Witnessing Arlington Club’s Laurent Tourondel & Paul Goldstein Respond To NYT Review

While the steakhouse remains a particularly American concept, nothing’s more enjoyable than the sound of a Frenchman saying “piece of boeuf.” And though the pairing of chef Laurent Tourondel’s steakhouse variation with a punch of TAO Group atmosphere is less than conventional, it seems more than a good idea. Arlington Club, which opened last fall, has already made itself necessary; it’s a fine-dining spot on the Upper East Side with the energy to push past a nine o’clock bedtime.

The high-ceilinged, vaguely steampunky dining room lends itself to a party more than Maloney & Porcelli’s equestrian portrait hall, but conversation dictates the volume; there’s no Rihanna-fueled dancing on tables a-la sister properties TAO and Lavo. But the front bar is buzzing enough to have a waiting list of its own, and greeting one’s neighboring table is common practice.

The menu, which still features a 28-day dry-aged New York Strip and filet, has a pretty loose adherence to steakhouse orthodoxy. The two cuts that come most recommended—a cote du boeuf (for two) and an American Wagyu skirt steak—are abutted by seven available sauces. The macaroni and cheese comes as a ramekin of rigatoni noodles, stood on end like soldiers and crusted on top (with a crème brule torch?). The meal starts with a bowl of hot popovers, cheese-crusted on top, and just-baked on the inside. Old-school touches, like Brooklyn-gassed seltzer bottles and halved pickles, trade off with more novel steakhouse offerings. For example, they’re doing brunch.

But so far, the only sticking point has been the presence of sushi in the top corner of the menu (the main roll is an Osaka-style spicy tuna with Sriracha). But as critics scrunch their noses, the chef contends they’ve barely kept up with the demand from guests. That’s not to say the reviews don’t matter—Tourondel’s BLT restaurants and LT Burger have garnered him an esteemed reputation among critics over the years.

And when I sat down with Tourondel and TAO Group partner Paul Goldstein last week, their publicists were compulsively tapping their phones to refresh the New York Times Dining page. Halfway through this interview, Pete Wells’ piece went up. Wait for it.

You started cooking in the French Navy, but did they train you as an infantryman?
Laurent Tourondel: Yeah, I’m a sniper.

Really?
LT: No, I’m joking. But I was in France—I was in a hotel, actually. They put me at the private hotel of the Admiral. So we were, like, fifteen [of us] inside the private hotel of the Admiral, clueless about the Army, clueless about the Navy. And one day we receive a phone call from the base. And they say someone’s going to attack the Admiral’s house, and it’s going to be an aircraft carrier from America. So the Marines, they attack the house. And in something like three minutes and fifty seconds, they tied me up, tied the guy up. And we were like, what are you guys doing? We’re not here to do war! But it was an exercise. Someone had told us there was going to be an exercise, but we didn’t know when, it was very vague.

Is the steakhouse a uniquely American thing?
LT: Definitely, I don’t think there is any other meat-specializing restaurant around the world.

Then what drew you to steak and burgers?
LT: Well, it was not really French cooking, so for me it was something different to explore. I like learning different things so, you know, it was a big challenge for me to make it successful. You know, I’m a big fan of this meat—the American beef.

Do you have strong opinions about which cuts you like and which ones you don’t?
LT: Very much so. If you come to eat and you ask me, I’ll tell you, I dis-recommend a porterhouse. I will recommend you a skirt steak, I will recommend you a good New York steak because here, we actually have an amazing New York steak. It’s prime, top quality beef.

There are a handful of steak sauces on the menu. Is that something that gets the thumbs-up?
LT: Yeah, I think it’s good to give people options. It’s part of the sharing process at the table, and sharing is what we oriented this restaurant around. It’s very much about the center of the table—everybody shares.

