T-Bar Steak & Lounge
1278 Third Avenue
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 772-0404
Fax: (212) 772-3229
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: David Cunningham
Area: East 70s
This is the story of “When Shameless met Cutlets.” It’s not exactly a love story, but it’s definitely one of two meat-loving souls who I thought needed to find each other. Allow me to explain. Shameless is actually The Shameless Carnivore, a food writer and a friend of Craig’s who’s just written a book (to be released in March) called The Shameless Carnivore—a Manifesto for Meat Lovers. It’s his tale of crossing the country while eating, cooking (and in some cases hunting) 31 animals in 30 days (from elk to squirrel, and rattlesnake), plus eating every part of the bull (Yes, every part. That too. No, he said it was not good.)
As soon as I met Shameless, I knew he had to meet my friend Mr. Cutlets, aka Josh Ozersky, the city’s most knowledgeable (and hilarious) meat man, who also happens to be the editor and writer of Grub Street, and the author of eight books, including Meat Me in Manhattan, and the upcoming Hamburger: A History, an encyclopedic study of the anthropology and social history of the burger. Clearly these two were separated at birth. They needed to be reunited. And I would bring them together. (I was quite sure a Lifetime movie of the week would be bound to follow.)
I’d already made plans to have dinner with Cutlets, Craig, and our friends Glen and Steven at T-Bar Steak and Lounge, Tony Fortuna’s new incarnation of Lenox Room on the Upper East Side. I emailed Cutlets and mentioned Shameless, wanting to see if he would be up for the “set up.” I waited for his reply. I knew this would either be a great match, or they’d size each other up, start to growl, and possibly end up throwing steak and knives at one another with abandon. A few hours later, the email came. “Shameless Carnivore sounds cool. Sure, bring him along,” he wrote. I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, maybe they wouldn’t kill each other.
The setting of the meeting, as I mentioned, was T-Bar Steak and Lounge, a newly renovated and conceived space dressed in chic white subway tiles with dark wood floors, lush forest green banquettes, and cool, flattering lighting. The lure here was the first and foremost the steak, but as we ate our way through the versatile menu, it was clear that the chef had much more up his sleeve than cow. The chef, Ben Zwicker, a young talent who started out in San Francisco at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and worked at Petrossian as a sous chef before taking over as head chef at Lenox Room, offers a menu for the varied appetite of the neighborhood, from chicken to salmon, to pasta, veal, and lamb. This may be a place for steak, but it’s wrapped inside a seriously good modern American restaurant. It’s a compelling formula that works really well.
As we looked over the menu, a basket filled with long fluffy lengths of rosemary and black olive focaccia landed on the table. Hands went in, bread came out, and quickly disappeared. Hands went back in. This was good stuff. As were the appetizers. We had to have the Angel Chicken Wings ($11), a signature dish from a recipe by Gray Kunz. (Tony and Gray worked together at Lespinasse, and when Tony opened Lenox it was his “gift.”) The wings are presented like gobstopper lollipops, the meat pushed down the little French’d bones into plump juicy orbs, glazed with tamarind and what tasted like a warm spice rub of cinnamon, cloves, all-spice, and cumin. They’re not atomic or sloppy, nor do they require gnawing; they’re delicate and lovely, sort of the Princess’ chicken wings.
The hit of the table was something called smoked salmon “ravioli” ($18)—a fun riff on a morning bagel and lox that has more to do with the Sunday Times than pasta. Zwicker takes two sheets of Catskill farms smoked salmon and fashions it into a ravioli pocket, fills it up with a spoon of cream cheese and tops it off with a spill of caviar. To complete the breakfast experience, there’s a side of pickled pearl onions and some mini toasted bagel chips. While I could’ve done with a bit less cream cheese, this was a total crowd-pleaser.
My favorite appetizer was not the ravioli, but the steak tartar, a gorgeous glistening mound of hand-cut black Angus beef tenderloin treated to just the right amount of mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The crab cake was not really cake as much as crab—in fact there’s no breading in here at all. It’s just a wildly generous amount of sweet and luscious Maryland crab formed into a sort of swirled meringue, set on a plate slick with spicy tartar sauce ($14). Fried Blue Point oysters ($15) were also quite impressive, snuggled inside a light sheet of batter that’s crisp and not the least bit soggy, and then rested on a small mound of seaweed salad and a hidden hit of wasabi that gives your mouth an unexpected hot flash. Loved that.
As we worked our way through the appetizers, Shameless posed a question to the table he’d been pondering. What would your last meal be? I offered a home-cooked meal from my Bibi (my Persian grandmother) shared with my friend and family. Steven said a bowl of strawberry ice cream. “I didn’t even know you liked strawberry ice cream,” I said. “Well, I do love ice cream,” he replied, going on to explain that if he were going to be executed at least he’d want to smell sweet if he happened to (excuse me) fart during his execution. (I wasn’t aware we were being executed, I just thought we’d sort of eat and then peacefully move on to the next world with a full happy belly.)
Glen was torn between steamers and a lobster roll or a bacon cheeseburger and black and white shake, but Mr. Cutlets offered his last meal without hesitation. “The last meal needs to be from your childhood, it has to close the circle of life,” he said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table, then pushing his black-framed glasses on top of his head, like they were sunglasses.
“I was born in Miami,” he started, rubbing his palms against his face with exaggerated drama.
“But we moved away.” Heavy sigh. Pause. “Every year we’d go back and visit and we’d go to a restaurant called Lyla’s.”
And then a smile emerged.
“They had the best French fries I’ve ever had. I’ve gone back every year of my life and last year the restaurant was closed. So my last meal would be fries at Lyla’s.” He grew quiet. I think I saw a tear in his eye. People, we must find those fries for Culets! Can anyone help?
