Risqué, Medium Rare
My fork and knife hover over a slice of double-cut New York strip "Pittsburgh." It's the best thing on the menu at the Strip House, the new downtown steak house that's decorated with naughty pictures.
The double-cut steak is a monstrous 32 ounces, a full two pounds, and that's without a bone. "Pittsburgh" steaks are charred black on the outside and a very red shade of medium-rare on the inside, the waiter informed my dining companion and me when we ordered it to share. Though the outermost quarter-inch of the steak is pure carbon, each chunk still exudes a nice squirt of juice when you press down on it with a fork. And the wet-aged USDA Prime beef is delightfully tender.
But choosing what to eat in between bites gets complicated. If you're used to steak houses that send the meat out on a bare platter, you'll find the Strip House shocking in the opposite extreme. First, there's a whole head of roasted garlic on each of our plates. The top has been hacked off to allow easy access to each creamy segment.
And then there's a spectacular package of cooked leeks, which have been wrapped with bacon and broiled. The oniony leeks and salty bacon are a wonderful complement to the meat. There's also a pile of roasted fennel, celery and carrot strips and a sprig of rosemary on the plate.
As if these accompaniments weren't enough, we've ordered two of the Strip House's phenomenal sides. Black truffle creamed spinach comes in a little copper sauce pot. Although the truffle aroma is faint, it's still some of the best creamed spinach I've ever had.
Our other side order, "crisp goose fat potatoes," looks like a giant tater tot. The inside resembles baked potatoes, but the outside has been cooked in hot goose fat until it develops a light brown and slightly crunchy crust. I've marveled over the rich flavor of potatoes cooked in goose or duck fat many times in the Southwest of France, but I've never seen them in an American steak house before.
A bottle of 1999 Coudoulet de Beaucastel, my favorite Côtes-du-Rhône, makes a magnificent match-up for this collection of big flavors. A blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault grapes, the wine is deep-colored, with fruitcake and black cherry aromas. The smoothed-out tannins give it structure, but it's softened enough with age so that there's no unpleasant astringency left.
Actually, Beaucastel is best known for its spectacular Châteauneuf du Pape. But Coudoulet de Beaucastel comes from another vineyard on the wrong side of the A7 highway, just outside the boundaries of the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation. Wine from this vineyard can be marketed only as lowly Côtes-du-Rhône, despite the fact that it drinks better than much more expensive wines from inside the Châteauneuf du Pape borders.
So the ugly duckling Coudoulet de Beaucastel generally sells for around $30 in a liquor store, about half of what you'd pay for its big sister the swan, Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape. All of which means the Strip House's price of $65 for a bottle of the Coudoulet is a great deal on an exceptional bottle of wine.
For dessert, we continue the over-the-top theme with a slice of chocolate layer cake that easily could feed four. We count 12 thin layers of chocolate cake and an equal number of frosting layers in this fabulously moist cake. "We supply Neiman Marcus with it, too," the waiter tells us. "They call it the 24-carat cake." (The whole cake goes for $90 at the department store.) We barely make a dent in our slice. I take it home, and my two housemates and I work on it for a week.
The Strip House is owned by the Glazier Group, and their executive chef, David Walzog, is spending a lot of time here. Walzog has had plenty of practice cooking steaks at other Glazier restaurants, including Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in New York. And he has long been famous for his creamed spinach. John Schenk, formerly of Monkey Bar in New York, is the head chef at the Houston Strip House.
"So, what do you think of the decor?" I ask my dining companion over the cake. We've both been so utterly engrossed with the food and wine that we've barely spoken during dinner. I save about half of my share of the steak to take home in a doggie bag. He couldn't stop himself; he devoured the whole thing. I admire this kind of passion.
Sated now, he exudes the rosy glow of someone who has just polished off plenty of good wine and great steak. He looks at the wall by our table, which is covered with photos of naked breasts, and says, "I like it."
