Power lunching in Midtown Manhattan had always been a game of chicken among restaurateurs demanding exorbitant sums of cash and the expense-account elite confident or dumb enough to pay them.
Hence, the $21 tomato salad at Michael’s, the $56 veal chop at The Four Seasons, and now the beef tasting menu at Ma Peche, which can, after wine, tax and tip, easily cost $1,000 for six -- the minimum number of patrons required to enjoy the feast at lunch or dinner.
Did I mention that dessert’s not included?
With some trepidation I must report that I’m okay with the beef bill. Why? Because a recent devouring of the feast convinced me that Ma Peche, in the Chambers Hotel, ranks among New York’s best steakhouses. Think of it as an easier-to-get-into Minetta Tavern, minus the glamour.
It’s all a reversal of sorts for chef David Chang. Reasonable prices at his empire of Momofuku restaurants have resulted in impossible reservations. The ten-course menu at Ko is $125; fried chicken dinner for six at Noodle Bar is $100 and you’ll have to cool your heels a month before getting in. But for now, the books for Ma Peche’s beef dinner are wide open.
The special tasting menu is listed at $85 per person for 6-10 people, a crafty bit of psychological pricing that really comes out to $510-$850 altogether. And if that price isn’t necessarily out-of-reach the larger question is this: can you find 5 others willing to eat so much meat and easily spend $200 or more each on the same night at the same time?
Say two people drop out; you’re still charged $510. In fact those with deeper pockets should show up as a party of four and take home the extra food because my effort to recruit gourmands who’d be willing to pony up for the bill resulted in hours of productivity lost. My final roster: an M&A banker, a corporate hedge fund lawyer and two derivatives traders. Not a cross section of America. But we ate well.
First course: Seared Nebraskan Wagyu. Melts in the mouth like the Japanese stuff. Second course: Beef tongue with basil. So tender and salty it’s like eating the perfect roast beef sandwich (without any bread). Course three: Aged rib eye. It was gently charred, fork tender and intensely marbled with a restorative mineral tang. Course four: Lemongrass and Thai basil sausage. Wrap it in lettuce and dip in fish sauce.
Course five: Beef shank. What size is it? “Brontosaurus size” says the waitress. Tear it up with tongs and blast your tongue with the crab paste and chilis covering it. Things get sweeter with the sixth course: Sherry-braised oxtail with melt-in-your mouth fat. The savory final course: Star anise-spiked short rib broth, a riff on pho. A final course of stinky, baked Epoisses cheese is a $48 supplement.
Technically, this is all a version of a Vietnamese seven-way beef feast as Ma Peche and chef Tien Ho focus on French-Vietnamese cooking, one of the world’s “natural” fusion cuisines.
Unlike most other Momofuku venues, the bustling space is often quiet and seats are actual seats, not stools -- a welcome accommodation for Chang’s first foray outside the East Village. The windowless, two tiered room evokes an ’80s New York of sky’s-the-limit scale.
Like a proper steakhouse, Ma Peche serves killer shellfish, raw fish and cocktails. Homemade cola syrup gives a concentrated taste to a whiskey and coke unlike any other I’ve had in the city. The drink washes down great, plump-bellied oysters and shelled crab legs (paired with calamansi mayo). Strawberry puree gives just a hint of sweet acid to delicate fluke.
Great bastions of beef toss stellar salads and chop fine beef tartare. Ma Peche’s raw top sirloin with mint, soy and charred scallions rivals the version at Balthazar. No Caesar, but the frisee aux lardons with spicy tripe and jowl croutons trumps the classic Gallic version. Fried pig’s head terrine is France’s delicious response to an American pork cutlet.
There’s one steak. It’s like no other. The $29 cut comes from the shoulder. It’s cooked sous-vide for 15 hours to melt the fat, then seared. The concentrated, supremely flavorful cut taste likes what would happen if a steer was raised on nothing but dry-aged steer. The pairing? Crunchy, chewy rice flour fries, made for dipping in malty, MSG-flavored Maggi sauce.
A meat houses needs sides. No mashed potatoes or creamed spinach here. Instead there’s pork fat-topped corn, sesame seed-topped beans and fish sauce-topped cauliflower. A bastion of beef also needs steak-like fish. A dense block of grouper soaks up cilantro-flecked coconut milk, a piscine preparation made to clog your arteries.
A pork chop for two is flavorful but overcooked. That’s forgivable. Chang’s other restaurants are all about pork. Here, steak reigns supreme.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost: Dishes mostly under $30; $10 takeout lunch.
Sound Level: Moderate, about 70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes, and not for vegetarians.
Inside tip: They say desserts are relegated to the Milk Bar kiosk up front but you’ll inadvertently feast on sweets if you order the cloying, caramel-flavored pork ribs.
Special Feature: The beef, from Maine, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Kansas, isn’t necessarily local but it’s humanely raised.
Will I be back: For the $29 steak; for the beef tasting if and when they reduce the requirement to four people from six.
Ma Peche is at 15 West 56th Street near Fifth Avenue. Information: +1-212-757-5878 or Chambers Hotel, +1-212-974-5656; http://www.momofuku.com
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.)