Shameless was also quite definite in his answer, though perhaps not as emotional. Being from New Orleans, his last meal would be a platter of oysters and crawfish washed down with Dixie beer. Then it was Craig’s turn. His answer was not what I expected (which would be The Asher Special, a breakfast dish from his childhood). Rather it was, an elephant. “An elephant?” Steven asked. “Yeah, an elephant,” he said. I looked at him and wondered who I’d been dating all these months. “An elephant?” I echoed. “Yeah, an elephant. It would take a really long time to eat so it would prolong my life.” “That’s very manipulative,” Steven said. “I like it.”
The last supper conversation lasted well into our main courses, which were quite nice and very consistent in their quality. I hadn’t been feeling so great so the roast chicken called to me ($23), but it’s also a dish I find myself being drawn to more and more on menus. For all the Berkshire Pork, Waygu beef, and New Zealand lamb out there, I’m most impressed lately with the way chefs at places like Shorty’s.32, Little Owl, Red Cat, Market Table, and The Harrison are cooking these humble birds. This one is a total A-Lister as well, a moist bird from Gianonne Farms in Canada, with an almost Kentucky-fried skin, that was sadly served with a rather dry spongy sage stuffing. Loved the bird. The stuffing, not so much.
Glen’s Veal Schnitzel Holstein ($25) was robed in crunchy golden breadcrumbs and served with a sunny side egg on top (brilliant), set in a sauce of butter, lemon, caper, and parsley that I wanted top mop up with some bread, or even my sleeve. Steven’s grilled yellow fin tuna was pretty simple, but also pretty good. It’s seared rare so it maintains its ruby center and was plated with cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, and lemon, almost like a Nicoise salad without the salad ($36).
And yes, the carnivores (Shameless, Cutlets, and Craig, too) had their steaks. The center of the menu is devoted to the cow with your choice of filet (6 or 12 ounces), strip (16 ounces), rib eye (24 ounces), T-bone (26 ounces), and Porterhouse for two (48 ounces. Cutlets got the rib eye and Shameless and Craig went for the strip. Craig dug in and sliced off a piece for me. It was serious. Wow. There was the right char, a good chew to the pink meat, and a great rich, meaty flavor. As I ate, I looked over at the experts. They were huddled together like Tiger Woods and Steve Williams. First, they marveled, waxing poetic about the sear. “I love the sear and the sizzle on this meat,” said Shameless. “The Diamond marks are just gorgeous.” Then they cut in, revealing that rosy cheek-flushed color that is the sign of a perfectly cooked steak. Then they chewed. And yes, they shared. “Just cut me off that little end piece there,” I heard Cutlets said to his new BFF.” Aww. They leaned in and discussed. They ate more. There were murmurings of dry age and prime. Then Cutlets placed his cutlery on his plate and spoke.
“The way to judge a chef’s skill with steaks is to order the strip,” he said. “The rib eye anyone can cook. Not even an Irish bar can’t f—k it up.”
“Why’s that, Josh?” I asked.
“Well, you see Andrea, the rib eye is rich with marbling, so there’s really no way to screw it up. The strip is not as marbled so to get the fat right, you have to get good meat and cook it right.” After eating both of these cuts, Mr. Cutlets proclaimed both were excellent. He was impressed. Shameless agreed. “I need to find out where he gets his meat,” he said, seeking out the chef. Turns out it’s Suzie “Sirloin” Strassburger’s Strip and Pat La Freida’s Rib Eye (Black Angus. Aged 14-21 days). Cutlets was not surprised. They seemed very pleased, and continued to eat, leaning in like two schoolgirls talking about Justin Timberlake, chatting about cuts, marbling, and something about a Testicle Festival Shameless went to last year to have some Prairie Oysters. Steven’s ears perked up, “Did someone say Testicle Festival? I have one every day!”
Shameless smiled. “Yeah, I went last year. It’s in Montana. I have a belt buckle, too,” he said, standing up to show off an oval cooper buckle branded with a giggling cow holding his hooves in front of his private parts. “Can I get that online?” Steven asked, eyes wide with envy.
At this point, I was observing the interaction between Shameless and Steven about the belt from the Festival of Testicles, cracking up, and getting my fair share of sides ($8 each) of sweet corn (scraped from the cob and buttered), roasted carrots (sliced on the bias and steamed just enough to coax out their natural sweetness), mashed Yukon gold potatoes, a tall collection of well-done fries (hot, salty and crunchy), and a magnificent bacon gruyere and potato cake—a kind of smoky, cheesy, quite buttery Spanish tortilla that was probably not very good for me, though it was possibly the best cake I’ve ever eaten. Forget blackout, coconut layer and red velvet. Bacon, potato and gruyere cake rocks.
Desserts at T-Bar come in the form of communal fish bowl sundaes in three flavors—strawberry shortcake, chocolate brownie, and banana parfait ($12 each, feeds more than 3). These are smile-inducing sundaes that will have you sinking your spoon through the layers of cake, ice cream, cookie, brownie, caramel, what have you, even if you’re not a “dessert person.” (And all those people who claim not to be dessert people are lying. They’ve got stashes of Hostess Cupcakes under their pillows.) My favorite was the banana parfait, layered with banana ice cream, sugar cookies, caramel sauce and coconut, capped with a circular layer of bruleed bananas. It’s a tad kitchen sink-ish, but just go with it. You’ll love it.
The next day I was perusing Grub Street when I noticed a post entitled Greenpoint Man Eats Everything on Four Legs,” written by by Cutlets about Shameless. As I read through the post, I smiled. “When Shameless met Cutlets” might just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Review By: Andrea Strong