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Aside from Peter Luger's in Brooklyn, Manhattanites rarely venture to the outer boroughs for an exceptional steak. Uncle Jack's aims to change that.
Uncle Jack's is located in the New York City bedroom community of Bayside, Queens, on Bell Boulevard, a commercial thoroughfare of three-story brick buildings resembling a Midwestern Main Street. Looming above the entrance is a larger-than-life sculpture of the avuncular icon himself, smoking a huge cigar (a very promising sign).
Inside, Uncle Jack's feels like a neighborhood tavern. At the long mahogany bar, locals puff cigars while watching the borough's beloved Mets on two televisions that flicker in the dimly lit room. Red brick walls, a reproduction pressed-copper ceiling, and candles set in small butcher-paper bags generate a warm glow that extends from the bar into the adjoining dining room. Since Uncle Jack's is a franchise of two (its partner is across the East River in Manhattan), it retains the character (and the prices!) of an upscale restaurant, not a chain. However, the restaurant owners have big plans for their big steaks.
"We are going to market everything, including my smile!" says Sam Galveo, our waiter that evening, who greets us in a tuxedo and red suspenders. He was holding a business card that lists a number of planned Uncle Jack's franchises. The way Galveo welcomes guests and preens over tables--refilling the bread basket, recommending cuts of beef--you would have thought he was Jack's nephew. Still, even with his help, navigating our way through the 13-page cocktail menu was dizzying. Uncle Jack's offers more than 20 varieties of single-malt Scotch, 20 Cognacs, 25 beers and up to 25 Martinis that range from classic gin-and-vermouth to drinks that double as meals. But save room for the beef.
Kobe beef, an exclusive grade of meat that is known for extensive marbling and tenderness, is the specialty of the house. The delicacy is flown to Uncle Jack's from Kobe, Japan, a port city 284 miles west of Tokyo. In Kobe, Waygu cattle are fed beer and massaged with sake every three hours while they listen to soothing music. (The Food Lover's Companion does not say if the cattle prefer Swedish or shiatsu massage.) Not surprisingly, Kobe beef is expensive. At Jack's, a 16-ounce Kobe shell steak costs you $99 per person.
Not being on a Kobe budget, we ordered the USDA prime-aged porterhouse for two for $55. Like all of the USDA beef served at Jack's, the porterhouse is aged for 21 days on the premises. At 45 ounces, it is nearly as extravagant as the Kobe. The porterhouse arrived charred on the outside, medium-rare inside, and served on the bone for more flavor.
If you're not in a steak mood, Uncle Jack's offers such tasty entrées as cornmeal encrusted chicken sautéed over artichokes with white wine and chicken glaze, and sesame-seared tuna with a wasabe and oil glaze. Side dishes include Maryland crab cakes, blue point oysters and fresh Buffalini mozzarella.
Unfortunately, after eating nearly three pounds of beef--not to mention ample sides of garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach--cheesecake, Mississippi Mud pie, pecan pie and other mouthwatering desserts were out of the question. By now, the dining room, bar and the Mirror cigar lounge on the lower level have filled up. By 10 p.m., the muted tones of Queens-accented conversation mingles with the faint stream of cigar smoke to create a pleasant atmosphere.
"Cigar?" Galvao asks, tempting us with a wooden box the size of a dresser drawer, filled with a selection of cigars that are mostly Dominican. "It takes the bad spirits away." With that, I reach for a hand-rolled Arturo Fuente Gran Reserva, while my friend orders a Cognac. Galvao asks if we'd like the cigar clipped or hole-punched, and then lights it. Then we puff away, sipping Cognac from a large glass balloon that contains a sweet and intoxicating vapor. The restaurant has 40 personalized humidors available, each holding 200 cigars. We savor the last of the Cognac and draw on the end of the cigar. Soon, a Don Carlos Reserva Superior Limitada cigar box is brought to our table. Ah, we think, time to ward off more evil. But the point is moot, for the box is empty, save for our check.
Melissa Milgrom is a freelance writer based in New York City.
39-40 Bell Boulevard Phone
(718) 229-1100; fax (718) 229-3985
Dinner $55 per person, without wine