Almost nothing disturbs tradition at Smith & Wollensky, one of New York City's premier steakhouses. The deep, burnished gleam of the wooden bar welcomes the droves that gather there waiting to be seated in the crowded dining rooms. The oak floors are slightly scuffed and worn. The walls glow in a kind of faded yellow, as if they are aged parchment. For a restaurant that only opened its doors in 1977, the total effect is more than a passing homage to the great turn-of-the-century New York restaurants.
The only evidence that the guardians of a nineteenth-century meat-and-potatoes diet are easing up turns up on the menu: There, in a small, relatively unobtrusive box, the "Kitchen Within A Kitchen" menu offers pan-roasted fish steak, grilled chicken breast, Cajun-spiced filet mignon and shrimp Natchez. There are other nonmeat offerings: On the main menu are lemon pepper chicken and three fish dishes at lunch, four at dinner. Most restaurant reviewers tout this place as a steak and seafood restaurant, but this is not a place to eat fish or chicken--no matter what restaurant critics or physicians say.
This is the house that meat built. There are other great steakhouses in New York, some with histories stretching back to the turn of the century, and each has its avowed defenders. But Smith & Wollensky surrenders nothing to any of them. The list of "S & W Classics"--all of which cost $29.95 at dinner--is simple: sliced steak Wollensky, sirloin, filet mignon, filet au poivre, prime rib of beef, triple lamb chops and veal chop. Veal dishes, chopped steak, calf's liver and a double sirloin or Chateaubriand (for two) also appear on the menu.
A recent meal included a taste of the three most traditional appetizers that waiters suggest when customers ask for recommendations: shrimp cocktail, lobster cocktail and fresh lump crabmeat. The shellfish were fresh and properly cooked; the crabmeat was especially tender. Then, along with the meal came cottage fries, a delicious pan-seared version with chunks of potato browned in butter and served like a potato pancake. There are vegetables to be had, of course, but they are extra. Unless you're very hungry or feel like you must have something virtuous visible on the table, don't bother.
The main event was the sirloin, also suggested by the waiter as the most traditional of the traditional meat dishes. Perfectly cooked to medium rare, the steak succumbed easily to the knife, and the flavors from the extra weeks of special aging in the Smith & Wollensky cellars filled the mouth. There are other meat dishes, too: The prime rib usually causes gasps as it arrives hanging off the edge of the plate, and the filet mignon is so thick and tall that you wonder what sized mammoth was slaughtered for you.
Don't quibble about dessert either: Cheesecake, hot deep-dish apple pie with vanilla sauce, homemade Austrian strudel and pecan pie are all part of Smith & Wollensky's traditional feast.
The wine list wins points too. A winner of The Wine Spectator's Grand Award for Excellence since 1987, it highlights American wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignons from California. Napa Valley wines such as Beaulieu, Beringer, Caymus, Diamond Creek, Dunn, Heitz, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Spottswoode, Silver Oak and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are all well represented. From Sonoma, Jordan dominates the listings while Ridge tops the other regional California appellations.
Prices are not low, although there are good deals on the better-known wines. Also, there is a significant selection of bigger bottles with rarities like the Robert Mondavi Reserve 1974 in a double magnum, or jeroboam. If you can't find what you want on the main list, ask for the cellar list of older vintages.
Don't worry about cigar smoking here. When asked over the telephone about its cigar policy, the maître d' said, "Smoke, drink--you can do whatever you want here." Cigar smoking is restricted to the smoking section. But the restaurant has made a new commitment to cigars by acquiring a cart for its humidor, both specially made by Davidoff, and Davidoff cigars are kept for customers.
Don't be shy. Smith & Wollensky's entire reason for being is to flout a lot of the diet and life-style conventions that have arisen over the last two decades in the United States. Red meat. Good wine. A fine cigar. All is right with the world.
-- Gordon Mott
Smith & Wollensky
797 Third Avenue
Phone: (212) 753-1530
Lunch: $55--$60 per person without wine
Dinner: $65--$70 per person without wine