While what Danny Meyer has accomplished through Union Square Hospitality Group is laudable, you will always remain partial to Rich Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises when discussing the most dominant and inspired restaurateurs in the country. Other groups certainly exist that manage a smaller portfolio of superlative restaurants–for example, Boka Restaurant Group and Hogsalt Hospitality in this very city–yet USHG and LEY receive “extra credit” for the expansive genres of cuisine and styles of dining they excel at.
However, this is all to say that you quite rarely eat at LEY properties (and you only patronized USHG’s portfolio sparingly when residing in Manhattan). Sure, you rushed to places like Aba and Pizzeria Portofino when they opened. In fact, you ate at each of them around a half dozen times in their first couple months of business. Yet, eventually, you exhaust all the menu items and run out of friends to take (who haven’t been), and these establishments fade into the background as you return to your usual, more dynamic haunts. And this is meant as no insult to such places, which are excellent. Rather, LEY excels in its consistency, its ability to take any given diner who walks through their doors and ensure they will have a most excellent experience. The staff at their restaurants is uniformly unerring, supremely understanding of the needs of every possibly party and neither pushy nor unengaged. Observing one of Lettuce’s properties is like staring at the face of a finely-tuned clock: the gears that keep everything going are well-hidden under the surface, and one can only look in wonder as everything clicks and whirs in perfect rhythm.
Nonetheless, such precision demands patience. LEY restaurants do add new dishes, their wine lists are some of the most exciting, rewarding, and ever-changing in the city. Yet, like any well-oiled machine, such changes are carefully made so as not to compromise the whole operation. That is why you tend to forget about Lettuce’s restaurants after those first forays, for they will be focused on giving as many customers that “golden” first experience with the well-tuned opening menu. Then, half a year or maybe a year later, an e-mail blast will catch your eye. Or maybe, in a fit of desperation, you make a reservation because nothing else is available and you know you’re guaranteed a good time. The menu is replete with new goodies, wondrous creations that capture all the excitement of those very first visits. LEY restaurants are guaranteed to grow (in due time), and what they sacrifice in perpetual change they always make up for with steadfast quality.
It is upon these ruminations that you returned to RPM Steak for the first time in over a year and a half. (Well, you did attend the restaurant’s Wagyumafia event in July, but that cannot count as a genuine visit). Readers will be well-aware of your undying love for Bavette’s, your harsh criticism of those steakhouses that choose to purvey foreign beef as their raison d’être. But you enjoy LEY restaurants and enjoy the RPMs quite a bit. They are safe places to bring your pickier relatives, standbys in your last minute moments of need. You even forget, most of the time, that they were hatched in part as a vehicle for a certain celebrity couple. Well, you certainly avoid drinking the wife’s Prosecco…
You arrive at RPM Steak just a couple minutes ahead of your 5:30 PM reservation with the same crew from Bavette’s in tow. It is the night before Thanksgiving (a bonafide boozy “holiday” in its own right), and the restaurant is a bit quiet. As you pass your details to the hostess, you spy a gaggle of guests at the bar and one, no two, parties seated in the dining room. It is early, you suppose, and even those who plan to drink the night away are surely not getting started just yet. After just a moment’s pause, your group is escorted into the sepia-toned dining room. It is pretty–with dark, polished wood offset by white chairs–but plain. Perhaps it could qualify as “sleek,” but not without the bustle of well-heeled customers to lend it some color. You miss the bric-a-brac that lends Bavette’s its timelessness, the dimmed lighting that guards other guests from noticing your spying eyes.
The hostess settles on a table near the very center of the dining room. Its chairs call out to you immediately: two are of the same stark white as those at the rest of the tables, while another set of two are in an altogether different tone of dark brown leather. Scanning the other tables, you are unable to find this pattern repeated elsewhere. Some of the chairs have arms; others do not. Yet all of the chairs are white. All of the chairs match. Where did these interloping lounge chairs come from, and why would your party be led to a table so obviously mismatched? You imagine that one too many of the white upholsteries has been ruined and that this brown leather is merely a stopgap. You suppose it makes sense for the hostess to put asses in those seats posthaste, thereby allowing an earlier-arriving party to paper over the inconsistency. Is this just your OCD talking? Your perfectionism? Your first thought was that they gave your party the “worst seats in the house,” and–even if there was nothing wrong with the table geographically–the mismatched seats were a strange detail to be met with.
