"Well, hello," coos one of the svelte babes on either arm of an elegantly attired gentleman crossing the tongue of red carpet in front of Wolfgang's Steakhouse in Beverly Hills. A young manager in a suit is right there to greet the trio, sweeping them off to their anointed table in the swank dining room. Regulars and big spenders, preferably both, get the royal treatment at the 21/2-year-old Cañon Drive restaurant.
It takes some kind of chutzpah to open a steakhouse named Wolfgang's
perstar, holds court. But Wolfgang is, in fact, owner Wolfgang Zwiener's given name and the name of a string of steakhouses, including three in New York City where he began. Puck sued. Zwiener kept the name and beneath the sign the words "by Wolfgang Zwiener" in tiny letters.
Is it that in these uncertain times, people gravitate toward something familiar, something that recalls the good life as it used to be envisioned? I can think of no other explanation why diners are flocking to Wolfgang's for a steak dinner to the tunes of "Satin Doll" and "Green Dolphin Street." Other than one truly great steak, the porterhouse for two, the restaurant doesn't have much else to recommend it.
Dining at Wolfgang's, I feel as if I'm in a time warp. With its bluster, bonhomie and fawning service, and the pianist belting out stale standards, the place seems left over from the Rat Pack era. Except instead of vodka martinis, deep-pocketed revelers are drinking cult California Cabernets.
Of course, Wolfgang's brings his Peter Luger cred to the table. Zwiener was a headwaiter at that well-known Brooklyn steakhouse for four decades before leaving to open his own version in Manhattan in 2004. He boasts of getting his beef from the same supplier and, like Luger's, dry-aging it for 28 days in his own aging box. Few places in L.A. take the trouble and expense to age their own beef.
Taking center stage
At Wolfgang's Steakhouse, Zwiener closely follows the Peter Luger playbook. The menu doesn't offer a long list of cuts, and the porterhouse for two takes center stage. The sides are similar, but he has added a couple of appetizers, and more important, a beefed-up wine list. The appointments are much fancier too, with oversized lighting fixtures, widely spaced tables and a Vegas vibe.
The menu, though, is a mixed experience.
The good? The porterhouse for two is a beautiful piece of dry-aged beef. It arrives sizzling in butter, charred on the outside, medium rare at the center, already cut off the bone. The plate is glazed with meat drippings and so hot it gives off palpable heat waves. As the waiter plates it out, he calls out the cuts — fillet, New York strip. And yes, he does leave the bone. Lamb chops are thick and flavorful, and the hefty veal chop, charred on the outside, is more appealing than most.
The Caesar is a decent rendition of the classic served chilled with anchovies mashed into the dressing. Lobster cocktail gets you a small whole lobster split lengthwise, the better to dig out the succulent meat. And it comes with a crock of feisty cocktail sauce.
Fries, either steak-cut or shoestring, are fine, but German potatoes, even ordered New York style, i.e., browned to almost a char on the edges, have to be some kind of acquired taste. Greasy burnt onions and potatoes just don't warrant further acquaintance. Creamed spinach has a slippery texture and slight metallic tang.
What doesn't work
And now for the really bad. That would be first and foremost the crab cake, a single sorry example, more breading than finely shredded crab. Beefsteak tomato and onion for two, cut in thick slices with fresh black pepper grounds, is a disappointment too. The tomato doesn't have much flavor, and it's not even deep red all the way through. The restaurant's signature salad — tomatoes, shrimp and cucumber in a lettuce cup doused in a standard vinaigrette — is a bust. And what's up with the blubbery slab of fried Canadian bacon as an appetizer?
Because my father would have ordered it, one night I splurge on the surf 'n' turf special (at $75 as opposed to a whole lobster at $85). The petite fillet is three or four fingers tall and nicely cooked, and the Australian lobster tail is a fat one, but welded to the top of the overturned lobster shell — criminally overcooked.
More telling, though, the kitchen isn't able to perform the most basic thing a steakhouse should be able to do, which is to cook your steak correctly every time. One night a rib-eye ordered medium rare didn't exhibit even a hint of pink at the center. When my guest called the waiter over to say the steak was overcooked, the waiter, to his credit, simply said, "It certainly is," and whisked the steak away to the kitchen. A long time later, another rib-eye arrived, this time so rare it was practically blue. We just gave up and moved on to dessert (the steak was taken off our bill, and they threw in the desserts as well to make it right).
A nod to a heritage
Dessert is predictable: Junior's cheesecake, which tastes like the original (specifically, straight Philadelphia cream cheese). There's also a typical ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. And in a nod to Zwiener's German heritage, there is strudel, which just misses because the wrapper that barely holds together chunks of apple seasoned with cinnamon, sugar and butter is but a single sheet of floury pastry.
Wolfgang's certainly has its fans. New Yorkers who frequent one of his other restaurants will stop in when they're in town, making the place a sort of club for carnivores.
The disciplined can have a fine meal here. Order some cherrystone clams on the half-shell and a Caesar salad followed by the porterhouse for two, or a lamb or veal chop and you'll come away thinking Wolfgang's is a swell restaurant. Stray further into the menu and your meal won't measure up, and at these prices, these days, it very well should. When you're spending close to $100 per person, you should get more for your money.
Wolfgang's Steakhouse ✭
LOCATION: 445 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0640; http://www.wolfgangssteakhouse.net/beverlyhills.
PRICE: Dinner appetizers, $2.95 to $20.95; soups and salads, $8.95 to $13.95; steaks and chops, $41.95 to $43.95; seafood and poultry, $21.95 to $33.95; sides, $6.95 to $12.95; desserts, $8.95. Corkage fee, $30.
DETAILS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Valet parking, $7.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.