SMITH & WOLLENSKY -- 1112 19TH ST. NW. 202-466-1100. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 4 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 to 11:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $12.75, entrees $12.50 to $25.75; dinner appetizers $5.75 to $13.50, entrees $18.50 to $38. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $90 per person.
WOLLENSKY'S GRILL -- 1112 19TH ST. NW. 202-466-1100. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner daily 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.75 to $11.75; dinner appetizers $4.75 to $13.25; entrees $9.50 to $19.75. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 to $50 per person.
People are crazy about new restaurants. So what if, within three blocks of Smith & Wollensky, we already have four top-notch steakhouses, all of which feature tubs of creamed spinach, manhole-size cakes of hash browns or mountains of mashed potatoes, and steaks that could fulfill the daily ration of meat for a city the size of, say, Alexandria? We're always hungry for one more.
So Smith & Wollensky is packed, jammed, rockin'. At least until the next steakhouse hits downtown.
This big, flashy Manhattan import is not all its early fans hoped it would be. On the other hand, it's not the indignity the cynics profess it to be. It's a chain restaurant where you can drop nearly a hundred bucks a person for a dinner that's most notable for its poundage; but with a road map you can spend far less and enjoy it more.
This is really two restaurants. To the right of the entrance is the sprawling, manly and clubby Smith & Wollensky, with leather booths and green marble panels. On the left is Wollensky's Grill, a little brother of a dining room with less wood, less brass, and baseball mitts instead of moose heads on the walls. The Grill doesn't take reservations, but in every other way it's more accommodating. And its prices can be one-quarter to one-third less than in the Big Room, even for exactly the same items.
Most of the action is in the main dining room. It's a whirlwind. Platters too big for safe transport are rolled on carts -- wouldn't want to throw out a waiter's back with those 44-ounce porterhouses or three-pound lobsters. Everything's big: the welcome at the door, the wine list, the steak knives, the linen napkins, the drinks. The cooking, too, is devoted to big flavors: Cajun spices for the rib steak, jalapenos in the applesauce that accompanies the pork. The steaks are said to have developed big flavor from their dry-aging in-house, but there's not so much flavor that you notice it underneath their well-charred surfaces.
Once the restaurant has impressed you with size, it flatters you with services (not service, which has its ups and downs, but services). A big spender like you shouldn't need to wrestle with the lobster shell, so the waiter removes all the meat (and half the fun) before delivering it. The trout is prepared whole, but the waiter immediately volunteers to remove the head if it offends you. Should you be sharing your steak, the waiter will eagerly carve your meat, unless you protest.
If you're going to enjoy yourself at Smith & Wollensky, you've got to be prepared to roll with the punches. If the waiter tells you that the filet mignon is "the most marbled cut" -- well, you can't expect him to be a butcher as well as a pitchman. And if the wine list is heavy on the three-digit bottles, well, what else would you expect with a 22-ounce New York strip?
Looking for things to gripe about? Smith & Wollensky is a rich lode. On five visits, I've found much I'd never care to encounter again. But there's also plenty that could make me look forward to a sixth visit. The trick is to skip the obvious.
Those big steaks, no matter how aged, how beautifully charred and rare, lack flavor and marbling. That lobster is sweet but flabby. Prime rib is tasty only at the edges, and even when pink it's unaccountably dry. The kitchen shows no understanding of salads, except that the Wollensky salad's potato croutons are inspired. The creamed spinach is thick and tired; the hash browns have all the taste and texture of frozen potatoes. The crab cake appetizer isn't bad, but paying $12.50 for a smallish, thickly crumbed patty of shredded crab is enough to set your teeth on edge. Then again, $13.50 for a crab cocktail with big lumps that taste like "virtual" crab is worse.
I've tried the fish, and it's all right, but as one waiter exclaimed, "You don't come to Smith & Wollensky for fish, do you?" Nope, I'd venture into that main dining room for two things: crackling pork shank, a 21/2-pound monster that's been simmered till tender, coated with pineapple-mustard glaze and deep-fried until it lives up to its name (it's $23.50 here, but $4.75 less in the Grill). Or lamb chops, three ribs thick, tangy with mustard, and plump with juices. If you've got to have something accompanying the meat (besides the zingy caraway kraut and explosively peppered applesauce that come with the pork), the onion rings will do. They're fat and crunchy, greaseless to the point of tasting dry. And if you seek a first course, try the soups; a special of mushroom bisque was a bit odd, more like gravy than soup, but you could grow fond of it. Pea soup is bland yet comforting.
Unless you think bigger is always better, though, dining at the Grill makes more sense. Who needs a 22-ounce sirloin for $28.75? The 14-ounce Grill version at $19.75 is just as crusty and thick, and it fulfills the expectations of a $20 piece of meat. You can order the Grill's scaled-down versions of most of Smith & Wollensky's dishes, or ask for the gargantuan ones imported from the next-door menu. Your seat won't be as cushioned, but you'll have better bread: The Grill's pretzel rolls with mustard butter are fun, far more delicious than the poufy pumpernickel and gritty corn bread in the main dining room.
And in the Grill you can order a cobb salad, as large as a centerpiece and striped with crisp bacon, blue cheese, diced tomato, avocado, chicken and chopped egg. It's like an enormous club sandwich in a bowl. Wollensky's burger is thick as a steak, wide as a plate and not greasy; I could wish for a little lighter handling, and at $9.50 it ought to have a more meaty flavor. But accompanied by its steak fries and slaw, it's nearly a day's worth of eating. The steak sandwich reaches for glory but is held back by a heavy roll, acrid browned onions and mushrooms that taste canned. As for the roast beef hash, that tasteless prime rib doesn't learn much in a frying pan.
Usually a steakhouse is the last place I'd order dessert, but at Smith & Wollensky I'd plan my meal around it. The waiters promote the doughnuts, and they're a cute show in their paper bag, with miniature canning jars of boozy fruit jams to accompany them. Too bad they're so gummy and sugary. Also too bad the chocolate creme brulee tastes like pudding from a box. But no great loss: There's a scrumptious coconut cake with shavings of fresh coconut and a filling that tastes like a cross between meringue and Bavarian cream. Alongside comes a huge coconut tuile. And the cheesecake is worth the trip it makes from the Bronx. It's the classic, unsullied, just cream cheese, eggs, a touch of sugar and loving care. But then, who can resist a root beer float made with sarsaparilla ice cream? Smith & Wollensky can keep its steak knives; when I come for dinner, I want a straw.