The other guests seemed not to mind too much, and, surely, you were all happy to be given armchairs at all. Nonetheless, you felt like a black sheep. Whatever illusion of perfection that you had thereto ascribed to LEY and the RPMs had already been shattered. Which is all to say that you would be especially alert to any other chinks in the proverbial armor. The table is set with three dinner menus and a four-page book of cocktails and wines by the glass. Tap water is poured by the busser without asking any preference (a calculated move, perhaps, as offering “still, sparkling, or tap” can leaves more casual diners quite uncomfortable). Not more than a minute or two later, the server arrives. He strikes you as a bit flustered, a bit charmless despite the white jacket and tie. He has worked at the restaurant for five years, yet possesses none of the cool, calming effect befitting an establishment that so consciously exudes a sense of “Classic Chicago.” Not that you adore the sort of show put on by the waiters at Gibsons, but it works to build an overall aesthetic.
The waiter’s opening spiel is interrupted by one of the members of your party. His driver is waiting outside, and he wonders if it would be so hard as to get a cheeseburger out to him. “No tomatoes or onions,” is the further stipulation, and the server says it will not be a problem. Before leaving, he asks if you’d all like a drink. A bourbon, perhaps, you say as you ask for the wine list in the same breath. The list arrives and, while you’ll need it later, it lacks any of the spirits. So, another exchange and, at last, the spirits book is in your hands. While you scan it, the driver’s burger arrives at the table. You admire the speed of the kitchen and are thankful the server is willing to deliver the order himself. With that task out of the day, you order three pours of Michter’s 10 Year Old and two Barolos off of the wine list.
RPM Steak’s wine list, it must be said, is both expansive and attractive. Sure, the usual Cult Cab and First Growth suspects are on offer. Yet mark-ups are not exorbitant, and there are some surprising back-vintage treasures across regions both big and small. The restaurant’s offerings of German Riesling and the wines of the Loire (both red and white) particularly impress you. Given RPM Italian’s presence just a block away, it is no surprise that some goodies have found their way onto this menu too. By comparison, Gibsons Italia’s list is a bit more pigeonholed–with younger bottles that are noticeably a bit more expensive. Bavette’s list, which you have lauded before, is only a fraction of the size but more highly curated and provides a bit more value. Still, you found it hard to choose from the array of options on offer that evening. Though you arrived expecting to order a Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny and a back-vintage Hanzell Pinot Noir, you could not resist Italy. Both bottles of Barolo–from 2004 and 1964–drank incredibly, and, needless to say, you were particularly impressed by the condition and service of such an aged wine.
Moving onto the food, RPM Steak’s menu is divided into familiar categories that seek to outdo the city’s competition by way of sheer quality. Tonight, you snub the hot appetizer section–which includes a bourbon-vanilla glazed thick-cut bacon and a coal-roasted king crab (among its four options)–and move straight to RPM’s “raw” offerings. The trio of bluefin tuna and hamachi crudo catch your eye while the steak tartare–“hand cut” with quail egg and blue cheese toast–doesn’t make the cut. There’s nothing wrong with steak tartare. In fact, you would yield that steakhouses should reliably offer the best tartares. But raw beef and cooked beef in two sequential courses just seems like overkill. Other than these four appetizers and three raw dishes, RPM’s menu relies on three kinds of housemade bread, five types of “salad service,” and a classic, crustaceous “cold bar” to round out its starters.
Truth be told, it all seems a little “safe,” or at least a little tired. While, visually, RPM Steak spins a contemporary vision of the classic Chicago steakhouse, the menu mixes Japanese, French, Latin, and Italian influences at will. Why offer a token amount of “sashimi” when the kitchen should surely be focused on serving $165 seafood platters? Do customers really start their meal with beef tataki and hand cut tartare before choosing from a selection of nearly twenty cuts of steak? Of course, you cannot say you order any of the hot appetizers from your beloved Bavette’s either. Yet theirs fit into a loose Francophilic theme that, at the very least, offers a cohesive vision. RPM, rather, draws on eclectic influences without ever answering the question “why should I order this dish at this restaurant and not at the place that specializes in this sort of food?”
