August 8, 2005
MY DINNER AT BLT PRIME
Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” filled the room as I entered BLT Prime the other night. The bar was about five deep, stocked with handsome men in suits throwing back vodkas on the rocks and assorted micro-brewed beers while attempting to mingle with slinky babes sipping glasses of Sancerre and light pink cocktails. It felt like a frat party for urban adults—a professional playpen for gym-focused hotties and babes. I made my way through the crowd and found Jamie waiting for me at the bar, where she had managed to score us two empty seats. The blond woman next to me, a cute little thing with freckles and bright baby blues, was on the phone with her friend, but stopped her conversation to complement me on my dress: “I LOOOOOVE your dress!! I think I have the same one! Is that Anthropologie?” Yes, indeed we had the same dress, but hers was about 6 sizes smaller than mine. We discussed how much we loved the dress for a moment longer (sometimes my conversations are just so deep), and then she went back to her cocktail (this one lipstick pink), and her conversation, and Jamie and I ordered another round of wine while we waited for Susie. We had been looking forward to a reunion—Susie had been traveling in India and China for work for weeks, and the three of us had not had a proper meal together in a while. BLT Prime was on our list. And let me just get this out of the way right now—it was pretty damn great.
BLT Prime is the third in a string of Bistro Laurent Tourondels that began with Steak, and proceeded with Fish. And it clearly feels like a relative, marked by the same bones and style. In terms of design, all the BLT restaurants feel to me like the Banana Republic or the Pottery Barn of bistros—urbane and lofty, minimalist yet warm, all together sleekly chic. As for the food, the menu may read routine steakhouse fare—dry-aged steaks, chops, fish and shellfish, sauces, vegetables, and potatoes—but it is about as far from ordinary as George Bush is from having a functioning brain that is touch with reality. This food is hands down outstanding. Tourondel’s formula is winning: simple recipes that startle with perfect seasoning, impeccable technique, and a welcome dose of silliness.
A perfect example of this formula is a side dish—blue cheese tater tots. Come on people. Are you not smiling just simply reading about these? Try tasting them and your smile will be turned into a body quiver and an audible moan. We all cried out at the same time, our eyes closing slowly. People around us stared. We did not care. Tourondel’s tots—not shaped alike squat cylindrical nuggets, as those of our Oreda youth, but like fat golden coins, filled with creamy mashed potatoes and a hot, melting blue cheese center—are definitely edible pleasure. (Careful though. I burned my tongue on a squirt of hot cheese. My work is so dangerous.) The tots are among a list of potato sides ($7) that includes potato skins, mashed potatoes (delicious roughly mashed up buttery fingerlings with the skin on), and a skillet of puff ball-sized parmesan gnocchi that are ethereal, melting, light as air, crowned with a pile of finely shredded fresh Parmesan. More edible joy here, Tourondel’s vegetable sides ($8) are also worth exploring in some depth. Take for instance his creamed corn succotash—cream being a key ingredient, balanced with some smoky bacon, and stocked up with snap peas, and firm kernels of corn, popping with sweetness. His creamed spinach is as much of an edible narcotic at Prime as it is up at BLT Steak. This is far to rich to be called a vegetable. It should be called cream, with a good intention of being spinach. The placement of Onion Rings in the “vegetable” category is also hilarious. If you have had the onion rings at BLT Steak, you know what I mean. They arrive in a tall stack, lined up from largest on the base to smallest at the top, battered and golden, like a tower of glazed donuts. These onions may have at one point been vegetables, but that was a long time ago, in their youth in the ground.
As you can tell, BLT Prime is not for those with a desire to eat light. Tourondel’s menu takes pleasure in indulgence, and while you are there, I encourage you to do the same. You can diet another time, say, when you are dead. (That’s been my philosophy most of my life. Not sure you want to emulate this mantra, but it’s worked for me so far.) Nevertheless, if you’d like to take a less hedonistic approach to dinner, appetizers do play to the lighter side.
We started with a few salads because we knew we would be eating several sides of beef for dinner. We began with a classic Caesar Salad ($10), which was correct in every way—fresh ribs of romaine tossed so the crunchy green lettuce limbs were just coated in a perfectly tangy dressing—not too oily, not to cheesy, not too fishy. Score one for BLT Prime. Other salads were also impressive. The Spinach Salad ($12) arrived in a big white bowl filled with fresh baby spinach leaves, crumbled bits of Maytag blue cheese, sliced button mushrooms, and hunks of nicely crisped bacon in a basic vinaigrette that let the contrasting flavors of the salad’s ingredients take center stage. The Roasted Beets with Fresh Goat Cheese ($11) were also quite more exciting that I had anticipated. The beets are shaved into thin rounds, then paired up and filled with a layer of chevre, like little beet and cheese sandwiches, drizzled with a bright vinaigrette with a side of fluffy microgreens. A modern Tuna Tartare ($14) is also terrific. The glistening hand-cut tartar is shaped like a Rubic’s cube, rested on a bed of creamy diced avocado, and then lowered onto a pool of lip-licking soy-citrus sauce.
While Tourondel is best known for fish, we stuck to an all beef diet for entrees. BLT Prime serves USDA Prime and Certified Black Angus meat, aged in-house in a dry aging room that is visible just past the frat party at the bar. The dry aging insures that the steaks are buttery, intensely flavored, and quite easy to demolish, and the kitchen helps is along by broiling it at 1200 degrees, for one of the best chars in town.
We chose two steaks to share between the three of us, to which we added about a half a dozen sides. There was so much food on the table that a leaf had to be pulled up to accommodate our feast. Again, people stared. The five-spiced American Kobe ($44) was everything you want a slab of beef to be—super tender and just past rare on the inside, saturated with flavor, and charred and spicy on the outside. Ditto for the New York Strip ($42), which I actually preferred to the Kobe. It had more depth of flavor, more chew and grain, and more marbling. The char on that skirt steak was also brilliant— delivering meaty juices through a smoky crust burnished with a good dose of sea salt. It’s the sort of meat that makes you both happy and proud to be a carnivore.
At this point, after two bottles of wine (which we were all poured a sample of to taste, a nice touch), and a meal fit for a dozen full grown men, we ordered dessert. Yes we are heathens. The desserts are displayed on a large table to the side of the open kitchen. You must walk past them when you are being seated and on most trips to the bathroom. The effect of this dessert gallery is to make it impossible for you not to order at least one. Coveting them from a distance for the duration of dinner creates not only desire, but also insistent need. But sadly, the desserts ($9) were the weakest link. Sundaes are oversized and fun, but way too sweet—glopped on with too many sugary sauces and treats. The Lemon Meringue pie looked beautiful, but was also cloying and the meringue had an odd Styrofoam texture to it. The Raspberry Layer Cake, a beautiful layer cake dotted with pink flowers that looked as though it should have been served at a Bat Mitzvah, was also way too sweet, to the point of giving me a sugar headache. These desserts are quite pretty to look at, but they unfortunately miss the mark. Had I known this in advance, I would have ordered another round of tater tots, a side of onion rings, and a possibly a beef brisket. Oh well, next time.
BLT Prime is located at 111 East 22nd Street, off Park Avenue South, 212-995-8500.