Once upon a time, in the days before the '70s Restaurant renaissance, upper-crust dining in Philadelphia was defined by exclusive clubs, steak houses, fish houses and grand hotels.
The private clubs and fish houses have withered, and noted local steak houses such as Arthur's and Frankie Bradley's have given way to predictable corporate chains. As for the old hotels, many of those have faded, too. None was grander than the Barclay on Rittenhouse Square, which, by the time of its post-bankruptcy revival as a luxury condo in 2000, had no hot water and plenty of ghost stories.
It might seem ironic, then, that a steak house in the renovated Barclay is putting the swank back into Center City dining. But Barclay Prime is more than just another $100 cheesesteak. Barclay Prime is the decadent splurge we've been missing in our dalliances with BYOs, a sexy revamp of the staid chophouse genre, and a second chance for glamour dining in one of the city's historic rooms.
Restaurateur Stephen Starr hired Parisian designer India Mahdavi, and she has captured here an ideal balance of old and new. The sprawling bar near the entrance is a low-lit netherworld of dark wood Ivy League accents, high-backed leather chairs and a checkerboard marble floor. The large main dining room beyond is sleekly bright and modern, its ornately coffered ceiling painted ivory, and a library of rich walnut wood cubes filled with art books floating on the wall. With a gentle push from the server, impossibly comfy green and white leather chairs glide beneath you. Settle in for extravagance.
Is that wide receiver Freddie Mitchell over there noshing his usual order of slider burgers and lamb chops medium-well on the eve of a big playoff game? Where else could he woo a Sports Illustrated columnist by ordering him a kobe beef cheesesteak laden with lobster and molten Taleggio cheese and so many shaved Perigord truffles they look like polka dots on a bun?
The cheesesteak, by the way, is as good as gimmicks come, a mouthful of firework flavors dimmed only by the sweetness of the brioche roll. With a complimentary split of champagne, it's best as a four-person appetizer, rather than a single entree. The rest of the food is so good it would be a shame if it ended there.
The menu designed by opening chef Todd Miller (now at Washington Square), and maintained nicely by executive chef James Locascio, has been uniformly stellar. The format, similar to nouveau steak houses in other cities, elaborates on the familiar model by recasting the classics with better ingredients and refining all the trimmings.
There is serious cooking in every dish, whether it's the exquisite shaved vegetable salad, where a dozen perfect vegetables tangle like noodles in truffled vinaigrette, or pastry chef Frank Urso's fanciful desserts.
But there is no denying the Barclay's meat. All of the chops are superb. None, though, are as extraordinary as the rib-eye. Procured from New York's Gachot & Gachot, the 20-ounce slab of 21-day aged beef is worth every cent of its $42. One bite of its heat-charred crust and tender juice-soaked meat, and I was magnetized to the plate. Each forkful stoked such a primal, savory glow that my inner carnivore howled until it was gone. This was steak with a swagger.
Too bad our wine was meek. At two separate dinners, I asked the sommelier for a bottle around $80 that could stand up to one of the big chops. Both times, he chose wines that were pretty but lacking oomph, an Oregon pinot noir from Domaine Serene ($90) and a Napa merlot from Twomey ($88). The big list's overzealous markups make it hard to find a great wine for less. And when you see a $15 screw-cap shiraz-cab like Lucky Country marked up to $65, or get stuck $20 (yikes!) for a pour of Oban Scotch, it's no mystery why folks have turned to BYOBs in droves.
That Lucky Country, incidentally, was knocked down to a reasonable $42 after I pointed it out. But it's a trend Barclay might pursue further, considering that drink-gouging is one of the few reservations I had in bestowing a fourth bell. This is as close as any new restaurant has come to landing the distinction during its debut.
The service could also tone down its enthusiasm a notch. Granted, I'd rather my servers be friendly and pleasant than stuffy and cold, but the staff here was almost a caricature of solicitous excess. Our waiter's 10-minute spiel dissolved into an uncomfortable cocktail of food porn and personal motivation.
Honestly, the food is good enough that it requires no hard sell.
The $14 kobe "slider" mini-burgers may be even better than the cheesesteak - two White Castle-sized fistfuls of savory meat on truffle-crisped buns that deliver more beefy punch in a few bites than any super-sized pretender.
I've also been dreaming of the Barclay's butter-poached lobster, a three-pound beauty that beckoned from the plate like a fiery plume of crustacean. Incredibly tender and sweet, it was like eating butter with texture.
The kitchen pays a nice homage to all the luxury classics. I discovered an exquisite farm-raised caviar from Italy called Black Pearl, served atop coin-sized homemade blini, that was impossible to stop eating. The beef tartare was cleverly presented two ways, with a ball of minced filet flavored with tarragon and toasted basmati rice posed over a fan of shaved carpaccio sparkling with edges of pepper.
The crabcakes were a mild disappointment, notably meaty but dry. The oysters Rockefeller, though, were perfect, a bit unconventional with a dusting of bacon, but cooked just enough and draped with the nutmeg-scented silk of Barclay's creamed spinach.
The spinach is only one of the great a la carte sides. A saute of mushrooms blends as many as seven different wild mushrooms. The fluffy mashed potatoes come truffled or plain. The kitchen also produces a wide variety of marvelous a la carte sauces, from classic to nouveau, but with meats like this, I hardly thought to use them.
That's how I usually feel about the pedestrian desserts at most typical steak houses. But Frank Urso's confections are a highlight. His all-American sundae was a standard at its most refined, with homemade chocolate and vanilla ice creams, toasted almonds, and fruit compotes steeped from scratch. I loved the ginger-spiced pineapple upside-down cake, as well as the unusual banana cream, a crisp phyllo ring that unleashes a flood of caramel-soaked fruit when you crack the sides.
My favorite, though, was the toasted peanut butter s'mores, which slipped peanut butter ice cream into finger sandwiches between morsels of chocolate torte, graham crackers and disks of house-made marshmallows that are sticky and warm to the touch when roasted. Not exactly the finale of long-ago dining glory, but it feels grand here.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.