Economic slump? What slump? You’d never guess we’re in one from the packed rooms on my visits to Steakhouse 85 in New Brunswick, where slabs of aged, prime ribeye, Delmonico and strip steak cost $45—and that’s before you top them optionally with Maytag blue cheese ($2), applewood bacon ($11) or seared foie gras ($19), or tack on a side dish ranging from one of seven kinds of potatoes (mostly $5 each) to classic green vegetables ($5 to $7) to lobster mac-and-cheese ($18).
Such is the American steak house paradigm, also evidenced here by the ritual presentation of raw cuts to your table, and by the handsome decor of dark, gleaming wood, long bar with sports on TVs, and banquettes and booths. To their credit, owners Matthew “Matty” Terranova, who serves as the spirited maître d’, and Brian Karluk, the accomplished CIA-trained chef, have lightened up the testosterone-heavy decor. They have also included seriously good seafood.
These men first worked together in similar capacities at Princeton’s Witherspoon Grill. In November 2008 they took over this space (formerly Gaebel’s), and their creation has been highly rated by both critics and the public ever since. “When we first became serious about opening our own place, we had no clue as to concept,” Karluk admits. “Finally, our idea was to find a city in New Jersey that’s on the ground floor of a huge upswing. We settled on New Brunswick, figuring it was better than it was 10 years ago, and will be better over the next 10 years. Despite a big corporate clientele, such as Johnson & Johnson, there was no steak house. And it lacked a place with middle-of-the-road price points.”
Steakhouse 85’s price point is clearly more high-end than middle-of-the-road, but look at it from the owners’ point of view. In the beginning, the pair put lower-priced items like flatiron steak and meatloaf on the menu. “They didn’t sell!” Karluk exclaims. “Customers went for the more expensive stuff.” He and Terranova soon found they had two kinds of customers. “One is the corporate steak house clientele. The other is a group of regulars, growing every week, that doesn’t want steak every time. These are the customers who go especially for our seafood specials.”
Since Terranova had been a fishmonger for 34 years, the daily specials often revolve around his excellent finds at the Fulton Fish Market, which one night included an outstanding North Atlantic halibut. From the regular menu, dayboat scallops, simply seared, outclassed everything else I ate over two visits. One night they sat over a bed of luscious sweet-potato risotto, an accompaniment I appreciate since it obviates the need for a side dish. Of the sides we tried, mac-and-cheese was rich and buttery, and creamed spinach was more about the tasty spinach than the cream. Others included ho-hum scalloped potatoes, batter-heavy Vidalia onion rings and pale shoestring fries.
After my initial meal, I left mystified by the restaurant’s popularity. My personal selections had hit a sweet spot: a classic iceberg-lettuce wedge with blue cheese and bacon, the evening’s special veal porterhouse (massive, full-flavored and a better deal than the beef) and an ethereal tiramisu. But my tablemates were less happy, and with good reason. Despite its name, crispy calamari was in fact limp. A starter of warm mozzarella with prosciutto was clunky and heavy, and shrimp cocktail consisted of five overly chilled, not-very-large specimens.
Such shortcomings could be forgiven if only the steaks had fulfilled their promise. The menu proudly names Premium Gold Angus as the supplier; Karluk considers the quality of their beef to be the most consistent year-round. Over two visits I sampled the prime sirloin, filet mignon and dry-aged Delmonico, as well as a burger. Only the burger delivered a wonderful punch of beef flavor. The steaks may be dry aged, but what I ate simply lacked the fine texture and mineral-tinted flavor characteristic of dry aging.
Roasted chicken breast, hot and juicy (on a bed of flavorful ratatouille, thank you very much) proves that Karluk’s kitchen knows its stuff. The dining room crew, too, is well trained, if a bit robotic, as they rattle off the differences among the various cuts and between dry- and wet-aging techniques. On the main wine list, which matched well to the menu, we found an enjoyable Uppercut Cab ($55), although I strongly suggest ignoring the $25-and-under list. We failed to come up with a winner despite three tries.
Desserts range from a light and airy tiramisu and indulgent bananas Foster to middling crème brûlée and apple crisp.
When you dine at a traditional steak house, you’re committing to spending big bucks. Steakhouse 85 rewards that commitment in many regards, though not the most important one—the steaks.