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I knock back the last of my drink when I see my dinner companion, Press food writer Paul Galvani. Paul is a man who loves good steaks. I meet him at the reception desk, and right away he starts throwing curves.
"I understand you dry-age your USDA Prime on the premises," he says to the maître d'. The big guy agrees that that's true. "So can we take a tour and see your dry-aging room?" Galvani queries. The host is a little surprised, but he finds somebody to cover his station and takes us back on a long trek through the kitchen.
When we walk inside the meat locker, the host holds his nose. "Sorry, I can't take the smell," he apologizes. The aroma is indeed funky. But that's as it should be. Bacteria are partially responsible for the tenderization that occurs during the aging process, and the smell is somewhat putrid.
Houston, TX 77027
Region: Greenway Plaza
"So, are all of your steaks dry-aged USDA Prime?" I ask the maître d' while we're in the locker.
"Not the filet," he says. USDA Prime filet mignon gets too soft, he explains, so Smith & Wollensky uses the lower-grade USDA Choice for the filets mignons. That's pretty common, and I usually have no complaints about it [see "Aging with Grace (and Science)," August 30, 2001]. But when we are shown to our table upstairs, I take a closer look at the menu.
There is a box labeled "Classics," and beneath it a sentence that reads: "Our USDA Prime steaks are dry-aged and butchered in-house." But that statement doesn't apply to the first two items on the menu, "filet mignon" and "filet au poivre." So I guess that means that when they do serve USDA Prime, it's dry-aged and butchered in-house. And when they don't, ha ha, they fooled you.
Paul tells me he loves to eat steak tartare at a good steak house. Capital Grille makes his favorite in town. When he made the reservation for this evening, he asked if steak tartare was available. The reservationist said it wasn't on the menu, but the chef would be happy to make it. So Paul sends our server to the kitchen to ask the chef. She returns and explains that the chef can't do it. Paul asks to see a manager. Several layers of management confer and finally turn Paul down. We make do with salmon tartare, which is on the menu.
Just to keep up his reputation for being difficult, Paul orders a T-bone, which does not appear on the menu, either. And when it arrives, I start to wonder if the chef's trying to tell him something. The tiny filet side of the steak is tender and full-flavored, but the large strip on the other side of the bone is nearly impossible to eat.
Paul passes his plate over and I try a bite, which I'm forced to remove from my mouth. Then I try to carefully carve out a bite of meat without any gristle or sinew, a task that proves extremely difficult. It's dry-aged USDA Prime all right -- dry-aged USDA Prime gristle.
For my entrée, I order the "crackling porks," which I've heard a lot about. "USA Today's #1 Dish of the Year," reads a circle beside the menu item. Known as Schweinshaxe in German, the cut is a meaty knuckle of pork. In the Smith & Wollensky dish, the outside is crisped under the broiler. The result should be a combination of crunchy, crackling skin on the outside and tender, slow-cooked pork on the inside, all served over cabbage with applesauce on the side.
When the enormous gnarly pork shank comes to the table, it stands a good six inches tall. There are two bones protruding from the top. The first problem is logistical. How do you attack it?
"Cut between the bones," the server advises, walking away. I slide my oversize steak knife between the two bones and attempt to run my knife down to split the shank apart. But it's no use: They won't budge. So I try to pry them apart. But they show no sign of yielding. As the kind of guy who butchers his own deer and feral hogs out in the backyard, I'm not about to let a little pig's knuckle beat me. So I stand up at the table to get better leverage, and while Paul holds another knife in between the two bones to keep them apart, I violently cleave the shank in two.
After all that, the pork shank proves very disappointing. There is a thick white layer of fat inside, and the meat is none too tender. My guess is that the shank is supposed to be slow-cooked until it's completely falling apart, then broiled to crisp the skin at the last minute. This one is nicely crisped on the outside but underdone on the inside. Paul requests a doggie bag for my entrée. He says he's going to take it home and cook it for another couple of hours.
My two dinners couldn't have been more different. It's almost like I've eaten in two different restaurants. The first time, Smith & Wollensky seemed like a sleek, sophisticated steak house with a smart wine list and some of the best dry-aged USDA Prime steaks in the city. The second time around, it seems like a slickly merchandised chain with a deceptive menu and an incompetent kitchen. I don't know whether to thank Paul Galvani for helping me see this, or blame him for bringing bad karma down on us by ordering off the menu and being a difficult customer.
Anyway, I recommend you visit the first Smith & Wollensky and avoid the second.