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.
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.
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.