Is Arlington Club looking to build an atmosphere similar to Lavo and Tao?
Paul Goldstein: It’s a bit toned down. We go into every one of our properties with a vision, but we also just go with it. Lavo wasn’t meant to be this dancing-on-tables-and-chairs party atmosphere, but it just kind of played out like that, and it worked. And we thought Arlington Club was going to be a little bit more fine dining than any of our other restaurants, and it is. But we’re getting a fun crowd, which is creating a little bit of a buzz. You know, at a point we thought it would be fine dining, and now it’s just more fun dining. We get that earlier crowd that likes that fine dining, and then 7:30pm, 8pm, it turns into the Upper East Side who’s who.

How have you managed to be successful at bringing in crowds late at night in this neighborhood?
PG: We create a buzz. It’s turned into a little bit of a destination spot for the downtown crowd.

So people are coming up?
PG: Some people are coming up—I think it’s more of the downtown crowd that lives uptown, that doesn’t want to go downtown. I heard a story about Blue Ribbon—when they started Blue Ribbon, it was dead. And they were like, we got to push it, we got to stay with it, we want to be that late-night spot. And two, three years into it, the chefs started coming, people started hearing about it being a late-night spot, and it’s now obviously what it is today, packed ’til four, five o’clock in the morning every single night. And that’s kind of something that we always think about. If we keep on pushing it, and keep on pushing it, we’ll eventually be able to get that crowd.

Is it difficult to get through that three-year period before you wind up where you really want to be? Is there the threat of things shutting down before you get there?
PG: Fortunately, you know, we’re there. I don’t want to be, um . . . I just think that we have a decent reputation for creating a bar scene, creating a little bit of a vibe. And we’re getting it. Guests like coming in later.

LT:It’s amazing to me because I had a restaurant on 77th street, and we used to do early seatings. But last night, it was like ten o’clock, and we had, I don’t know, seventy people that just sat down. It was crazy, you know?

And that’s not something you’ve experienced before?
LT: Not in this neighborhood, no.

PG: (to his publicist) Did it come out?

Publicist: We’re being told that, yes.

PG: And?

Publicist: Opening it. 2 stars.

(A moment later, applause erupted from the kitchen. Pete Wells gave the restaurant a great review overall, pointing to the sushi as the one awkward mistake, and diagnosing an “identity crisis” based on the deviations from standard steakhouse food and atmosphere).

PG: He loves that. The whole “identity crisis” thing.

Well, what was the inspiration for combining sushi with a more traditional steakhouse menu?
LT: You know, I think what we wanted to do was provide a different kind of appetizer. So instead of, you know, the typical crab cake you have on every steakhouse menu. We still have it here, but we modernize it a little bit.

At this point in your career, do you still get nervous and excited about reviews?
LT: It’s funny, I didn’t think about it today until [our publicists] came, like an hour ago. I’ve been rated probably eight times, ten times, I don’t know. Three times I’ve gotten a three star, bunch of times two stars. We have to pay attention to it because our clientele around here is very much the Upper East Side, and they read the New York Times everyday.

PG:This will help where we need help. This will help the five o’clock seating. Restaurants in New York, they’re busy from seven-thirty to nine. That doesn’t impress us. To be busy at five-thirty? That’s impressive. To be busy at eleven-thirty? That’s impressive. And the crowd up here, they go to good restaurants, and they go at five-thirty. And two stars—that’s a great restaurant. I know it’s two out of four, and some people would say it’s fifty percent, or whatever, but two stars for the style of service we have is top-notch.

What does the vibe become at 11 o’clock at night?
PG:A lot of chatter, a lot of talking. This table getting and up and saying hi to that table, tables combining. We never raise the volume of the music higher than the noise of the guests speaking. Whereas in our other restaurants, as the volume of the guests’ speaking raises, we raise the volume of the music to kind of, you know, add fuel to the fire. Whereas here, as the volume of the guests go up, we actually lower the music and let that be the atmosphere.

I don’t often think of steakhouses as being brunch restaurants, but you guys have it.
LT: It’s a good point. But besides being a steakhouse, we’re also a neighborhood restaurant. And I don’t think there’s much going on around these couple blocks at the time of brunch, so we could be really busy, doing maybe a late brunch, with some great drinks. Maybe more family oriented, you know, on Sunday.