You so thoughtfully sought an answer to that question in ordering the tuna and hamachi dishes. In the same manner, you just had to compare the quality of RPM’s seafood to that at Bavette’s. For one, RPM will be opening their “On the Water” property early next year featuring “RPM Seafood,” a “dramatic multi-level restaurant…featuring the truest expression of the world’s best fish and seafood.” “Truest” expression? Those are fighting words, and you would expect the seafood sourcing at RPM Steak to already be top-notch if LEY thinks it can dedicate a whole restaurant to outdoing everyone else in Chicago. It is also worth noting that Bavette’s charges $9 more per half pound of Alaskan king crab (at $39) than RPM Steak (at $30). The restaurants’ respective “grand platters” are both priced at $165, so the stage was well-set to work out just which group–Hogsalt or Lettuce–has better mastered the supply chain required to keep the city awash in quality crab.
The waiter, to his credit, takes your opening order of tuna, hamachi, grand seafood platter, and two extra pounds of king crab with aplomb. He offers that the grand platter already arrives with a half pound of crab, says he can merely add on a pound and a half to make it add up to a full two. You, of course, refuse and welcome all two and a half pounds. By now, the bourbon has arrived and the first of the two Barolos has been opened, tasted, and decanted. The sommelier is a poised, confident woman who knows how aged Nebbiolo needs to be treated and shows no hesitation in opening a 55-year-old bottle. She operates with the kind of knowing reverence you enjoy–no over the top schmoozing or name-dropping to assert her bonafides. Instead, precision and professionalism: the “LEY way.” The sommelier gets you all set up with both decanters and three sets of glasses shortly before the opening salvo of seafood arrives.
The grand seafood platter takes its preeminent position at one corner of the table. It stands shorter than Bavette’s triple-tiered plateau but features a taller, wider base strewn with oysters, crab, and shrimp around the sides and a medium-sized platter within (which is principally devoted to lobster and any overflow of crab). Each of you also receives a small platter with cocktail sauce, drawn butter, and a spicy dijonnaise not unlike the accompaniments provided elsewhere. The brightly-colored tuna and hamachi dishes–both boasting a half dozen hearty slices of fish–take up positions on the corners of the table opposite the platters.
All is set, and so you dig in, reaching first for the bluefin and its “selection of aromatic garnishes.” What those garnishes are, you can’t quite make out. Truth be told, you cannot quite remember eating this dish other than finding the slices of tuna to be appropriately thin and impressively wide. “Serviceable.” Perhaps that’s the world. Not flawed in any way, but not setting the world alight either. The hamachi crudo was a bit more memorable but still landed very much within the realm of a classic, unoffensive preparation. The yellowtail sat in a striking marinade of white soy, sesame, and chives that imbued the buttery fish with even more pleasing umami flavor. You do not regret ordering it–nor do you the tuna–but see these dishes getting lost against the more ample options from the “cold bar.” Certainly, they would be impressive if they were served a few blocks north at Sushi-San, but, here, they only seem to exist as a nod to complement RPM Steak’s selection of Japanese beef (to be discussed further later).
On appearance alone, the RPM Grand Seafood Platter (as it is titled on the menu) looked to be a worthy rival to Bavette’s Maude’s Tower. For one, there is no salmon tartare to be dealt with (yet there are also no accompanying “everything” crackers, let alone Bavette’s sourdough). RPM’s platter may also be shorter, but the bottom layer is far sturdier–the kind of ice bucket that could comfortably chill a couple bottles of bubbly. It is placed on a lazy Susan that is slipped onto the table around the same time as the cocktail forks, allowing guests to freely grab seafood from any one of 360 degrees. With RPM’s platter topping out at two levels, there is also no need to disassemble and remove a lower layer midway through the course (though, as mentioned in your review, it’s a great feat of hospitality accomplished in a confident, unobtrusive way). The seafood itself sure looked good, the king crab possessing a familiar deep red color (from Bavette’s plateau) made all the more striking by the bright lighting. The shrimp are not the same sort of cocktail shrimp, but “colossal” tiger prawns which dwarf the size of the other crustaceans. The oysters, also unlike Bavette’s, come already dressed while the lobster is separated into tails and claws in a similar manner.
