The salad hits the table, and you can almost hear the wood groan. It seems as if an entire head of lettuce has been sacrificed to make the dish, whose only garnish is a mound of blue cheese and an impossibly red beefsteak tomato, split in two. Salad for one, courtesy of Sparks Steak House in New York City.
A steak house isn't worth its weight in beef if it's not a shrine to excess, and Sparks is a true temple of indulgence. Hearty appetites are welcome here. An asparagus appetizer special takes up the entire plate, with a dozen spears lined side by side under a creamy sauce. The hash browns taste as if they have been injected with sticks of aromatic butter and just the right amount of salt. Lobsters draw a gasp from the uninitiated as black-clad waiters wheel them into the dining room.
The red crustaceans begin at three pounds and go to more than five. Their crusher claws are as large as holiday hams, but a diner need not fight with the beasts to get them to surrender their sweet meat--waiters carefully prepare them tableside.
No matter how alluring the seafood might look, a visit to Sparks wouldn't be complete without an order of steak. Grown men can be moved to tears by the thick, charred hunk of prime sirloin. It's simply one of the best steaks you can order in New York City, a metropolis built upon legendary steak houses.
Although the food is hearty and fulfilling, the menu suffers somewhat from a lack of diversity--there are no rib eyes or Porterhouses, and this is probably the only steak emporium in the city that steams its spinach rather than serving it creamed.
Slabs of red meat call for bottles of full-bodied red wine, and Sparks boasts one of the most underpriced, if not broad, wine lists in New York City, which allows those in the know to try many bottles that normally would be out of reach. Château Haut-Brion 1985 can be had for $290. A favorite wine on a recent visit was a 1990 Château La Grave à Pomerol, a succulent, complex Merlot from one of Bordeaux's better vintages. It cost only $50. Other restaurants would list it closer to $100.
Sparks has an old-fashioned feel; despite a renovation three years ago, the place looks as though it has been there forever, with landscape paintings hanging in gilded frames as opulent and as oversized as some of the food it offers. The waitstaff is as formal as the atmosphere--worlds apart from the gruff service that's part of the dining experience at Peter Luger, another legendary New York steak house.
After the last bit of meat has been consumed, waiters remove your plates and carefully replace the white tablecloth in preparation for dessert. The cheesecake is delicious, but to properly finish off such a meal requires a cigar. In the old days (Sparks has been around since 1966) that meant a smoke on the sly after hours, because the cramped space left smokers no room.
But the recent expansion offers plenty of room for cigar lovers to smoke at the bar or at one of seven smoker-friendly dining tables. On a typical night, the bar area is full of sated patrons puffing on a cigar while savoring a Cognac, single-malt Scotch or small-barrel Bourbon from the well-stocked shelves.
The humidor at Sparks has more cigars than some tobacco shops and takes up most of a wall at the end of the bar. Sparks's cigar menu lists the size, strength and price for more than 100 brands, including Avo, Punch, Montecristo, Bahia and Padrón, most of which it sells for about twice the suggested retail price.
Higher price tags can be found on boxes of rare smokes, including several sizes of Fuente Fuente OpusX, which range from $28 to $45 per stick and Partagas 150s, which sell for $75.
When it's time to go, worshipers of this temple of beef leave happy, the rich taste of meat still fresh on the palate and the last taste of decades-old Port still mingling with the final puff of a premium cigar. --David Savona
SPARKS STEAK HOUSE
210 East 46th Street
Phone (212) 687-4855;
Fax (212) 557-7409
Dinner $60 per person, without wine
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