PG: The partnership that we have, although it’s the first, I think it’s really worked out. It’s taught me a lot. He deals with the back of the house, and they let us do what we do at the front of the house.

South Beach Wine & Food Festival Returns With the Usual Madness

Too many ethereal, caramel-flavored sips of Ron Zacapa rum. Too many calorie-swollen cookie pops. Too much caviar and charcuterie and foofy French champagne and s’mores made with homemade blow-torched marshmallows. Too many short-skirted, wannabe basketball wives wearing platform heels in the sand. All. Too. Much. But then, that’s the legacy of the four-day Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Too much is never too much. Over-the-top is where the conversation starts.

Case in point? Last Friday night, Food Network’s Robert Irvine hosted his Party Impossible at 1111 Lincoln Road, the swanky parking garage that doubles as a Spartan party spot when customers of the Lincoln Road Mall aren’t clamoring to park their BMW Z4s for a day of shopping for wrap dresses. It’s a stunning space, with open-air views of Miami Beach’s skyline and concrete pillars illuminated pink for the evening like a taffeta prom dress.

Irvine appears in a three-sizes-too-small black body shirt and two-sizes-too-small head. Unable to get the attention of the hundreds in attendance, he is goaded by Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello to dangle upside down while making a 6-foot-long hoagie. Why? Because Irvine hosted Dinner: Impossible, a series which, after it ran out of implausible challenges, begat the show Restaurant: Impossible. (The only thing left: Impossible: Impossible.) Clearly he can do a pointless sandwich assembly in 60 seconds inverted like a hypodermic needle.

Irvine is hoisted by the ankles and a table bearing meats and cheeses and is rolled beneath him. As Chiarello goads the crowd, Irvine slaps cold cuts on the giant loaf like a Subway sandwich artist who has given his two-weeks notice.

Cue the dirty jokes. Lots of references to meat and beef and thickness and length as Irvine piles gang bangs of deli staples in Plato’s Retreat-like clumps. Half-toasted peri-menopausal women in the crowd jump to rub Irvine’s rib roast abs, spilling their mojitos in the process. Sixty seconds later, a sub that only Jared could love is proclaimed “finished.” Sandwich: Inedible.

But the sandwich isn’t really the point. The spectacle is king at #sobewff. Food, which used to be the focus, now is more of a prop than a raison d’être for the festival’s being.

How else can you explain a quarter-mile length series of tents built directly on the beach sand only a Frisbee-throw from the Gulf Stream? Think of it: you’ve saved enough for a vacation during February from the icy climes of Finland. You’ve spent thousands to bring your pale Finn wife and your translucent offspring 3,500 miles for a holiday. And then you find your view to be blocked by a Pentagon-size pup tent. You’d probably be one angry Scandinavian (assuming such a thing actually exists).

But the thing is: the festival blends into its environment.

Miami Beach is the kind of place where breakbeat dance mixes are the backing soundtrack for the personal injury radio ads. As if you could go to court to sue for a slip-and-fall and be awarded punitive damages by Judge DJ Skrillex. If that’s too subtle a sign, then your first sighting of unwanted midlife halter-top side-boob should orient your compass.

Miami Beach is where actors audition for South Beach Tow by parking next to fire hydrants. It’s a sandy, salt-rimmed enclave where moneyed MILFs go almost topless on the beach but wear wide-brim hats for sun protection. The plain, white, v-neck t-shirt is the standard evening tuxedo. (You don’t want to know what the cummerbund is.)

A four-day bacchanal of this magnitude in this setting is nothing for the one percenters — or at least the fraction of that fraction that actually cares about the difference between a Montepulciano and a Montuni.

Festival organizers know expectations are high. That’s why they give each visitor who ponied up the $225 a pop to get into the Grand Tasting Village a swag bag filled with food magazines, tins of Illy espresso coffee, Keffir sunglasses, and lanyards that let your wine glass nestle between your cleavage. It’s also why sponsors clamor to attach their brands to the event. So plentiful were the American Express banners dangling from the ceiling of the tasting tents that it looked like a Great Hall of Credit Card Flags. Whole Foods built a nearly full-size open-air pop-up market. KitchenAid trotted out mixers, blenders, and other appliances positioned in perfect rows like goose-stepping soldiers.