As to how it all tastes? Good, pretty good, but in no way breathtaking. Those colossal tiger prawns, for one, have only ever appealed to those whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. The larger size dilutes whatever natural sweetness cocktail-sized shrimp possess while forcing patrons to chew through larger chunks of unglamorous meat both texturally and flavorfully inferior to the accompanying crab and lobster. A plump cocktail shrimp–even one on the larger size–is a perfect one or two bites with a coating of cocktail sauce. Just one of RPM Steak’s colossal prawns, on the other hand, nearly exhausts the small ramekin of sauce provided. The restaurant’s decision to embrace this ingredient can only be called a cynical appeal to the aesthetic of “plenty” (or, perhaps, “excess”). They come at a clear sacrifice to taste, and you find the handfuls of more modestly-sized shrimp on Bavette’s tower to be both more generous and gastronomically pleasing. RPM Seafood would do best to use their tiger prawns in a cooked preparation should they make their way to that menu too.
The oysters also left a bit to be desired. Merely termed “chilled oysters” on the menu, you think this evening’s assortment came from the west coast. A light dressing of jalapeño and cucumber was a welcome addition to the bivalves, but you found most of the shells to be shallow and lacking the natural brine that gives the best oysters most of their flavor. The meat inside was cleanly shucked and more or less serviceable, but certain shells struck you as a bit puny. The oyster would reluctantly detach then get lost amongst its dressing when it hit your tongue. There was little of that plump, seductive, mouth-filling quality for which this delicacy is known. As with the shrimp, Bavette’s bests RPM steak by serving better-sized bivalves from both east and west coasts. They may not come already dressed at the former, but you take that as a testament to their implicit flavor and enjoy applying the mignonette firsthand.
As the results of the seafood tower showdown now stand, it is Bavette’s: 2, RPM Steak: 0. But how might LEY’s sourcing fare when it comes to the most famous (or famously overrated) crustacean in the sea? Surprisingly, the lobster was rather good. You venture to say it is even a better preparation than Bavette’s, where it arrives in a similar manner (split into tail and claw pieces) but remains a blank canvas for the provided sauces and drawn butter. RPM’s “Chilled Lobster Cocktail,” as it is called, features plumper pieces of meat that are more tender, more unctuous than almost any chilled lobster preparation in the city that you can remember. Seemingly lacking in any sinew or “chew” at all, it almost seems as if the crustacean is lightly dressed with mayonnaise (though you do not believe this to be the case). Rather, you suspect the lobster is merely of an exceptional quality and perfectly boiled before being chilled down to temperature. This makes sense, given that RPM offers a cooked lobster entrée on its menu (more on that later) while Bavette’s preparation is restricted only to its plateaux. But that is by no means an excuse–RPM Steak deserves credit for its quality here, which also bodes well for their forthcoming seafood joint.
So, with RPM poised to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat, we must turn towards the most consequential of the seafood platter’s items. King crab, the distinguishing feature of Bavette’s own tower, and comfortably the best tasting crustacean of them all. Can one really the $9 difference in price between the restaurants? Yes, oh yes, one can. While RPM’s crab certainly looks the part–boasting that coveted deep red hue–the pieces provided were less thick and ultimately less sweet than those at Bavette’s. They were still good, just not good to the point of adding on those couple extra pounds. Just the same, you wonder if the comparably cut-rate price for crab at RPM Steak is another means–along with the colossal prawns–of the restaurant ensuring more customers indulge in a visually appealing seafood assortment without necessarily aiming to provide the ultimate in quality. With seafood, however, more is not more. Only careful sourcing ensures the natural sweetness of the product, the very sweetness that turns shrimp, crab, and lobster into something more than a mere vehicle for sauce and butter.
