There are as many ways to cut a cow as there are to skin a cat. And there is a hierarchy to these cuts, a precise architecture of prestige dictated by rarity, tenderness and taste. Upon being broken down, a singular cow is parceled into meaty ZIP codes as varied as the 175 that belong to the five boroughs.
Workaday brisket, pulled from the chest, might be Williamsburg, stringy and flavorful. Beef shank, which is unsung, overlooked and used for stock, makes a good Staten Island. And chuck, nothing special but packaged cutely and patted gently, is best cast as the West Village. As for the finest steaks—which are made of both the rarest and most tender cuts—they find natural kinship with the Upper East Side, New York’s tony silk-stocking district.
These are the primal cuts of haves and have-nots.
To cater to these well-heeled carnivores in their natural habitat, chef Laurent Tourondel opened an ambitious new steakhouse last November at 73rd and Lexington: Arlington Club. And while the restaurant boasts some of the most well-prepared steaks you’ll get in the city, the product on offer isn’t really meat but myth. The handsome 200-seat establishment has found the Cap’n Crunch Decoder Ring to unlock the cipher of power and privilege. It turns out it was lodged in the couch of a Classic Six apartment and made out of 28-day dry-aged steak.
As can be seen from his ever-expanding empire, Mr. Tourondel, whose domain now includes BLT Steaks, Markets, Fishes, Primes, Burgers and Brasseries, is an exceedingly skilled and successful chef. But Mr. Tourondel is more a courtesan than he is courageous. He ministers, fulfilling known desires, but does not seduce, promising unknown ones. This he may have learned in the kitchen of a French Navy admiral, where he got his start as a chef, or during a stint at Boodle’s, a legendary gentleman’s club in London. At any rate, Mr. Tourondel is uniquely suited to the Upper East Side, where he opened his first restaurant, Cello, in a townhouse in 1999.
Statistically, the Upper East Side is among the most conservative, wealthy and white areas in the city. One imagines that Upper East Siders do not like to be led into uncharted waters but to tread their own pristine springs. For this reason, the Arlington Club is their ideal watering hole.
Like the brand-name drugs Paxil, Nexium and Lipitor, the name of the restaurant itself seems calculated to set one off on a guided reverie. And Mr. Tourondel inundates his Arlington Club guests with assurances of their own importance, lasting grandeur and immense gravity. Upon sitting down, one is coddled with steaming popovers, a Tourondelian signature, and reassured of one’s hipness with a trio of hipster foodie signifiers: a not-bad brisket bao, old-timey Brooklyn seltzer and house-made pickles.
As for the menu, it is large. But nothing surprises and nothing shocks. The steaks, cordoned off in the middle like cattle in a feedlot, occupy prime real estate on the menu and the mind. There are seven of them, two for two people (a 42-ounce porterhouse for $105 and a 34-ounce côte du boeuf for $125) and two bone-in (a 16-ounce filet mignon for $45 and a 22-ounce rib eye for $62). The skirt steak ($34), cut off the plate, is kept at the bottom of the list, prevented from uppitiness by a thick black line.
In classic steakhouse style, there are seven sauces ($3), listed separately. One is made with seven peppercorns and Armagnac, another called Arlington Steak Sauce is, I think, just barbecue sauce. There are others too, like a green onion-ranch and St. Pete’s blue. But if you’re putting that on a $125 steak, you’re a fucking idiot. However, the role of the menu is not to reason why but to do and die.
This meat, the center of the story, is also one of its strongest points. Though steak isn’t difficult to cook, it does require a great deal of attention. And as courtesan chefs, Mr. Tourondel and executive chef Frank Cervantes do not stint on that. An almost spherical 10-ounce filet ($42) came perfectly charred. The tender meat was a textbook case in how to cook a steak, turning from slightly pink at the edges to almost raw in the center. The bone-in rib eye could go toe-to-toe with any steak in any restaurant ever and come out with pride. So, obviously, get the steak.
Geographically, at least, the outer precincts of the menu are given over to riffs on either nostalgia (the sides), ostentation (the raw bar) or orientalism (sushi). The sushi section is a little bit apologetic, as if Mr. Tourondel knew he had to put something there for skinny trophy wives and manorexics in turtlenecks and Stubbs and Wootton loafers. But a lot of it lacks both sophistication and, well, sushiness.
Much better is the raw bar. No matter how many times one sees a plat des fruits de mer pass by, an icy graveyard for crustaceans, the Arlington Plateau ($125) still impresses. Crab claws look like skulls of lapdogs in carnival colors. Put one of those tiger shrimp on a divan and it makes a good Manet’s Olympia.
As for the sides, there is a fair amount of overlap with Dallas BBQ. That’s not a knock. Comfort cuts across class, even if quality may not, and everything here is executed perfectly. Mac and cheese ($12) is made better with a touch of smoky gouda. Mashed potatoes ($11) might as well be a butter sculpture—and actually might be. To the onion rings with ranch ($12), the creamed spinach with nutmeg and fontina ($12), and the baked potato, which is a small starchy canoe of bacon and sour cream ($11), I found myself saying: “Old friends, welcome to my arteries! Lipids, make yourself at home!”
That leaves us with the main courses, which are either steak, as previously alluded to, or what Mr. Tourondel calls “Specialties.” The latter includes a mix of fish (black bass in papillote, red snapper), poultry (roasted chicken), non-steak beef (short ribs) and one pasta (a meh cavatelli). There is a dover sole “Modern Meuniere.” I’m not sure what makes it modern except that it is presented semi-vaginally, tender white filets layered under a darker labia-like skin. But as far as the flavors go, the lemon-caper-herb combination is classical and well worth ordering.
But as vigorous as this brisk trade is—warm are the lights, packed is the house—it’s also an island on an island, and the shores of both are eroding. In 2010, New York City became a minority-majority city. In 2045, the United States will be minority-majority as well. So though the Gini coefficient gets larger, the territories shrink. Rule is consolidated but over smaller parcels.
Who better to minister to the cadre of the elite than the former chef of a French Navy admiral, he who knows something of shrinking empires and glories past? And how fitting to do so by aping the sturdiness of England, whose own dominions, protectorates and colonies have shrunk to shame and memory?
Perhaps Mr. Tourondel’s greatest coup isn’t the steak or even the sole. It’s sheltering his flock from the bare truth. As they dip their sirloins into green onion-ranch dressing and crack open the carapaces of dismembered crabs, the members of the Arlington Club are already dead meat.