As if the lure of unlimited booze and bicep-size shrimp wasn’t enough, Food Network, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel stars spill into every corner of the four-day shindig. See Andrew Zimmern discuss the finer points of grilling octopus. See Nadia G rock a dress so short it shows the rest of her last name. Watch the princess of all media Rachael Ray declare herself the “Queen of the Burger” to absolutely no applause from the hundreds of fans in the audience.

In this proximity, SoBe is a lot like a NASCAR weekend. You get close enough to shake the hand or get the autograph of a real live food star. You get to see someone like Alex Guarnaschelli look way younger in person than her hyperscowly TV self. You see Emeril Lagasse, looking very much like a Jonas Brothers grandfather, hugging Latin heartthrob chef Aaron Sanchez out of network context.

But then you get some truly spectacular moments, such as Saturday night’s Diamond Dishes event. With chefs Michelle Bernstein, Laurent Tourondel, Scott Conant and Hedy Goldsmith turning out amazing food on each base at the pristine, new $515 million Marlins Park baseball stadium, diners ate their way around the horn on a field that has yet to be played upon. Such is the pull of SoBe: they get first glimpse. And they get to turn the dugouts into VIP party pits.

Or the tribute dinner for pioneering Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who announced recently his intention to leave cooking to study philosophy. Trotter picked a Murderer’s Row of chefs – Lagasse, Frederic Delaire, Wylie Dufresne, Patrick O’Connell and Norman Van Aken – to cook for the 600 guests. For good measure, Anthony Bourdain was master of ceremonies. Not since the Dean Martin roasts has a banquet room been so star-studded.

Even at the Puerto Rico tourism table inside the grand tasting, the earnestness was palpable. Handing out sips of rum and forkfuls of mofongo, tourism execs pressed the flesh with hopes of luring visitors to the island nation with the promise of an April food fest that boosts the profile of its native Iron Chefs.

That’s the thing which rescues the South Beach festival from itself. Amid the bling-on-bling-on-bling glitz, there usually can be found a kernel of authenticity. At its bedrock, the event raised more than $15 million for the Florida International University hospitality school.

Certainly worth hanging upside down with cold cuts over.

Industry Insiders: Chef Ed Cotton, Running the Market

Laurent Tourondel has passed a gastronomically reputable torch to Chef Ed Cotton to run BLT Market, Tourondel’s kitchen of the Upper West Side’s Ritz-Carlton-based restaurant. A fresh blend of market-inspired delights is what this Boston-bred chef brings to the table. After years creating delectable dishes at Daniel and Veritas, as well as working the ovens of the lightening fast-paced Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America, Chef Ed’s dishes brings new meaning to your average food shopping at the market.

What do you do as chef de cuisine at BLT Market? I’m in charge of running a kitchen with a crew of 12 people. I do all of the ordering and purchasing. I try to find the freshest ingredients and produce. I run service and control the pass. The pass is where the tickets come in, so I can call out the orders, orchestrate them, and then assemble everything on the plates.

How do you go about designing the menu? Laurent and I meet every season and go over what foods are in their peak for that time of year, their availability, and what’s cool. One of us will have gone out to dinner, and we’ll say, “I tasted this great cheese, and it’s from Hudson Valley, and I want you to try it.” We try to find local farmers who are really passionate about their products. We go over the menus and discuss every detail together. I listen to him and he listens to me until we come up with something.

Describe the cuisine of BLT Market. French/American bistro. The name of the restaurant is BLT Market, so it’s definitely market-driven.

What is your favorite dish on the menu at the moment? Right now, I’m doing a house-made spicy lamb sausage with broccoli rabe, pomodoro sauce, and rigatoni. I like making pastas. That dish is brand new, so I’m really excited about it.

What sort of clientele frequents BLT Market? Tony Bennett comes in here a lot. We have a large amount of the Ritz-Carlton hotel guests who come down from their rooms too. Mainly, it’s the Upper East Siders.