With the seafood showdown between RPM Steak and Bavette’s now settled, you can turn to the other principle concern one faces when eating in a steakhouse. As previously mentioned, RPM offers some twenty different steaks and chops (compared to just seven at Bavette’s). These run the gamut from four styles of Japanese Wagyu, two types of “Imperial” Wagyu (from Omaha), three cuts of filet mignon from Creekstone Farms (in Kansas), two other cuts of American Wagyu from Beeman Ranch (in Texas), and a selection of steaks dry-aged in house, among others. It’s a dizzying selection that seems to get off on appending as much meaningless information onto proceedings as possible. The easiest route seems to be by weight, tailoring one’s order to the desired number of ounces and working backwards to select from the available steaks. At Bavette’s, you instantly gravitate towards singular cuts–a bone-in filet and a dry-aged ribeye–but how does one choose from no less than five types of ribeye and four filets?
As a matter of principle, you refuse to pay a premium for Japanese beef in an American steakhouse. So, those four items are out. You do not think very highly of American wagyu either, particularly the Mishima tomahawk ribeye you have seen offered around town before and is always, sadly, a disappointment. (Strangely enough, RPM Steak has omitted the “Mishima” text on their updated menu and now simply terms it “Tomahawk”). That being said, you have never heard of Beeman Ranch Wagyu before nor their signature Akaushi porterhouse. Akaushi, of course, refers to a particular breed of closed herd red cattle that has been purebred in the United States. These cows are prized for the consistency and quality of their meat, though there is less fetishization over “marbling” than one normally expects when dealing with Wagyu. At 36 oz., the porterhouse would certainly dominate your steak order but also allow you to try both a filet and a N.Y. strip from one of the restaurant’s premiere cuts. So you bit the bullet. As for steak number two? A ribeye of some sort which, excluding that tomahawk, leaves you with four options: a 10 oz. ribeye filet, a 24 oz. cowboy steak, a 38 oz. long-bone ribeye (dry-aged for 60 days), and a 20 oz. bone-in ribeye that is grass-fed in Missouri. Though the grass-fed seems like the natural choice (due to its size and nearby sourcing), the other members of your party are up to tackle the long-bone. That means a total of 74 oz. of RPM Steak’s best beef will go toe-to-toe with the combined 38 oz. you typically order at Bavette’s in a battle of tenderness, taste, and satisfaction.
For sides? You try to keep things simple: gruyere popovers, cremini mushrooms, onion rings, coal-roasted cauliflower, and fries. Oh, and some roasted garlic for the steaks (just like at Bavette’s). The popovers arrived a while before the main course, as the server astutely noticed you placed the item before the steaks and all the other sides in the order. Supremely flakey and ethereally light, the piping hot popovers delighted the table and formed a perfect transition from cold seafood to hot steak. The accompanying prosciutto butter possessed a mild saltiness and whisper of pork flavor that accentuated the natural nuttiness of the gruyere cheese. In all: a great effort (and, perhaps, a good reason to pay for the other two housemade breads offered on RPM’s menu). That being said, one must give Bavette’s some extra credit for serving as many baskets of their sublime sourdough as the guest demands–gratis!
Moving on to the other side dishes (which, of course, arrived later alongside the two steaks), you largely felt satisfied. The cremini mushrooms–one of three types of fungus offered alongside hen of the woods and oyster–came simply sautéed with thyme. It’s an earthier, more steak-complementary preparation than Bavette’s button mushrooms which, while delicious, are doused in sherry cream and coated with crisp onion strings. Two different approaches, surely, and you would probably call it a tie between the two dishes. However, RPM deserves some credit for its purist approach and comparable (both to its rival and to its own other menu items) restraint. Likewise, by merely offering onion rings at all, LEY scores a point on Hogsalt’s steakhouse. They arrive at the table unadorned and heaped in a small bowl. The batter is light and airy–almost tempura-like–and adept at sticking to the inner strand of onion. You would prefer a crisper, crunchier outer coating (and perhaps a bit more of a discernible onion flavor), yet you cannot complain about the portion size and would surely order the rings again.
The fries at RPM Steak are actually “rosemary-sea salt” fries which arrive, like the onion rings, overflowing from a small bowl. The sea salt is certainly present (in just the right amount for your palate) along with fried strands of the titular herb. The crispness, again, could be better (are the fryers at the restaurant simply not set high enough?), though the flavor of the potatoes was more than pleasant without the need for any condiments. Still, you think Bavette’s has the upper hand due to their fries’ superior texture, slightly higher serving temperature, and an unmistakable savory flavor that must come from duck fat. Or, perhaps, they are fried twice in the style of Jimmy’s Red Hots? Regardless, even if one needs to expressly request ketchup, Bavette’s ranks as the winner. Ending on a high note, RPM Steak’s coal-roasted cauliflower was certifiably delicious. Charred on the outside, slightly crunchy (but still moist), the cauliflower arrives cut into small and medium sized florets. They sit amongst a lime yogurt sauce on the bottom of the plate whose tang and temperature works well to amp up the vegetable’s mildly sweet, nutty flavor.
