Taste: Reviews: Prime Time

Glamorous Barclay Prime caters to steak lovers who never loved steakhouses. Just don’t order the cheesesteak

Walk into any nationally syndicated steakhouse, and it’s clear who the target customer is. He’s wearing a dark suit that won’t wrinkle on long flights. He’s got a cigar in his breast pocket, and a deal to do over dinner. He likes his drink stiff, his menu predictable, and his surroundings familiar, whether he’s in Atlanta or Anaheim, Dallas or Denver, Worcester or Walla Walla. Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Palm, Capital Grille and Smith & Wollensky know his heart’s desires, and are happy to oblige.

Can such a customer warm up to Barclay Prime, home of the $100 ­cheesesteak, 13th restaurant in the Stephen Starr portfolio, a cosmos-’n’-carnivores concept aimed squarely at steak lovers who have never liked steakhouses? As long as our man steers clear of the cheesesteak, a contrivance unworthy of anyone’s expense account, he’ll be rewarded with a meal that lives up to its steep tab. He’ll find the atmosphere more energized than at his usual haunts, but still conventional enough to put him at ease.

Designer India Mahdavi, who directed the restrained update of Starr’s Striped Bass, has chucked the usual baron-of-the-boardroom appointments to create a metrosexual men’s den in the former Barclay restaurant, Le Beau Lieu. There’s a hint of Frank Lloyd Wright in the perimeter of walnut bookcases filled with backlit books, and in the boxy leather seating upholstered in a delectable shade of lime green. Tables topped with hefty marble slabs are left bare; the swivel chairs might have come from a groovy bachelor pad. A pulsing soundtrack drives the vibe in the dining room, but not in the lounge, a quieter location for a business lunch. The crowd itself is a design element — a mad mix of sharp professionals, slick chicks, scruffy scenesters, elegant dowagers, and even some ­wrinkle-­resistant suits, confirming Starr’s hunch that a revisionist steakhouse would have universal appeal.

Barclay Prime observes traditional steakhouse protocols by using exceptional products, preparing them simply, and charging extra for sauces and side dishes. Consistency is paramount, and over several review meals, chef James LoCascio’s team executed every entrée except one perfectly. This restaurant is best defined not by its silly C-note sandwich, but rather by its char-crusted, intensely beefy $42 dry-aged rib eye, supplied by Gachot & Gachot, purveyor to New York’s top steakhouse, Peter Luger. The 20-ounce cut requires no more embellishment than what the kitchen gives it: kosher salt and white pepper, and a last-minute gilding with Plugra butter.

Double-cut, herb-rubbed lamb chops are impressively tender and flavorful. A server’s suggestion to try caramelized shallot sauce and a blue-cheese topping on the 16-ounce New York strip upped the price of the dish by $9, but the combination is outrageously good. Pan-seared salmon benefits from pinches of kosher salt and lemon zest. Succulent roast chicken gains flavor from the fresh herbs it is marinated in. But the butter-poached lobster, a two-and-a-half-pounder removed from the shell, was chewy, disappointing for such an opulent ingredient.

The best dish in the house is a pair of “sliders,” or miniature beef burgers. One’s topped with caramelized onions and gruyère, the other with pickled shallots and a slice of heirloom tomato. It’s listed as an appetizer, and customers often share them, but here’s a tip for frugal gourmets: They are filling, and at $14, they make a terrific thrifty entrée. The wee burgers, coupled with one side dish, afford some of the best eating at a moderate price point.

Among those sides, the standouts are the french fries, tossed with minced parsley, chives and basil, and just enough salt, and the sautéed mushrooms, a deep bowl that always includes premium picks such as shiitakes, maitakes, chanterelles, black trumpets, hen-of-the-woods, hedgehogs and oyster mushrooms. Either of these portions is sufficient for three or four to share. Whipped potatoes enriched with black truffle butter are an ideal accompaniment for a big-deal steak. Creamed spinach is a lighter-than-usual version, a plus. The crisp shaved potatoes were very salty, and the underdone haricots verts were audibly crunchy.

The preposterous $100 cheesesteak, accompanied by a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot brut, drew national attention to the restaurant’s debut, as well as a gold rush of suckers to try the thing — 270 sandwiches were sold the first month. Then activist duck-huggers churned even more publicity by protesting the inclusion of foie gras.

The version I had, which substituted butter-poached lobster for luxury liver, was remarkable only for its shock-value price point. Basically, it was surf ’n’ turf on a squishy, soggy, elongated brioche bun, combining ultra-tender Idaho-raised Wagyu beef, bits of lobster, taleggio cheese,  melted truffle butter and fresh truffles. Noble ingredients if served separately, but richness overkill in combination. A nice pinot noir or cabernet would have been a better beverage match.

This is as good a time as any to warn that cocktails and wine will significantly impact the bottom line: Expect to pay $10 to $17 for a martini. Servers are very eager to keep your wineglass filled, so watch closely if you don’t want a bottle to run dry before the entrées arrive.

Appetizers are often the best bets at Starr restaurants, but aside from the sliders, the starters here aren’t as satisfying as the meats and sides. The towering iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing is oddly paired with a lump crabmeat garnish. The shaved vegetable salad, a crunchy cornucopia of nearly a dozen raw and blanched vegetables, is glossed with a truffle vinaigrette that neither enhances nor detracts. Oysters Rockefeller, not nearly as decadent as those served at their point of origin, Antoine’s in New Orleans, lacked any detectable anise accent, and their diced bacon topping was so pebbly, I thought I’d accidentally speared a few grains of rock salt.

Pastry chef Frank Urso, who previously worked at Lacroix, presents some unexpected desserts, including a sweet-tart wedge of slow-roasted apple slices that’s like a crustless apple tart, and a whimsical trio of s’mores capped by lightly browned, half-melted marshmallows that slump like the cartoon mushroom caps of Disney’s Fantasia over undersides of soft graham cracker, fudgy chocolate, and a scoop of peanut butter ice cream. But the most inspired finish is his quartet of flash-fried cheesecake truffles, delivered warm with four different sauces (chocolate compote, pineapple compote, caramelized banana and strawberry vanilla). A typical manly-man steakhouse wouldn’t be caught dead serving something so dainty, which is yet another reason to say vive la difference about Barclay Prime.

Scorecard

BARCLAY PRIME
237 South 18th Street; 215-732-7560

FOOD : B  SERVICE : B  ATMOSPHERE : A

AVERAGE COST OF DINNER PER PERSON (with tax and tip, without alcohol) : $77

FOOD : Contemporary steakhouse

WINE LIST : Extensive. Boutique California cabernets, as well as labels that let everyone know you’ve got Benjamins to burn. Prices start at $36 and spiral upward fast.

GET : “Sliders”; dry-aged rib eye; New York strip with blue goat cheese and caramelized shallot sauce; double-cut lamb chops; seared salmon; sautéed mushrooms; mashed potatoes with truffle oil; french fries; cheesecake truffles.

DON’T GET : The $100 cheesesteak.