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About a dozen years ago, as many of you know by now, I was a hopeful young lawyer at a law firm called Shearman and Sterling. It was a time in my life I often think back to with some wonderfully rich combination of misery and dread. At the same time I was in hell as a junior Mergers & Acquisitions associate (a fancy title for someone who proofreads term sheets, assembles corporate profiles and writes due diligence memos), a restaurant called the Manhattan Ocean Club was thriving. It was one of those places that lawyers took clients (and sometimes their young associates) for many martinis (read: lunch). For 22 years, the Manhattan Ocean Club stood and served, but toward the end of its second decade, its luster faded.Review By: Andrea Strong
About two years ago, to give it new life, the owners hired Lespinasse veteran, chef Craig Koketsu. While Craig gave good food, his menu alone was not enough to rescue the sinking ship. And so the Stillmans (who also own Smith and Wollensky and the Post House) started from scratch. They shuttered the place, tearing down concepts and ideas, along with walls, and hired the fierce design firm of AvroKO (Stanton Social, Public) to help them reinvent the restaurant. When AvroKO went to work, they stripped the walls, and under layers of paint and sheetrock, discovered the inner beauty of the building: original pillars of raw brick and steel, and rough and sturdy walls of mortar and iron. After three months of work, the seafood haven known as the Manhattan Ocean Club was reborn as a sleek urban steakhouse with a sort of gangs of New York butcher vibe—elements like meat hooks as lamps (think the meat locker in Rocky), butcher scales, and heavy old cleavers smacked on distressed exposed brick walls. The effect is slightly dangerous and very steak ‘n sexy.
As fate would have it, I had dinner at Quality Meats with an old friend—a guy I knew a decade ago, back in the day when we were both lawyers, he in Boston. When we reconnected recently, and decided to have dinner at QM, I thought it was fitting to visit a place that had also gone through a major change of identity. As you know, I no longer write due diligence memos or corporate profiles.
My old friend and I met at the bar, where we settled in for a drink and some of the housemade waffle potato chips (the salt and vinegar are spectacular) in the front lounge, a chic space grounded in wood floors, lined in butcher shop subway tiles, and filled with soft chocolate leather sofas, with a liquor bar on one side and a charcuterie bar on another. After a cocktail (my Negroni was perfect) we moved to the dining room where we were treated to a feast by chef Craig Koketsu, someone I have admired for sometime. He worked for many years at Lespinasse, first under Gray Kunz and then with Christian Delouvrier. He was poissonier when Lespinasse got 4 stars from the NY Times, and was elevated to chef de cuisine a year and a half later. People, he’s got some serious juice.
His menu starts with the raw bar, and so did our dinner. We began with some kumamotos—these were slightly oversized—very plump, and creamy, and flush with sea salty brine ($3 each), and followed that up with a few appetizers to share. The crab and avocado salad ($15) was wildly good—generous lumps of sweet meat pulled apart and folded in with just the right amount of light lemony mayo, sort of like an uncooked crab cake (and I mean this in a good way), served with sliced avocado. We shared a fabulous steamy bowl of PEI mussels ($14)—beautifully cooked so they were plumped up to the size of fat grapes, topped with diced tomato, and lots of lovely smoky hunks of lardons and some small tubes of pasta that actually seemed out of place. Bone marrow fans will be pleased to see a roasted bone marrow ($9) appetizer, served with a ramekin of braised bacon in a life-altering reduction of veal stock that rendered the bone marrow and toast points superfluous.
