Restaurant Reviews

Protein's protege

Al Biernat is a lot like Coca Cola, Disney, or General Electric. He's a rock-solid stock, the kind you might sink cash into if you had any hope of realizing a clean return on the financial grease trap that is the restaurant business. Just walk into his place some evening and watch him work.

There he is--tall, dark, lean, charismatic, well-tailored--seating some well-preened guests. Now he's setting a cleared table before he bolts to a booth to check the happiness quotient of guests who have just begun probing their entrees. Watch him swoop into the bar to transport the barely sipped glasses of wine for bar guests whose dining-room table has just been readied for seating.

But wait. What's that piercing squawk that sends Al scurrying back to the front of the restaurant? "Al, Al, Al, cumeer," chirps a desperately unrelenting gravel voice emanating from the center of the bar. Yet, despite this bird-like call, the speaker is not a trained upscale dining parrot. It's a makeup-caked, high-rise-hair blond, with an activated cell phone in one hand and a fork in the other, stabbing at one of Al's salads. Maybe she's found a June bug in the mesclun mix. Or maybe she just wants the rest of the bar to know she's on a first-name basis with the owner. Whatever the reason, Biernat treats this abrasive chirper with the same sincere grace with which he treats guests who come to gush over his new upscale dining hovel.

Al Biernat is the consummate professional, and fine-dining hospitality seems to rush through his veins. So it's no surprise that after a long stint as general manager of the Palm, he would be itching to chart out on his own with his new restaurant, Biernat's.

And what a course he has set. After he and a partner acquired Joey's--that Dallas-chic spot owned by the Vallone family in Houston that seemed to sink in the goo of its own self-fascination--he made subtle structural modifications that seemed to radically alter the feel of the space.

The outside is washed in pale yellow, and at the entrance, two slate tile-encrusted walls protrude outward at gentle angles. These walls serve as barricades to keep the wind from blowing out the gas lamps just inside the bar. At the front of the restaurant, the pizza ovens stuffed behind the bar have been removed, opening the dome over the front section that has been painted with a mural of bright-colored bubbles and elusive, watermark-like faces.

Joey's chaotic tile-work and cartoonish murals have been stripped from the walls. The broken tiles that encased the columns in the center of the dining room have been stripped and replaced with a texturization treatment to make them look like rough-hewn stone. The columns against the walls have been torn out so that the green leaf-patterned fabric booths could be installed flush along the north and south walls. Seating capacity has been expanded from 170 to 230.

Much of the rich woodwork as well as the backlit wine racks have been retained. But as a whole, the place is brighter, simpler, more approachable and appetizing.

To structure his menu, Biernat enlisted James Neel, former Brookhaven Country Club executive chef and onetime pastry chef at the French Room. For Biernat, Neil's timing couldn't have been better. "I was about to open my own place when Al and I hooked up," he says. "So I gave him all my dishes, pretty much everything I've been working on."

The pricey menu emphasizes steaks, chops, and pastas with a few seafood selections splashed in. But unlike the smooth elegance and calm authority of Biernat the man, Biernat's the restaurant is a bit rusty. It's a venue of two minds: One embraces flawless elegance, while the other is rattled by clumsy execution. It's schizophrenia due perhaps more to the frustrating kinks of business infancy than any strategic flaws. (Biernat's opened in late June.) But these ripples will have to be ironed out, and fast. Because at these prices, forgiveness will be in short supply.

Al's salad, a collection of hearts of palm, crab, shrimp, and slivers of red bell pepper scattered in a mound of greens, lotioned in a mayonnaise-based-dressing, primed me for the entrees to follow. The shrimp and crab were tender, moist, and rich, and save for a few fibrous chunks of palm heart, everything was light, crisp, and balanced.

But the Caesar salad with a sesame-lavosh cracker gave me pause. Arranged over a large, flat plate, the lettuce was fresh and crisp, but the rather shallow-flavored dressing was spiked with too much lemon, transforming this potential example of simple elegance into a wobbly culinary ballet in work boots.

Since the fattened steer is the foundation of the Biernat menu, I expected perfection in the flesh. I almost got it too. The aged New York strip, a prime cut held back a minimum of 30 days, was seasoned with just salt and pepper. The thick, perfectly grilled meat was juicy, tender, silky, and rich. But one end of it was coated in tough, pearly white connective tissue, making this section particularly difficult to chew. Perhaps this is a minor dining distraction in a lesser venue, but it becomes a serious breach in a place that charges $29.50 for a hunk of protein slapped on a plate with just a garnish to keep it company.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz