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A Tale of Two Steakhouses

For a more recent review of Craftsteak, click here

This week, I head meals at two steakhouses I’ve reviewed before: Wolfgang’s TriBeCa and Craftsteak. Both appear to be midlly struggling restaurants, although for different reasons. Wolfgang’s had lengthy opening delays. I’ve been in there twice now, and while the restaurant certainly doesn’t seem to be failing in any sense, it certainly doesn’t have the heavy crowds that the original Wolfgang’s did. It appears you can walk in just about any time and get a table.

Craftsteak ought to have been a sure bet, with a celebrity chef/owner (Tom Colicchio) who has been successful wherever he went and a brand name (Craft) that has always stood for quality. But the restaurant was pilloried in one review after another for the same highly peculiar reasons: Craftsteak didn’t know how to cook a steak; the menu was over-wrought and wordy. How hard could it be? Manhattan is overflowing with competent steakhouses. Surely steak is the one thing a steakhouse should know how to prepare. But apparently Craftsteak did not. In two separate interviews, Colicchio admitted they had blown it, and he even arranged an amicable split with partner Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern so that he could focus on his Craft properties.

At Wolfgang’s this week, I ordered the New York Strip. At $36.50, it is one of the better steak prices in New York City. It came sizzling hot, perfectly charred on the outside, achingly tender on the inside. The steak was sliced in the traditional Peter Luger style. My server not only served the first several slices, but kept returning to my table to serve more. For quality and attention, it could not be beat. Wolfgang’s is a traditional steakhouse, populated mostly by businessmen. It is not for everybody. But in its genre, Wolfgang’s is doing a superb job.

At Craftsteak too, it was no problem to just waltz in and ask for a table. Unlike Wolfgang’s, Craftsteak has the trappings of a high-end restaurant. I actually saw two tables with only women seated. There was a tasty amuse-bouche of a cube of goat cheese on a thin wafer. At the end of my meal, a plate of petits-fours was dropped off. Wolfgang’s has neither. Both restaurants have better-than-average bread service, but Craftsteak’s piping-hot Parker-house rolls in a cast-iron serving dish are some of the best in the city. A side dish of Wagyu confit potatoes was excellent.

Both the dinner and the dessert menu at Craftsteak are reprinted daily. (At Wolfgang’s, it probably won’t be reprinted until the prices go up.) The menu has changed considerably since the last time I saw it. It no longer prints the biography of every slaughtered cow it sells, although there is still a choice between grass-fed and corn-fed beef. The strip steak is now offered at three different ages (28, 42, and 56-day), rather than six. The Wagyu offerings have been simplified too. The old Craftsteak was offering far too many options.

But ultimately, we must judge a place like Crafsteak for its steak. And again last night, Craftsteak stumbled. I decided to splurge for the New York Strip aged 56 days. This is apparently the house’s signature item. At $52, it is the most expensive entrée you can order, except for Wagyu beef and steaks for two (porterhouse or ribeye, $88). I also thought it would be a useful comparison to the strip at Wolfgang’s, which is only $36.50.

Early on, Craftsteak was criticized for not putting a char on the outside of its steaks. The menu still says roasted, so I explicitly asked for a medium-rare temperature with charring on the outside. “Pittsburgh medium rare,” my server responded. I have never heard the term “Pittsburgh” applied to steak, but he assured me that this meant it would be charred. If the steak was charred, you could have fooled me. There was no char on the exterior that I could detect.

Inside, the steak was indeed medium rare, but it was tough and chewy. This is what 56-day aging gets you? Wolfgang’s doesn’t tell you how long their strip steak is aged, but for $15.50 less, the New York Strip at Wolfgang’s runs circles around Craftsteak.

I decided to give dessert a try. A pound cake topped with raspberries and ice cream was wonderful, as indeed was everything about Craftsteak that isn’t a steak. If Tom Colicchio could only figure out how to prepare a steak, he might have a three-star restaurant. But what good is a steakhouse that can’t do steak?

Wolfgang’s TriBeCa (409 Greenwich St. between Beach & Hubert Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **

Craftsteak (85 Tenth Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets, Chelsea)

Food: mediocre steak, everything else very good or excellent
Service: **½
Ambiance: **½
Overall: *