How’d you get your start in the restaurant business? I’m a second-generation chef. My father graduated from same culinary school as I did, the Culinary Institute of America. He was an executive chef outside of Boston while I was growing up. So, I basically grew up in the kitchen.

What was the first restaurant you worked in, in New York City? I worked for a lady named Patricia Yo who owned two restaurants, AZ and Pazzo. It’s ironic because now those two restaurants are BLT Fish and BLT Steak.

How’d you get your position as sous chef to Cat Cora on Iron Chef America? When I was cooking at Daniel years ago, a good friend of mine who was working for Iron Chef told me Cat was looking for a replacement. I emailed my resume to Cat’s assistant, and literally 15 minutes later, they called and said, “It looks great. Do you want to meet Cat?” I met with her and have been on the show now for three years

What’s it like cooking on television? After watching the show for such a long time, to actually be in Kitchen Stadium was kind of weird. I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually here.” I was super nervous the first time, but then you get used to these guys running around with cameras while you’re cooking, and cables all over the place. I’m really comfortable with it now.

Favorite restaurants in New York? After work, I like to go to Landmarc in the Time Warner building because it turns into an industry hangout after my working hours. There are so many people that work late that go there. They have a great wine list. I also like going to Nougatine at Jean Georges for lunch. It’s a great deal, and the food is super tasty and awesome.

Who do you admire in the industry? Guy Savoy. He’s a very well-known chef, and he is super-talented. I had the privilege of eating at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas with my old boss Daniel Boulud, and it was a really memorable meal.

What are some positive trends that you’ve seen recently in the hospitality industry? The food styles keep changing. The way food styles keep evolving is the reason why I moved to New York from Boston. There are so many different restaurants. I don’t know if that even answers your question, but it’s true.

Any negative trends? Everybody is doing molecular gastronomy. I do respect it, and I’ll even use a little of it. But as far as using powders and chemicals, I’m not a fan of it.

What is something that people might not know about that goes on in the kitchen of a restaurant? Before service we always get together to talk and brief each other about what is going on that night, like how many reservations there are and how many are VIPs coming in. Here at BLT, between the front of the house and the back of the house, we always have a little pre-meal staff meeting to try and let everyone in on what’s going on.

What do you do for fun when you aren’t in the kitchen? When the weather is beautiful, I’ve been going to Central Park for the whole day and just hanging out and relaxing. Also, I obviously like to go out to dinner a lot.

What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs? I’d say you have to really, really love it. You can’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I want to be a chef.” It really has to come from the heart. You were born with this feeling that cooking is what you want to do. Young aspiring chefs should understand you’ve got to work a lot of long hours, and it’s hot in the kitchen. But you know what? If you really want it, absorb all of that and just do it. Have fun and don’t get discouraged. Keep asking questions and always listen to people with experience. Be a sponge.

What’s your dream spot for a project? I’m torn between NYC and Boston because I really love to be challenged, and New York is definitely a challenging city. Restaurants open and they close, they open and they close. But I could go back home to Boston where it’s a smaller scene, so it might be a bit easier to have a successful restaurant. I just want a cool, funky, straightforward restaurant that serves well-executed food. I want it to be fun and not pretentious with a great wine list. I’d say French/Italian food with handmade pastas. A very industrial-looking place instead of soft seats and plush leather.

Openings: BLT Steak @ The Betsy, Miami

We’re not quite sure how wolfing down a 20-ounce rib eye and looking hot in a D&G bathing suit actually fit together, but the export of one of NYC’s most revered temples of haute power dining is guaranteed to pull in the chic South Beach crowds who will likely put aside their calorie aversion for the privilege of a meal here. In the newly restyled — but still classic — Betsy Hotel, Bon Appetit’s 2007 Restaurateur of the Year Laurent Tourondel serves a French-influenced selection of beef, from Kobe to Wagyu to Black Angus, all accented with a selection of sauces that includes béarnaise and maitre d’butter. Front patio seating offers up the perfect view of the South Beach social parade.