I must need my head examined. It’s the hottest day of the year so far and I’ve elected to have a massive steak for lunch. Such is my enthusiasm to re-acquaint myself with an old friend – a slab of finest prime USDA beef, that is, not my dining companion – that I’m prepared to make such idiotic decisions, heading for a side of cow and a barrel of red wine when the mercury’s topping 32 outside and British players are dropping like ninepins in SW19. Thankfully, the oppressive heat is immaterial on entering the cool interior of the Adelphi building, home to the first of one of America’s finest steakhouses to leave their shores.
But aren’t they a bit behind the curve, you ask? Isn’t London’s high-end steak scene already up and running, even passé? With Boisdale, Goodmans, Hawksmoor, and even other imports such as the mighty Wolfgang Puck, all comfortably ensconced in London, why come in now? It’s because they’re not daunted. They’re letting the scene bed in so they come along and master it. Established in 1977, they have only nine outlets across the pond, represented in major cities. Their’s is not the ‘chain’ philosophy, but a slow build with each restaurant, getting it right at the top of the curve. For anyone who’s been to New York, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Houston, Washing DC or Miami Beach, I don’t need to tell you how good their steaks are. Smith & Wollensky is an institution.
It’s also about waiting for the right venue to come along. And, boy, what a venue. This is not a steakhouse, it’s the first class dining room on the Titanic. As you enter you step into 1920s prohibition-era Chicago meets 1950s Mad Men New York. Waist-high leather-bound booths, rich dark wood-panelling, deco tiling, brass light fittings; it smacks of classic Americana. And it’s all bespoke, right down to every one of the 320 handmade oak and green calfskin leather chairs. And, yep, that’s 320. 320 covers. It’s palatial. That’s the setting for one of the finest steaks you’ll now have in London.
So, arguably, London’s waited for one of these for a while. But is it any good? Let me start with the beef. It’s USDA prime, naturally. US standards wouldn’t normally count for much – and certainly not if the TTIP agreement goes through – but when it comes to beef, Americans know what they’re talking about. It’s not simply the quality of the meat, however; what makes this unlike any other steakhouse is that the beef is dry-aged and cut in-house. This is important in two ways; steaks cut to same size can be cooked to perfection. And standardising cuts also means off-cuts aren’t sold as smaller steaks, they go into the burgers. That means your quarter pounder features 28-day dry-aged prime USDA beef.
We began, however, on recommendation, with the seafood sharer. It was a meal in itself; hunks of white crab meat, lobster claws, langoustines the size of car tyres, clams and oysters, and an artist’s palette of dips and sauces to dress them, from ginger mayonnaise to their signature chilli dip. We took it leisurely, holding back the desire to gorge, careful not to waste the main. When it came, I had my back to the floor, only made aware of its imminent arrival as Larman, my indefatigable dining companion, interrupted himself with a “good grief, that’s ours” and he withered into his seat. I turned to see a trolley making its way towards us, bedecked with a wooden block upon which rested to sides of lightly charred bone-in hunks of prime ribeye and sirloin beef that turned heads as it made its way across the floor. Cut at the trolley and reset into the bone, they were presented to us in their charcoal-crisped, blood-letting, love-smothered glory. I don’t use the last adjective lightly; the ‘love’ is rendered fat from the cooking process poured back over the meat to retain its juiciness and enhance its flavour.
Of course, on such a hot day I could have had a salad, but that’s like drinking spring water at a champagne tasting. This is fine dining at its most primitive, its most base, its most carnal. Not in its execution, certainly; it’s as sophisticated as any Michelin-started restaurant, but where there might be 127 ingredients on a plate, here there’s one. After 40,000 years of human evolution; the desire is the same, the tools a little less primitive – although their monstrous steak knives could fell a tree – and the execution a more refined but, when it came down to it, I felt like a lion with a napkin.
We tucked in. And tucked in. And tucked in some more. There came creamed spinach – its own making an art form in itself – a tomato and onion salad, some crisp fries and their famous steak sauce, but these were mere window dressing to the meat. We were in need of nothing other than a bottle of Stag’s Leap Artemis from the Napa Valley. There is no sommelier at Smith & Wollensky; they don’t need one. Waiters are aware of some 500-odd bins below decks, mostly American, and know what to recommend. “That smells like the meat locker downstairs,” Larman grinned as it was poured. We sat and dined, drifting in and out of half-snatched conversation, our concentration focused on the table, returning again and again to the platter laid before us like 10-year olds to a fairground ride.
Incredibly, our appetites held. In this episode of Men vs Food, men triumphed. Though it was, perhaps, a Pyrrhic victory. Given minor respite with an espresso martini to regain our composure, dessert menus were proferred and there was only one thing to be had: New York cheesecake. Well, we were a tiny bit hungry after all.
The cloying warmth of London’s hottest day enveloped me uncomfortably as I departed. I felt I had left the succour of a slaughter and was now back out onto the plains. Like any predator, in preparation for this feast I had had a slice of toast at 6am. I didn’t then eat another square meal for 36 hours afterward. And its gleeful satisfaction comes back to me as I type.
Thank the cows Smith & Wollensky are in town.
Smith & Wollensky, The Adelphi Building, 1-11 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6HT. For more information, including details of their dry-ageing process and how they came to be across the pond, visit www.smithandwollensky.co.uk.