The Prime Grill and Le Marais are two New York steakhouses that don’t serve New York strips.
The Midtown spots don’t sell porterhouses either. Nor is there thick-cut bacon, as at Wolfgang’s, nor oyster trays beloved of Ma Peche customers. There are no Sparks-style five-pound lobsters, no shrimp cocktail a la Minetta Tavern, no Peter Luger schlag.
On the other hand, you won’t have fought for a Friday night reservation. Both are closed. Such is life at Prime Grill, opened by a Syrian Jewish butcher in 2000, and the French Le Marais, around since the early 1990s.
They’re glatt kosher, meaning the meats are ritually and humanely slaughtered and the meals are dairy-free, as ensured by “mashgiachs” (supervisors) who keep away all things “traif” or banned. So no pig, shellfish or cuts of beef from behind Elsie’s 13th rib.
These selling points explain why Prime Grill’s 196-seats are frequented by yarmulke-clad diners who’ll easily pay over $150 each. Patrons come for the dietary accommodations and the Park Avenue investment banker scene -- not, I’m certain, for the quality of the food.
The Prime Grill may be unimpeachable by religious standards, but for a great steak? Pray harder.
Take the tenderloin, not typically a kosher cut because it contains the banned sciatic nerve. Prime’s filet comes from a part of the rib attached to the sirloin. But what you actually get is an overcooked, $55 entree that tastes like airline food and has the mouth feel of shoe leather.
Barbecued short ribs, at $48, are ruined by a saccharine sauce no better than a $2 bottle of KC Masterpiece. Salmon sashimi is cold and mushy, lacking the fish’s unctuousness. Smoked salmon boasts enough sodium to conduct electricity. Duck crackling salad with champagne vinaigrette is cloying and shows no sign of interaction with either vinegar or cracklings.
“Foie gras” ($25), a wet paste of chicken liver mousse, pistachios and truffles, has neither the ethereal taste of real foie gras nor the homey flavor of chopped liver. Flavor is also notably absent from coconut cake. Wines by the glass include flat sparklers and alcohol-heavy reds with no acid balance.
Sit outside, not because al fresco dining is better with passing car fumes and din of jackhammers, but because the interior’s flat screen TVs and drab browns make Prime feel more like a TGI Thursdays that charges $54 for its veal chop.
Service can be lousy. Your first course won’t be cleared until your steaks have left the kitchen, so there is zero break between starters and mains.
Broiled steaks, often prime-graded and dry-aged up to 60-days, have as much beefy flavor as the meats at Del Frisco’s, which is to say not a whole lot. Don’t expect much more from the $46 Texas rib eye or $82 New York rib.
The best cut is the $65 prime rib flanked with the luscious deckle. It’s only served on Wednesdays. Too bad. Creamless spinach reeks of canned-quality greens.
A sure-fire meal is possible: Start with a tangy beef tartare, then luscious veal sweetbreads paired with soft beef tongue, a flavor-packed duo of Lower East Side offal. Add lamb sausage and balance the salty, spicy fare with an ice cold beer. Finish with faux creme brulee in which soy substitutes for egg and is nearly a dead ringer for the original. Total cost: $84 (plus beer), sufficing as a light meal for two.
Le Marais, in the Theater District, serves beefy French bistro fare that actually tastes like French bistro fare.
Order the charcuterie board. Pig is not missed. Meaty duck rilettes are mouth-watering. Merguez sausage -- it’s lamb -- boasts heady oils. Beef jerky, with just a gentle chew, makes an American cameo on the Gallic, $19 platter. Wash down with a $12 flute of fizzy Herzog blanc de blancs.
Move onto silky beef tartare, which might arrive five minutes after the accompanying fries hit the table; Le Marais’s service isn’t much better than Prime’s. The upside is that the steaks are often excellent.
The right call is the cote de boeuf. A single portion costs $45 and stands over an inch thick (a double is $76). The waiter doesn’t ask for a temperature; he sends it out medium rare. The rib puts up about as much resistance as a filet and has an entry-level dry-aged tang. Refined carnivores might also choose the rib cap ($36), a cut that’s shockingly marbled but rarely fatty -- the everyday answer to Wagyu.
Dip your tournedos into the rich, margarine-based bearnaise; the faux-filets here, cut from the ribeye, are softer than Prime’s. Dunk your aggressively seasoned hanger into a super concentrated shallot sauce; the onion flavor brings a pleasant respite from the salts. The only caveat is that Le Marais relies on a grill that occasionally imparts an unpleasant gasoline sting.
Finish with sour lemon tart. Le Marais is no Balthazar, but it’s pretty darned good. Ratings: Prime Grill: *
Le Marais: **
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Around $150 per person at The Prime Grill; $100 at Le Marais.
Sound Level: 70-75 decibels at Prime; louder at Le Marais.
Date Place: For some.
Inside Tip: Manhattans lack proper vermouth at both venues.
Special feature: Excellent Chilean sea bass at Prime.
Will I be back? To Le Marais
The Prime Grill is at 60 E 49th St. Information: +1-212-692-9292 http://theprimegrill.primehospitalityny.com.
Le Marais is at 150 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-869-0900; http://www.lemarais.net.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)