No fewer than six people offered chipper Texas-style greetings of “Welcome to Vic & Anthony’s!” as I made my way into the dining room of the Houston steakhouse’s brand-new outpost in New York City . A couple of greeters were waiters, but most were long-limbed young women in short black dresses, some of them asparkle with big black sequins.
“There are a lot of pretty girls here,” observed my dinner companion, the food writer and restaurant critic Alan Richman, when I met him at a table toward the back of the room. He sounded cautiously happy about that fact, but otherwise I would describe the state in which I found him as fretful.
The music emanating from the public address system was too loud, and he was engaged in a low-key wrestling match with the wine list, a school-binder-type arrangement. Some of the plastic-wrapped pages had slipped their bonds and were slewing about as he leafed his way through the list.
“This place doesn’t look like New York , it looks like Vegas” offered Richman. “Those wine towers are definitely not New York ,” he added, gesturing toward the twin glass rectangles, gleaming with bright light, that rose toward the high ceiling of the long dining area.
My eye traveled from those shining obelisks to the pinpoint red lights set into the ceiling of the pewter-colored room, and down to the carpeting, a fierce swirl of orange-red, yellow and black. Some unkind New York blogger had referred to it as “casino carpet,” alluding to the Vegas and Atlantic City versions of the Landry corporation’s flagship steakhouses. I had to admit he had a point.
The carpet went in as part of a lightning-fast redo of the former Angelo & Maxie’s steakhouse on this corner of Park Avenue South at East 19th Street, within a half block of Gramercy Tavern, one of New York’s best-known and most highly regarded restaurants. Excecutive chef Carlos Rodriguez, who has made such a success out of the Houston Vic & Anthony’s, had come in to train the kitchen staff, whom he left under the direction of Brandi McHan, who once served as chef Bryan Caswell’s lieutenant at Reef.
McHan is a quick sprite of a young woman, with a “Top-Chef”-ready fauxhawk that I spotted flashing through the open kitchen. I tried to point her out to Richman, but McHan is so short she was hard to see.
Within eyeshot of our table, hanging over a curved black booth, was a smiling photo portrait of Landry’s chairman Tilman Fertitta and his father, Vic, for whom the steakhouse is named. Call me a homer, but I found myself wanting Richman to like Vic & Anthony’s. I’ve known him for around 20 years, since he came to Texas to do a story on barbecue for GQ, the magazine for which he has long served as restaurant critic.
Richman is a tough judge and one of my favorite curmudgeons, with strong opinions about steak (well, strong opinions about everything) and a New York sensibility that runs deep. I figured if Richman liked Vic & Anthony’s, that would say something about their chances of success in the demanding New York market, where there’s a strong indigenous steak culture — think Peter Luger, Gallagher’s, Sparks, et alia — with its own particular food conventions. A Houston steakhouse trying to colonize New York is a sort of man-bites-dog proposition: usually it’s the other way around.
“This place has much better seafood options than most New York steakhouses,” Richman observed as he scanned the menu. He got the waiter to agree to see if the music volume could be lowered (it could) and wrestled some more with the slippery-slidey wine-list pages. He sniffed over the presence of “so many American reds” before he got to the Old World section of the list, at which point I saw him thaw visibly. There were some serious bargains among the Rhones, and after a spirited discussion with the sommelier on duty, he settled on a 2007 Cote-Rotie La Landonne by René Rostaing, a favorite producer of his.
“I can’t even afford a Rostaing on most New York lists,” he confided as he swirled and sniffed and tasted, finding the wine “surprisingly elegant” and a notable bargain at $136. A bargain is in the eye of the beholder, of course. The wine was served at cellar temperature and the somm was smart and informed, in the best tradition of the Houston flagship.
Richman looked happy, and he pretty much stayed that way throughout the course of our meal.
Not to say that there wasn’t a bobble or two. The famous Vic & Anthony’s crabcake came to the table at, um, less than optimal temperature. “It’s lukewarm,” I complained. “You’re being kind,” Richman admonished me. “It’s cold.” It tasted good and was its usual luxurious, dewy self, but those qualities could not carry the day.
I loved the cold, crisp Caesar with its tart cling of dressing, but Richman raised a skeptical eyebrow when I argued that I could taste some anchovy in the dressing. The kitchen split the salad for us and we both cleaned our plates.
Next came the beef. I would swear that Richman’s eyes widened as he took in the 22-ounce bone-in ribeye he had ordered, which scythed across the plate like a fat axe, so taut you could imagine it bursting with juice beneath its sear. My 16-ounce strip (the quintessential New York cut, according to Richman) had the same charisma, although when cut, it tilted a bit more to the medium side of the medium rare we had both specified.
Richman’s steak tasted fabulous, and mine, with a salty pop of seasoning and a dense, slightly gamy quality, was damn good. It almost tasted as if it had been dry-aged. I was relieved: I had cautioned Richman before we ordered that Vic & Anthony’s doesn’t dry-age their steaks, and he had responded, “That’s too bad.”
The sides were problematic for Richman. New York , he told me, was “a hash-brown town,” but the hash browns that arrived on our table were in the form of a grated potato pancake shaped like a dome. The insides were too pale and listless compared to the nicely browned exterior, and Richman was having none of it. He wants his hash-browns chunked up and crusted in a skillet, amen.
He wasn’t buying the creamed spinach, either. “You can’t taste the spinach,” he objected, and I had to admit that the concoction before us was more like a spirited, cheesy spinach dip. He spurned it after a few bites, but I kept nibbling at it for quite awhile. I have a weakness for spinach dip. There. I said it.
Just before dessert, chef McHan showed up at our table, looking flustered. She had spotted me from the display kitchen, recognizing me from her days at Reef. I was busted, but not until the tail end of our meal.
McHan sang the praises of her dessert chef, and she turned out to be right: we ended up with a spectacularly bright-tasting strawberry-rhubarb tart with a streusel crust, and a pleasant chocolate construction, layered and sided with ice cream. I believe I would walk 20 blocks (twice what I had to walk to get to the restaurant from my hotel) just to eat that strawberry-rhubarb number.
Richman left smiling, sent off into the night with the well-wishes of the black-clad sylphs clustered near the hostess stand. I returned two days later to eat an early supper solo, at the high counter in front of the kitchen that functions as Vic & Anthony’s “chef’s table.” My meal was nearly as swell as some of the best ones I’ve had at the kitchen counter in Houston (always my favorite seat in the house).
The iceberg wedge salad was high and mighty, clean and cool, showered with half the Roquefort crumbles in Manhattan , with bright-red tomato dice and a simple dressing that seemed to be based on pristine cream. My maple-glazed quail with Sriracha, a favorite dish from the Houston menu, jumped with red-chile heat, and I swear I tasted the salty bite of fish sauce in the dressing that ribboned the plate. The legs were sublime stuff upon which to gnaw, although the quail breasts were a shade overcooked for my tastes. And — may I say this? — our quail in Texas are bigger.
For dessert, I ordered a whole mini-casserole of Vic & Anthony’s wonderfully reprehensible au gratin potatoes all for myself. Somehow they combine the best characteristics of fluffy baked potatoes, chile con queso ooziness and the light creaminess of a classic gratin. I adore them and I don’t care who knows it.
As I sat on my perch meditating on those potatoes, one of the determinedly friendly staffers told me something that made me think Vic & Anthony’s New York may be able to adapt to its new environment. That swirly “casino carpet” that made my eyes bug? It was on it way out. New carpeting had been ordered, presumably a little more in keeping with Park Avenue .
(Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse, 233 Park Avenue South, New York , N.Y. 212-220-9200)