Porterhouse for two – Review of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse
440 Ninth Avenue
212-244-0005 / unclejacks.com/newyorkcityrestaurants
BY DALY CLEMENT
If you want a free taste of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse , just visit their website and turn up your speakers. The music? Yes, that’s a digitized rendition of New York, New York. You want a martini, baby? A steak cooked up real nice? Badda Bing! You want a joint with some real class? A place that doesn’t look like the New York section of Disneyworld? Fuggetaboutit.
Everything about Uncle Jack’s was probably a little gauche by the time Old Blue Eyes fled his little town blues. I knew what I was getting myself into, in other words, and just hoped that a ridiculous restaurant could cook ridiculously delicious steak.
Could it? Yes. The steak was more than adequate. Not Luger (or any number of restaurants that will cook high quality, dry aged porterhouse at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit) but good. Was the tenderloin a bit dry? Was it missing a certain depth that signals the very best aging? Perhaps, though 95% of the meat was flavorful, well crusted and pleasantly chewy. A B+ steak.
But with the porterhouse $45 per person, you had better serve a good steak. Some steakhouses may serve meat so outrageously tender, with flavor so rich and nutty, that other dishes merely take up valuable space. They’re neutral if they’re sides – almost like palate cleaners between bites of beautifully charred beef – and starters only coat the stomach in preparation for carnivorous ecstasy. Think caprese or raw oysters.
This happens to be exactly what me and my dining companion started with. The caprese was first, and though it isn’t something that a tomato snob like me would normally order mid-winter, it seemed like a good first test. February tomatoes, uncouth as they are in an age of locavorism (it bears mentioning that the restaurant advertises serving “organic produce” grown on “one of Long Island’s top rated organic farms”) probably say something about the restaurant if they’re actually good.
They were not so good – I put them to the side and ate only the decent buffalo mozzarella (it was real – nothing else tastes the same) and fresh basil. And this wouldn’t have been so bad. But as if the chef were trying to compensate for lousy tomatoes, everything was covered in a joy-killing balsamic reduction that I had to carefully scrape from my basil leaves. The last time I tasted similar dressing was in the dining room of a nursing home. It was much better on iceberg lettuce.
Our fresh oysters, thank god, were not covered in sauce. I’ve never met an oyster that I didn’t like, but these malpeques were more suited for $1 oyster happy hour than $3 steakhouse oysters. They were a bit muddy and I found myself hitting the lemon more than I’d usually prefer.
By this point I was watching diners around us eat steak and getting hungry. Baked clams were on the way but nothing was boding well for those. So the dish was ultimately a bit surprising – nothing about the cherrystones was noticeably off, even if they were a bit chewy. To my taste, clamminess should eclipse the breading, but by that point we had adjusted our expectations.
And this brings us again to the steak. It was heading out of the kitchen just as I scraped the final clam from its shell, so it arrived hot and on time. Everything arrived on time, actually, and I didn’t spend a moment wishing for something that wasn’t there. Perhaps I’ve been jaded by a city where restaurants can get away with high prices and mediocre service, but the attentiveness of the staff at Uncle Jack’s was actually a bit over the top. Does this sound like a complaint? It isn’t. I found the retro service fun; still, I’m glad that most restaurants don’t maintain such a strict “no crumbs on the table” policy.
The staff was perfectly restrained while we enjoyed our tasty steak with sides of overcreamed spinach and watery mashed potatoes. Uncle Jack’s has a fairly reasonable corkage fee for a steakhouse (as in, they have one) so I skipped a very overpriced list to open my 2005 Domaine Hauts Chassis “Les Chassis” Crozes-Hermitage . It was rich, fruity and satisfying – a pretty good wine for some pretty good steak.
One final word of advice for anyone who hasn’t written off Uncle Jack’s: skip the crème brulée. It’s cold, crusty pudding and a terrible send off.
Imagine that inclement weather has you stranded in Penn Station. You’re pretty hungry, it’s a business trip – why not just expense a hefty steak, perhaps a cocktail? Uncle Jack’s is only a block away, but I’d recommend something else. It’s only a short walk to Keens, after all.