Wolfgang Zwiener, the former head waiter at Peter Luger, now sits atop a successful chain of high- end steakhouses that don’t serve very good steak.
I know it’s a chain because the website doesn’t list prices and I know it’s not very good because I’ve exposed my gastro-intestinal tract to all three of his always-crowded Manhattan locations.
Not one cut of cow merited a return visit.
Yes, there are plenty of overpopulated steakhouses that don’t serve very good steak. But few beget themselves so quickly.
Zwiener has spawned five restaurants in six years. Three in New York (more than Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s,) one in Beverly Hills, another in Hawaii. A sixth, in Mexico City, is on hold because of the “situation” there, one of the owners told me. That was probably code for the drug wars that have plagued the streets, though he might also have been talking about the soggy strudel. Apples and dough don’t deserve such cloying, textureless treatment.
The pinstripe crowd is packing his latest location in Midtown Manhattan’s Lipstick Building, some floors below the one where Bernie Madoff ran the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Wolfgang’s bilked me with a $17 hamburger. Ordered medium-rare with cheddar, it arrived with American, well-done as a brick, saline as a salt-lick.
The dining room is brown, windowless, anonymous. You smell the steak first. It sits atop liquefied fat. Then you hear your steak, a sliced New York strip ($39.95). It sizzles. It hisses. It’s flavorless. Tastes like one of those vegetable proteins vegans consume when they want to pretend they’re eating meat. The rib eye, at the same price, offers the same lack of beefiness.
New York in recent years has been bucking such bovine banality with clever sourcing, aging and preparation at venues like Primehouse New York, Per Se and Ma Peche. They might serve beef from interesting farms like Creekstone or Snake River. They might age the steaks for a variety of tangs. Some are intensely beefy and gamy; others are minerally and metallic. I love ‘em all.
But Wolfgang’s is immune to such progress. Its meats “usually come from the Midwest,” according to the website, which regales you with Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” Longhair music aside, Wolfgang’s fits the stereotype of the typical U.S. steakhouse, serving wooly mammoth portions of indistinct beef that taste like they might have come from any factory farm.
No beef tartare; all the meat is cooked. No mixologists; these are bartenders. And no ramps, fiddlehead ferns or morels. When done right, this type of old-school mantra can be great in this era of having to know the name of the guy who catches your cod and whether the live bait was humanely hooked.
If only that attitude didn’t feel so corporate and bland. Waiters wear nametags. Menus are virtually identical across Manhattan. You ask for a Cabernet by the glass and are offered the omnipresent and average Sterling or Rodney Strong brands. (An owner tells me there’s usually a B.R. Cohn as well.)
“What type of mushrooms are those,” I ask.
“Sauteed mushrooms,” responds the waiter.
Wall Street bankers are closest to the Tribeca location, the biggest of the bunch, with natural light flooding giant windows out front. They’d envy this efficiency: Martinis are ordered and delivered in less than two minutes. Appetizers arrive in under five -- as if they’ve been prepared long ago.
Shrimp and crabmeat cocktails are chilled into submission. The namesake salad? A potluck mix of blubbery bacon, bland shrimp, string beans and tomatoes, all lacking a substantial enough dressing to tie the ingredients together.
Porterhouse for two ($81.90), three ($122.85) or four ($163.80) are Luger-like in scale. We watch in horror as waiters sear slices on the extra hot plate, helping to overcook them.
The strip half of the cut is correctly charred on one side, gray matter on the other. It’s supremely tender. That’s because it’s USDA Prime. The highest degree of marbling -- but not flavor. The initial burst of warm, sweet fat is followed by nothing. It’s “textured saltwater,” the term Mark Schatzker, author of the excellent book “Steak,” uses to describe insipid beef like this. The mushy filet side of the porterhouse mimics a wet sponge. Zwiener should dump his suppliers.
A similar letdown occurs at the Park Avenue flagship, except the wait is longer, the patrons rowdier -- we witnessed an arm wrestling match at the bar. Art Deco arches amplify the noise from a party of 20. After waiting a half hour past our reservation time, we gave up and ate at the bar.
There is lighter fare, including mozzarella and tomatoes, served back at the Lipstick Building with such speed they must have been pre-sliced (the cheese’s dryness attests to that). A 3-pound lobster, the hearty steak-eater’s seafood, was seasoned, steamed, shelled and devoured in a tender bliss.
If only they could get the steaks right. As Wolfgang’s expands, the world should know New York offers much better beef and value.
Rating: 1/2 *
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About $100 per person.
Sound Level? Usually loud, 75-80 when crowded, quieter at the Lipstick location
Date place? Only if your date likes mediocre steak.
Inside tip: Thick bacon with succulent meat, tender fat.
Special feature? I’m told the Beverly Hills location does offer beef tartare.
Will I be back? Nah.
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse is at 4 Park Ave: +1-212-889-3369; at 409 Greenwich St.: +1-212-925-0350; and at 200 E. 54th St.; +1-212-588-9653. Information: http://www.wolfgangssteakhouse.net/
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)