Pricey but precious steak


POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing about restaurants was easier when I was younger, essentially a child, and saw the world in a wash of gray over mostly black and white. There was food that was great, average and poor, and I thought most people shared the same experiences and perceptions. After all, are we not one big ohana here in the islands, weaned on Spam and poke?




Wolfgang's Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener

        Royal Hawaiian Center, third floor, Building C / 922-3600

Food: **** 
        Service: ***1/2
        Ambience: **** 
        Value: ***


Hours: 5 to 10:30 p.m. today, then adding hours 11:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, and 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday brunch service slated to start Feb. 28


Cost: About $150 for two without drinks


Ratings compare similar restaurants: **** - excellent; *** - very good; exceeds expectations; ** - average; * - below average.


But I puzzled over reasons restaurants I liked failed while mediocre ones thrived, and I began to take note of a vast disparity in tastes and experiences, as well as the existence of a mindset closed to that beyond what's comfortable and familiar.

So I began to examine the bigger picture and began to view restaurants more as business models aimed toward different strata of society. It doesn't correct for the multitude of perceptions out there, but does allow me to strike a balance that enables me to comfortably share my opinions and standards while acknowledging individual preferences.

A restaurant like Wolfgang's Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener, whose selling point is connoisseurship, poses a bigger challenge than usual. By definition, connoisseurs represent an elite group marked by experience, knowledge and sophistication. They will understand where Zwiener is coming from.

I can already hear the hordes ranting about the near-$50 steak at a time when some struggle to put Happy Meals on the table, even as they hold onto $60 phone plans. But everyone has priorities and for some it is food.

This is the bottom line: If you can afford Wolfgang's, it's great. If you can't fathom the idea of a $50 steak, don't bother. You won't appreciate the work that went into bringing it to your table.

It's unfortunate that the restaurant opened at a time Hawaii's economy is struggling. Two years ago it would have been packed by purists in search of dry-aged beef and the simplest preparations that allow its flavor and natural fattiness to star. That's right. No butter, no herbs and no seasoning save for a light sprinkling of salt. And it's enough.

Zwiener is among a vanishing breed of restaurateurs who still believes in connoisseurship over theatrics. He built his reputation over 40 years at the legendary Peter Luger's in New York. I believe it when his reps say he still hand-selects all the beef — drawing on long relationships with New York wholesalers — served in his steakhouses. He's taken a hands-on approach at his Waikiki restaurant throughout opening week, watching over operations and checking up on guests, bringing in that old-fashioned ideal of palpable hospitality.

On this side of the country, however, his name is not as well known as that other Wolfgang, last name Puck. I noticed that in conversations about Wolfgang's Steakhouse that interest dissipated when I mentioned it wasn't that Wolfgang.

WOLFGANG'S STEAKHOUSE is one of the first I've ever seen overstaffed. It feels like magic to be able to turn to your left or right and ask any waiter for what you need at the time. I'm not sure how long it will last, but at the moment it's great.

That's not to say they all know what they're doing yet. The menu is lean and mean with a little more than 30 items, so I was surprised when our waiter didn't know what the lobster cocktail ($21.95) was. I just ordered it because it was different from the usual shrimp ($17.95) or crab ($19.95) cocktail, when I should have expected the ordinary marinara presentation. A split 1-pound lobster tail was served dry and flavorless, served in its shell. If our waiter could have described the dish, I would have skipped it in favor of the broiled or steamed 3-pound lobster (market price).

Almost the entire room ordered Wolfgang's Salad ($14.95) because of the name attached, but I found it to be rather ordinary, with a mix of beans and shrimp atop ordinary lettuce. What made this dish were crouton-size morsels of thick Canadian bacon, and you'd get more of it by ordering the sizzling Canadian bacon appetizer ($3.95). You also have options of a mixed green salad ($9.95), Caesar ($10.75), beefsteak tomatoes and onions ($13.95) or mozzarella and beefsteak tomatoes ($13.95). The latter is what I'd try next time.

You must try the crab cake ($18.95 for one). I have looked long and hard for a credible version, and this is the best I've encountered here. In addition to the steak, it is one of the best things on the menu, with generous pieces of blue crab meat with a scant amount of breadcrumbs and binders.

The restaurant is best known for its porterhouse, prime corn-fed beef that's been aged 28 days. Order it for two ($94.95), three ($143.95) or four ($191.95). The dry-aging process causes moisture to evaporate while concentrating the flavor of the beef and tenderizing it as connective tissues break down. The cost of storage and constant inspection has rendered it a nearly lost art. The meat is initially selected for even marbling throughout, is broiled at 1,600 degrees, and arrives sizzling with juices and fat jumping. Both flavor and texture are amazing and stand out mightily against a typical flat slab of meat.

You can also choose filet mignon ($47.95), prime New York sirloin ($47.95), rib eye ($47.95) or a lamb chop ($43.95). Beyond the bacon, there's no other pork or chicken on the menu, but there is grilled Chilean sea bass ($34.95), yellowfin tuna ($34.95) and wild salmon ($29.95), which turned out to be a plump 10-ounce fillet, also simply salted.

As for sides, you can get your potato baked ($6.95), mashed ($9.95), steak-fried ($11.95) or prepared German style ($13.95). The mash puree was a little too smooth for comfort, but I grew more fond of it as a leftover. The baked potato didn't come with all the condiments other restaurants provide, so the accompaniments of sour cream and chives just seemed skimpy at first. But this restaurant just doesn't do overkill, only wanting to emphasize clarity of the tasting experience which might get lost under a load of butter, seasonings, bacon bits and cheese. In fact, we tried asking for a bit of cheese, and there is none to be had here. I've said it before, cheese is often used to mask an abundance of sins and mistakes.

If you must have something else on your potato, you can always order the sauteed mushrooms ($12.95), another marvel of firm, savory goodness. Other sides include fried onion rings ($9.95), broccoli ($9.95) that's boring but good for you, steamed asparagus ($12.95) and creamed spinach ($9.95) that isn't creamy at all and retains more of its spinach flavor.

For dessert we had to have cheesecake imported from landmark Junior's and accompanied by Wolfgang's whipped cream “;schlag”; for a real taste of old New York.



Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.