Do the side dishes really matter, though, should RPM’s luxurious cuts of beef completely blow Bavette’s out of the water? Surely, there is something special about those Akaushi cattle. Undoubtedly, dry-aging a ribeye for around two months must yield the ultimate expression of umami flavor. But does it? Unfortunately not. Both steaks arrive looking mouthwatering, having been skillfully sliced off of their respective bones and assembled in semi-circles around their respective platters. The Akaushi porterhouse is cooked to a perfect medium temperature while the dry-aged long-bone ribeye is somewhere between rare and medium rare (whereas medium was again requested). Both steaks are adorned with a handful of pickled cherry peppers but the side of roasted garlic is missing. These errors of internal temperature and order transcription are amateurish but not irredeemable. Personally, you favor your steak on the rarer side, and that garlic could be unneeded should the two cuts offer enough intensity of flavor.
First, you reach for the filet side of the porterhouse. You pick a piece right from the middle of the cut. It is well-charred on the outside and barely blushing pink within. The filet cuts easily and presents a pleasing chew on the palate–that’s it. Next, your fork treks over to the other side of the T-bone and picks out a piece of the N.Y. strip. It shows a light shade of red indicating that this steak, too, is closer to medium rare than medium. The strip cuts cleanly and offers a bit more chew than the filet did. Nothing else to write home about. The steak’s outer char is the only predominant flavor from either side of the Akaushi porterhouse, and the texture, while good, simply does not do enough to offset a lack of any distinguishable beef taste.
One would think that sixty days of dry-aging might do the trick and provide the long-bone ribeye with the deep umami that’s been missing. No luck there. The ruby red, unabashedly medium rare cut possessed even greater chew than the N.Y. strip but, again, yielded little by way of flavor. The meat is juicy. It is free from sinews of pockets of unrendered fat. It all goes down easy, but it is forgettable. At many times the price of Bavette’s humble cuts, these premium steaks just are not breathtaking. They do not melt in your mouth like the Bavette’s bone-in filet (a steak cut thicker than either of the two before you tonight), and they lack the balance of dry-aging, char, and natural beef flavor found in Bavette’s more modest 28-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye. You found yourself putting RPM’s steak salt on every piece of meat you ate in between munching on the cherry peppers and even stealing sauces off of the side dishes. Anything to impart some flavor to the steaks!
Does it seem like you are being cruel? You do not think so. Most people will leave RPM Steak feeling relatively happy about the cut of meat they ordered. But they’re not “destination” steaks. They’re not reinventing the wheel. They’re pumping out a pleasant product with enough accuracy and pacing to please the unwashed masses that walk through their revolving doors. They play up the totality of the experience to please everyone rather than truly excel in offering a focused experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a niche that Bavette’s will never fill by nature of being full every night. RPM Steak, in its own laudable way, is the standby, the steady, the establishment that you can always get to and have a pretty good meal that captures the essence of a “Chicago steakhouse.” And for people who have never had “real deal” Japanese beef? You can splurge on that too.
Returning to that meal on the eve of Thanksgiving, you would be remiss not to mention a few more food items. Building on the quality of the chilled lobster cocktail that appeared as part of RPM’s grand seafood platter, an entrée of spicy miso Maine lobster (available in half or whole sizes) was remarkable. You would even say, unabashedly, that RPM Steak prepares lobster better than any other steakhouse in the city. The crustacean was appropriately sized (if you see one that’s “too” big, you can expect it to be bland) and accessibly served on the half shell. Its meat–again separated into claw and tail portions–was perfectly plump, free of any sinews, and melted in one’s mouth in a manner that is stereotypical of lobster (but that the vast majority of lobster preparations never attain!). The miso did not make the dish particularly spicy (though you’re certainly not against warning customers not to expect something simply steamed). Rather the sauce worked well to accentuate the lobster’s sweetness and pull the dish into deeper, richer territory that could satisfy someone who ordered the dish as a lone entrée. Well done!