"Steak and titties, what's not to like?" another male dining companion remarks on my second visit. For an appetizer, we get a shrimp cocktail made with honking enormous shrimp over a salad of extremely thin cucumber slices and housemade cocktail sauce. Then we split a medium-rare porterhouse for two, which costs more than the double strip steak yet contains a lot more gristle. For sides, we split a giant salt-crusted baked potato, which is carved tableside and smothered with lumpfish caviar and sour cream.
"These napkins are a bit much," he says, inspecting his. Instead of the crisp white linen you'd expect, the napkins are cream-colored and over-printed with a red pattern that also appears in the flocked red wallpaper. The design features silhouettes of two naked women facing each other in various poses.
"Now that you mention it, they look a little like the chrome silhouettes of naked women you see on the mudflaps of 18-wheelers," I say, studying my own napkin.
The original Strip House in Greenwich Village, which opened four years ago,was designed by David Rockwell, who was then and is still the hottest restaurant designer in New York. The double entendre of the restaurant's name and the location in an old theater building in the Village inspired Rockwell to create a burlesque theme. The downtown Houston location carries on the live-nude-girl-gone-classy look. The banquettes are red leather. The ceiling is red. The sofas, carpets and throw pillows in the bar are red. Pretty much everything is red.
Except for the dozens and dozens of photos on the restaurant's walls, which are black-and-white. They come from Studio Manasse, a Viennese photo studio of the 1920s and 1930s run by a Hungarian husband-and-wife team. The photographers attempted to capture the erotic spirit of the cinema and cabaret era in their dreamily retouched photographs of nude or partially clothed women. Some of the photos on the wall at the Strip House are spotlit, while others are displayed in backlit shadow boxes.
Together the ruby-red colors and nude photos create an ambience my late father would have described as "French whorehouse." Dad wasn't very sophisticated about interior design. In truth, I think the decor at the Strip House might be more accurately described as "ironic, retro-1950s French whorehouse."
Irony is what makes eating lunch at the Strip House different from eating lunch at Rick's Cabaret, one of my female lunchmates tells me on my third visit. Having deduced that my male friends liked the Strip House just fine, I decided to bring two female acquaintances for lunch to see what they thought of the place.
"My friends are going to be hanging out here all the time," a lesbian lawyer quips as we sit down amid the nudie photos. But by the middle of lunch, she admits she was just joking. If they were eating here at night by themselves, they would probably be stared at and made to feel uncomfortable, she says. It's obviously a male-oriented place, just like a strip club.
It's all tongue-in-cheek, of course, so men don't have to feel guilty about dining here, the other woman says. It's a lads'-night-out sort of place, where liberal men can go and thumb their noses at political correctness and yet not feel sleazy, she concludes.
"Why liberals?" I wonder.
"Because Republican men never go anywhere immoral," she says, giggling at her own funny.
"That must be why Houston has so few topless bars," I say.
Our lunch entrées are all $14, and they're all exceptional. I have grilled salmon over thinly sliced pieces of celery root cooked and sauced to resemble noodles. The lawyer gets sea scallops, which are wonderfully firm and nutty. They are served in an innovative succotash of edamame and corn. Our other tablemate has an open-faced French dip sandwich, which consists of lots of thin slices of prime rib over what appears to be sourdough French toast with melted Gruyère over the top, served au jus. We split an apple crisp spiked with Calvados for dessert.
Houston is a city that loves a good steak house. There is no doubt that the Strip House has got some of the best steaks in the city. And the sides are nothing short of spectacular. As for the naughty decor, well, that's going to require some extra effort.
Since the Strip House gang is originally from Greenwich Village, the heart of blue-state decadence, they may need some tips on how to survive here in the capital of the red states.
First thing they need to do is explain to our local television crusader, Marvin Zindler, that the Strip House isn't really a French whorehouse and that those naked pictures are actually art. Otherwise he's likely to close the place on live TV like he did the Chicken Ranch. Oh, and go easy on the Baptists. They don't drink much, but when they do, they tend to fall down a lot.
But if they can keep Marvin and the Baptists at bay, the Strip House ought to do a pretty good business in Houston. As you have probably already noticed, steak houses and titty bars are a few of our favorite things.
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