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Off the chuck wagon 

When it's time to indulge, take a bite out of New York Prime

Don't you hate it when your skinniest friends announce they're going on diets? They motion to their flat, trim middles and gripe, "Just 5 percent less body fat and I'll finally be where I want!" Harrumph. I used to glare at them hostilely and lecture them about America's warped perception of body image. Now I just lure them to fattening restaurants.

When I'm feeling particularly mischievous, I tempt the waistline-watchers to join me at a steakhouse. At first they might protest, but I know how to work the angles. "It's a la carte," I argue. "You won't have to eat any starchy stuff. And if you want to avoid red meat, order something lighter." They cave. I smirk inwardly. Gotcha.

Such has been the setup during my recent visits to New York Prime, Buckhead's latest shrine to beef. I give my amigos specific driving directions from Lenox Road (after all, I don't want them to be late for their unsuspected gorge fest): The turn-off to Monarch Drive across from Phipps Plaza can be tricky. Miss it and you'll be pulling some illegal u-turn action to reach the snazzy office building in which the restaurant is ensconced.

The space, most recently a Chequers, has been transformed into a traditional take on the steakhouse look. Wood is everywhere. The floors are so polished I want to take off my shoes and slide around on them like a 5-year-old. A lively group gathers nightly at the rectangular bar while a guy in the corner sings either lite R&B hits from the '80s or Harry Connick Jr. covers, depending on whose performing. Soft light radiates from slim, wrought iron chandeliers.

Steakhouses across the country tend to stick to the same basic culinary formula -- what sets each apart are the quality and aging of their steaks, the care in crafting their sides and starters, and the details to which their servers pay attention. New York Prime's owners Bobby Donlan (for many years a maitre d' at nearby Bone's) and Jerry Greenbaum (who owns Green's liquor stores, along with other restaurants around town) bring an experienced hand to the business of running this kind of establishment. The principal successes here, much to my roguish delight, are the most decadent ones.

You can tell the beef is superlative just from the rich, mineral aromas wafting through the restaurant. Servers in steward's jackets zoom white-clothed carts through the dining room, delivering sizzling steaks on white hot plates. I have a difficult time ordering anything but the New York strip -- a thick, marbled cut with magnificent, beefy depth. For friends who need cajoling, I suggest splitting the 24-ounce New York strip for two, sliced and propped on the table at a slight angle so the juices drip down for sopping up.

Of course, once you're sitting in the lion's den it's hard to resist the allure of a good steak, so most folks break down without much wheedling: Who wants garlic chicken or salmon with portabella mushrooms when you can savor a tender filet mignon or an intense, succulent rib-eye?

I have one caution about the steaks here. At one meal, they were seriously over-charred. Don't get me wrong -- a good char is necessary to seal in the juices and add texture. But the crusts of these steaks were like licking the inside of a used grill grate. During the next visit the char was perfect, but don't hesitate to hail a server if you find yourself sawing off a substantial portion of blackened beef.

I haven't been impressed with the salads. The Caesar is frustratingly nondescript and the sliced tomatoes with the hearts of lettuce are anemic and cottony. There's a crazy chopped salad whose ingredients include hearts of palm, blue cheese, almonds and anchovies mixed in with watery iceberg.

Better to start with a protein blast from the sea. The specimens in the shrimp cocktail are humongous but surprisingly not overcooked, and served with two spiky sauces. Oysters Rockefeller, whose misshapen shells groan under a salty mass of creamed spinach, parmesan crumbs and bacon, are over the top but fine for sharing. The incessantly caloric, sherry-laced shellfish bisque has generous chunks of crab and shrimp.

As for sides, I don't even consult my tablemates: I simply order an abundance of potato-based dishes. Oh, they start off with just a clump of garlicky spinach on their plate, but sho 'nuf they'll soon be reaching for the hash browns or lyonnaise (hash browns with onions), satisfyingly greasy and, at their best, glossed with a nice burn. Avoid the cheese-mashed potatoes. They use American cheese and it leaves a plastic sheen on the roof of your mouth. But the giant baked potato, which the servers mash with bacon, chives, sour cream and butter on the ever-present cart tableside, is mouthwatering.

Even the breadbasket is filled with a yummy, hard-to-resist variety of nibblies. Cheers, carbs for everyone!

Then, I finish 'em off with the sweets. "What, no dessert? That's OK, I'll just order a piece of banana cream pie for myself." (Tee-hee.) The pie has a nutty cookie crust and a voluptuous custard filling. All resistance melts. It's gone in five seconds.

Their Atkins/South Beach/Sugar Busters diet successfully wrecked for the evening, my dining cohorts stumble out holding their stomachs, promising to be at the gym at 5:30 in the morning. I just wave goodbye, tip the valet guy generously and hop in my car, chuckling to myself. Gotcha again.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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