While you think the dessert at Bavette’s will surely please guests, the two pies and one cake offered there barely merited a mention in your article. RPM Steak, in contrast, can boast an impressive array of eleven different desserts that cover every base imaginable. There are two “over-the-top” sundaes with ice cream made from Kilgus Farmstead milk, a chocolate cake, cheesecake, warm vanilla sugar doughnuts, an apple pie, a coconut carrot cake, soufflé, crème brûlée, and even a tableside Baked Alaska (which seems trendier than ever after you saw Eleven Madison Park reviving it years ago). Though you unabashedly prefer savory food, diners are truly spoilt for choice with this kind of dessert menu. There are easily five or six items you would insist on trying had you the stomach for them. Tonight, instead, you opt for the “14K” chocolate cake and the Baked Alaska while the other guests enjoy servings of vanilla ice cream with hot fudge. The chocolate cake, it should be said, is something of an RPM Steak signature. It arrives as a horizontal, dark brown sliver about two layers high bedecked with strands of “14K” edible gold.
Does it get much tackier? No, but it is hard to imagine a more decadent (but properly balanced!) chocolate cake, thanks to an artful combination of milk and dark chocolate. The Baked Alaska, of course, was flambéed tableside, making for a nice show. The torched meringue and warm chocolate sauce formed a pleasing combination, but you found the ice cream cake portion underneath to be a bit too “frozen” and hard to get through with a spoon. Other dessert lovers, perhaps, would have persisted, but the stiff cake was quickly ignored in favor of the outer layer of cream. The dessert selection is certainly as crowd-pleasing as the rest of the menu, yet breadth and execution of the assorted options rises head and shoulders above the rest of the city.
In the final analysis, RPM Steak cannot claim to offer better seafood than Bavette’s. It cannot claim to offer better cuts of beef or more exacting cook temperatures. The service at RPM, too, is more stilted and, even then, they will miss some of the finer details of your order. That being said, RPM’s wine list is wonderful and filled with both fantastic values and rarities. The lobster–both chilled and cooked–is of “best in the city” quality. The side dishes (as well as the bread service, salads, fish, burger, and other filler that you did not try on this occasion) are sure to please. And, if that doesn’t do it, then dessert surely will. You think this all adds up to a pretty good restaurant. Not a restaurant that is hyper focused on being the “best” steakhouse, but one than can more or less guarantee a good special occasion dinner that inflates the bill a bit but does not leave a bad taste in anybody’s mouth. What the LEY formula sacrifices in terms of intimacy it must surely make up for in terms of pacing, quality, and (relative) value. Otherwise, the gambit just doesn’t make sense.
RPM Steak caters to the 99% of customers who did not make a Bavette’s reservation a month in advance of their special dinner. The restaurant caters to the 99% of customers who are impressed with hulking cuts of meat from unknown ranches, customers who take a bite, find they can chew through it, and think: “fair enough!” Who knows, upon considering the expense accounts, anniversaries, and other celebrations occurring during a given evening, who actually eats at RPM Steak out of a deep love of the food itself? The food itself, not the feeling of glitz, glam, and an unfussy “steakhouse experience.” Can a restaurant really survive running a revolving door of special occasion diners rather than cultivating a cadre of regulars? Perhaps it not only can, but Lettuce Entertain You has mastered the creation and maintenance of such concepts.
Anyone, at any time, can consistently have a very enjoyable meal at RPM Steak. They will feel the staff and the kitchen has done a darned good job of showing them a good time. Yet the experience is still noticeably transactional. There’s no “magic” in the air. No stirring of the soul. RPM is a whirring machine that never stops. They’re aces at impressing those 99% of customers, and, on a given night, they might even impress you. You, the reader, that is. You, the author, is content to keep RPM Steak on the back burner. The back-up option, that is. In the meantime, you will sit comfortably in your corner booth at Bavette’s and wait for RPM Seafood to open its doors. Then, you will eagerly rush over, and the whole LEY restaurant life cycle will begin anew.