Given that thousands upon thousands of people—most of them hungry—come to Lincoln Center every day of the week, it never ceased to amaze me that decades passed with nary a good restaurant in the immediate area. The nine years I spent as editor of Opera Monthly entailed spending a good five nights a week at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House and New York City Opera at the State Theater. I often came directly from my office and many were the nights when my growling stomach nearly drowned out the singers.
I found it particularly bizarre that the dining spaces closest to Lincoln Center, namely the basement, ground floor and mezzanine of the Empire Hotel on the island directly across Columbus Avenue, couldn’t seem to offer more than C-minus food from a succession of inhabiting restaurants that shall go nameless.
All that has changed, thanks to restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow’s China Grill Management, which has spruced up the soaring mezzanine space and installed a marvelous steakhouse-with-a-smile that will absolutely get you to the opera, the symphony, the ballet or South Pacific on time. In fact, the restaurant is so good that it’s well “worth a detour,” in Michelin parlance. Add to that the chef’s focus on serving hormone and antibiotic-free, humanely raised meats and sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood, as well as local produce whenever it’s in season, and you have cause for celebration.
New World Design Builders’ Chris Kofitsas took great care to create a stunning 156-seat dining room that feels very important and grown-up: very Lincoln Centerish. He restored the terrazzo floors and ubiquitous mahogany paneling, installed roomy dark leather banquettes, and hung full floor-to-ceiling curtains that will remind you of the Met stage across the plaza. In turn, I was reminded of another steakhouse in another historic hotel, the clubby Bull and Bear in the Waldorf=Astoria, but Center Cut feels so much more expansive that it really is unique in this city of relatively cramped spaces. There’s also an agreeable playfulness at work, and enormous wine cellars all over the place. The staff is relaxed and friendly, and given the size of the space, remarkably swift. Our graceful and friendly server, Jeremy, had all the right moves and plenty of important suggestions.
China Grill Management’s Corporate Chef, Luke Rinaman, tapped Bradley Day to become Center Cut’s executive chef. Day’s highly impressive résumé includes tenure at such estimable venues as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong in London, Asia de Cuba and China Grill.
Sommelier David Carreon will help you navigate the expansive wine list, with 16 wines available by the glass. Many of the wines are from quite unusual producers the world over. The signature cocktails, along with all the classics, are particularly fine, with Lincoln Centeresque names like The Tristan and The Isolde. The Concord is a pungent and dazzling combination of Effen vodka, crushed ice and a wedge of purple Concord grape compote.
A large fresh and warm cheesy roll—rather like a popover on steroids—arrives with nice soft butter.
Wellfleet oysters are sweet and low, while Cortez oysters, from the wild and woolly Georgia Straits of British Columbia, are as coppery as a penny and melony as cantaloupe.
Steak tartare is vibrant with fresh herbs, very well textured and finished with a rich quail egg yolk.
Bacon-wrapped diver scallops are some of the sweetest and softest I’ve ever tasted, so the Berkshire bacon offers an important counterpoint in flavor and texture.
Caesar salad is classic with a few twists, including the incorporation of toasted cubes of pumpernickel and cornmeal-crusted sardines
Steak Rossini—or anything else Rossini—is seldom encountered around town. The 19th-century composer was a famous gourmand, and any dish named after him will involve some combination of foie gras, truffles and/or a luxurious demi-glace-based sauce. Most of the steaks on Center Cut’s menu are diminutively sized compared with other steakhouses, and that was a most welcome difference. Steak Rossini is a six-ounce tenderloin topped with a slab of seared foie gras, parked on a slice of tasted brioche and sauced with a port glace de viande.
Rack of lamb is available in three sizes: a quarter, half or whole rack (for two). The lamb is rather heavily seasoned with lamb’s best friend, mustard, and a minced herb and panko crumb crust. House-made mint jelly is alongside, but you probably won’t want any.
Don’t miss the luscious corn and manchego cheese gratin, served in a six-inch-square cast iron skillet. Carefully fried eggplant spears are a welcome departure from steak fries.
You very rarely come across flambéed desserts like crêpes suzette—or bananas foster or cherries jubilee—on menus around town, probably because most servers hate to fuss with food tableside. Not Jeremy—he told us it’s his favorite part of serving. He quite skillfully folded, unfolded and turned two crêpes in a skillet with a delicate orange sauce, then flambéed the crêpes with Grand Marnier. The fleshy texture of those crêpes haunts me still.
All this quality comes at a price, of course, but no more than you’d pay at most other steakhouses. And there are various bargains available. You certainly shouldn’t wait till you have Lincoln Center tickets to try Center Cut on for size.
In The Empire Hotel
44 W. 63rd St.
Entrées: $25 to $78
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