Tartars are a must have here—both the tuna ($16, silky red dice in spiffy soy dress) and the steak ($16, meaty hunks of steak, with classic accessories—capers, mustard, Worcestershire, and hot sauce) were impressive, and went beyond the pale from ubiquitous to brilliant. Koketsu has a way with fish, and while the meats (lamb T-Bones, filet mignon, aged bone-in sirloin) are sourced form old world butchers (Milton Abeles and Strassburger Meats), you would be remiss not to at least have one fish dish for the table. While my friend liked it quite a bit, I had a hard time with the pepper-glazed tuna ($32), which, while a gorgeous piece of ruby red fish, had a crust that was too peppery and too hard. It is almost like a caramel shellac of soy and mirin, which makes eating the fish very difficult, not to mention that the pepper overpowers the tuna. Instead, go for the more delicate pan-roasted halibut ($29), the Greta Garbo of fish on this menu: an elegant, snowy white fillet, with a nutty buttery sear, over a ragout of summer vegetables—snap peas, asparagus and mushrooms. Greta the fish is set in a broth of soy, lemon and ginger, a vibrant burst of fresh flavors that is the right balance to the buttery finish of the fish. It was flawless.
Sorry to be repetitive here, but flawless (magnificent would also work) is also a word I will use for the double rib eye steak ($55 per person) that we shared. The steak is cooked on the long rib bone (an Abelese exclusive cut from corn-fed Black angus steer) and carved tableside into bloody delicious slabs. It is served with a steak sauce mixed from orange-tomato compote, raisin molasses, garlic confit, thyme, and snips of rosemary, muddled in a mortar and pestle by your waiter, to order. While I appreciated the ceremony of the steak sauce, and it was quite good—tangy and zesty—the steak was so good, so ripe with healthy flavor and with just the right amount of lip-licking salty char–that it didn’t need any adornment. I could barely finish my share, and I wish I had taken the rest home, but I was too delirious to think straight at the time.
Part of my delirium was caused by the steak, but the other was a product of the corn crème brulee ($9), a side of fresh corn slashed from the cob and turned into a caramelized pudding with corn milk and cream. Serve it with corn milk ice cream and you’ve got dessert, it’s that sweet and creamy and ridiculously good. We also went with a side of pan-roasted crispy potatoes ($7) that are sort of a cross between potato chips and pomme soufflé. Thick cut potatoes are first confited in duck fat and then fried to order in, yes, more duck fat. They are served golden and crunchy in a hot pan and then, talk about gilding the lily, the waiter douses them in a hot rosemary and garlic butter with a hissing sizzle. This stuff just cannot be good for the arteries or the hips, but hey, that’s why there’s red wine (arteries) and boot camp (hips).
Desserts are another reason I must move into my gym and never stop running. By all rights, I should be Forest Gump after that meal and just keep running and running, but instead I just kept eating and eating. Pastry chef Corey Colton is serving a whimsical dessert menu that features “A Pie of My Own”—individual pies ($10) like warm chocolate rocky road, warm apple, key lime meringue, pecan bourbon chocolate chunk, coconut cream, and more. The pies are served in cute little fluted pie dishes and come with a huge dollop of schlag, scooped out tableside with a giant spoon, fresh from a cold steel tub. This schlag is brilliant—it is cold, sweet, super fluffy, almost buoyant whipped cream that is so devilishly delicious that it is really just asking for (a) a food fight, or (b) inappropriate diner-on-diner whipped cream behavior. (I’ll be honest, we engaged in (b).) There’s really nothing better than that schalg, but Colton’s house-made ice creams, by the scoop or the pint—literally, they bring a pint and a spoon to the table—are quite nice, though some were too sweet for me (blueberry pie and orange creamsicle), but I really had no attention span for that at the time. I was pretty much just wondering if we could get the schalg to go. (That would be yes. Just ask nicely.)
As I walked through the dining room after dinner, I was struck by the restaurant’s supporting pillars and walls—raw steel and weathered brick—magnificently distressed old bones, that for so many years laid undiscovered, hidden under layers and layers of paint and sheetrock. It took twenty-two years, and a courageous change, to uncover this dramatic architecture. As I hailed a cab and headed downtown, I thought about what might be hidden under the infinite layers that pad every one of us. Sometimes the process of peeling them off is painful, sometimes it’s terrifying, and sometimes you can’t even find a lose end to start pulling from. But my feeling is, you just keep at it. Because sometimes, even if it takes two decades, you hit the sweet spot.
Neighborhood: West 50s
Entree Price: >$30
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