Several years ago, Burke and I rounded out a weekend of drunken debauchery in Las Vegas with a massive steak at Smith & Wollensky, a free-standing anachronism between the shining casinos of the strip. It was the best damn steak of our lives: a bone-in ribeye, house aged, wearing a char overcoat that opened to a tender, pink and flavorful center. San Francisco had nothing like it--not the House of Prime Rib, not even Ruth Chris's. Las Vegas became our code word for awesome steak.
As the years passed, we tried others, including the hands-down best steak in the world, New York's own Peter Luger's. It's not really fair to compare Luger's signature porterhouse (half strip, half fillet, served for two) with a ribeye: they are different steaks in their souls. Even so, the memory of the S&W ribeye eclipsed everything. Not even Boston's premiere steak houses could match it, though the pan-seared ribeye at Abe & Louis's came close for flavor, but not texture.
Tonight, throwing financial and nutritional caution to the winds, we went to the newly opened Smith & Wollensky in the armory on Arlington street. This is the hot new meathouse in Boston, and yes, it's a chain. Early reports were mixed, with huge crowds and spotty service taking a hit that even solid steaks couldn't eclipse. Some said it was pricey, which I can't deny, though it's not significantly more or less than the other Boston mainstays (I compared meats only, ounce by ounce--the Internet is a dream for comparison shoppers).
Let's end the suspense: the 28 oz. bone-in ribeye (they called it a "colorado") I had tonight was the best of my life. It was better even than the Vegas S&W original. The only side I tried, the whipped potatoes, were the most smooth and velvety I'd sampled since Paris. My steak had the crystal-clear tenderness associated with a fine fillet, but with all the flavor of a ribeye. Even the leaner, often drier center was moist. I don't know how they did it, with such a deep, sophisticated char all around, but they obviously know their ovens. More, Burke's cracklin' pork braise was a miracle in the key of pig. The shank meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, juicy, and the quick fry they put on the skin made it unctuous and surprisingly light. The "firecracker" applesauce, served in a mason jar and boosted with serrano chiles, provided fruity harmony.
What about the crowds, what about the service? The secret to a great experience at Smith & Wollensky is timing. Halloween night was dead quiet, and the staff was eager to please. We called for a reservation and got a cheery "Come on down, anytime!" Sure enough, tables were plentiful, the staff gracious and attentive. Our water glasses never dropped below half, our food was served promptly and elegantly. Our appetizers, I must say, were only a modest success (Burke's tuna and salmon tartar lacked flavor, and only two of my "salmon three ways" were worth it--and at $15 each, these were overpriced). Our table service was informed and friendly. When I asked for a ribeye and wanted medium rare, our waiter warned me that the cut required more cooking to soften the connective tissues. I asked for "something between medium rare and medium," and he delivered.
The real draw of the Boston S&W is the space. A server took us on a four-floor room-by-room tour of gorgeous panelling, authentic post-Civil War design and decoration, crisp linens and superb lighting and appointments. It would have been a pleasure to suffer a court martial there. The high ceilings kept the masculine oak from getting too stuffy.
We skipped desserts, but enjoyed Irish coffees brightened with a dollop of real whipped cream served off a wooden spoon from a tin milk pail. Such touches of whimsy were scarce, but not missed: steakhouses are not known for touches of humor. The coffees were excellent, as was the house syrah served by the glass at $8 each. My steak was pricey at $38, but the pork was more than worth its $24. Had we opted for the inexpensive salads rather than the fish tartars, our bill would have been substantially lower. As it was, we still didn't feel cheated.
I don't think the mixed reviews to date are wrong. S&W may do a killer ribeye, but I don't know if they could match a Peter Luger for porterhouse, and the few fillets we saw at other tables seemed uninspiring. They offer a five-pound lobster served on the half, so it's 2.5 pounds, from which you might get 20 ounces of meat. I'm sure it was expensive, but the one we saw at the adjacent table looked and smelled delicious. I suspect that, when the tables are packed and the staff overtaxed, service might have suffered. So go at odd hours or on holidays.
In the end, it's the ribeye that makes me long for Smith & Wollensky, and to that I can now add the cracklin' pork shank. Given the calibre of seafood available in Boston, I see no reason to test those waters at a steak place. The desserts looked over heavy and over portioned. The cellar seemed good, though I had hopes for more extensive ports and whiskeys.
Next time, I'm going to sample the creamed spinach (you have a choice of three spinach sides, two creamed and one steamed), and I think I'll go for the house signature split-pea soup. There will be a next time, because this was the ribeye I was dreaming about. Next time they're at half capacity, stop in for a visit. If you've never had a ribeye, it's the best around.
Smith & Wollensky
101 Arlington St.
Boston, MA 02116
A Burke and Wells Review