelier, who was young and friendly, recommended a Margaux. “To hell with winespeak,” he said cheerfully. “It’s young, silky, sexy and smooth.” And very good, too, albeit a little above our budget at $80 a bottle.
Mr. Tourondel doesn’t transform American steakhouse classics, he simply does them better, makes them more refined and adds little touches of his own. His chopped salad is ridiculously huge, served as a first course. It would have made a nice lunch for two. “I’ll never eat this,” said my friend, and proceeded to finish the whole thing, which included avocado, hearts of palm and lettuce tossed in a creamy vinaigrette dressing (a much better salad than the bland beets served with a soggy goat cheese crouton). After polishing off the whole thing, my friend then moved on to Dover sole.
Seafood is, not surprisingly, Mr. Tourondel’s greatest strength. You won’t find better oysters in the city, a fact to which the determined-looking fellow with a napkin round his neck no doubt would have testified as he attacked a double-decker fruits de mer platter. At BLT, the ubiquitous tuna tartare is a revelation, tossed in a soy-lime dressing and served in a deep, square white bowl with crunchy fried shallots on top. Swordfish, marinated in Moroccan spices, is pristine, fresh and juicy. Filleted Dover sole is topped with caper brown butter (unless you’d rather have tomato-béarnaise), and it’s perfectly cooked.
The chef is also a master at sauces, from the creamy peppercorn sauce I had with the rare Moulard duck breast, to the house steak sauce, served in a bottle. The Kobe beef flatiron steak (raised in the U.S., and not on beer and sake) was like butter. And a strip steak was good, though not exceptional, perked up with a béarnaise.
The side dishes come in small cast-iron skillets. They include mashed potatoes smooth as silk, a spicy corn and scallion pancake, and a creamy gratin, laid out in perfect rounds topped with cheese. Don’t pass up the sautéed hen-of-the-wood mushrooms-they are sensational, with a deep, earthy taste.
Pastry chef Johnny Léon’s marvelous desserts are served à la mode. A wonderful soft, dark chocolate tart gets a scoop of frozen almond milk; the lemon meringue pie is topped with lemon sorbet; steamed banana pudding comes under a paper cap (just as we used to cook it in England) and is topped with a scoop of rum-raisin ice cream. And instead of petits fours, you get a platter of little melting brownies.
A few years ago, I had Sunday brunch in a restaurant where I saw one of the richest women in the world order a bottle of 1966 Cheval Blanc with her eggs Benedict. And why not? This is America, and BLT Steak knows how to bring out the best of both worlds.