By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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Richard Nixon and Sen. Joe McCarthy wear nervous smiles while seated at one of Christy's tables, steaks in front of them, a flash of the bulb capturing the moment for black-and-white eternity. Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr., mug for the camera, each waving a lamb chop in the air; it appears they've had a few drinks. President Truman, his bow tie askew, hoists a champagne glass with a perky blonde, an unidentified man in a pin-striped suit looking on disapprovingly. No, these photos weren't really shot at Christy's, the venerable steak house in the Gables -- it's only 23 years old. But it seems to have been around through many an era -- these are the sort of photos that would've been shot here. It's that kind of place.
This doesn't mean Christy's is glamorous. Rather it is "clubby," a place where powerful men feel at home, and women feel as though they're in a club for powerful men. It's a comfortable, intimate place to dine, the 175 or so seats divided into four cozy dining rooms. The walls are a warm, orange-red color with light brown trim (tasteful art prints in neat black frames hang upon them, not photos of famous people); carpeted floors and plush, upholstered chairs contribute to the classic steak-house look. The lighting is soft, music played so low that I'm not even certain there is music (a plus, as one of the least attractive aspects of eating out often is being subjected to various restaurant owners' ill-advised notions of what constitutes a pleasant dining soundtrack).
The era when a porterhouse, baked potato, and caesar salad was as haute as American food could get is long past, yet the basic steak-house approach taken at Christy's still attracts as many enthusiasts as ever -- on weekends the place is positively overflowing with eager carnivores. The clientele is dressed conservatively, not formally -- a snapshot assessment might lead one to guess most tables are filled with mature locals and businessmen with their families on vacation. During lunch, the families and vacationers are gone.
3101 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
Waiters aredressed formally, and service is nothing short of spectacular -- Miami's restaurateurs would do well to send their waitstaffs here for dinner so they can see how things are supposed to be done.
Christy's crew perform their tasks with a stealth efficiency no less breathtaking than a seamless magic trick -- how'd they manage to refill the bread basket without anyone at the table noticing? While most waiters are wont to wander into conversation to inquire if you'd like more water, or if the soup is agreeable, or whatever, the waiters here impart only vital information pertaining to the meal, and do so in a personable manner, without ever interrupting. We learned later that they're pretty adept at flambéing baked Alaskas, too.
Oysters Rockefeller first appeared in 1899 at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans, the chef there coming up with the recipe as a substitute for escargot, whose import from Europe at that time had slowed to a snail's pace. The original preparation calls for the oyster to be baked and browned in its shell with a topping made from watercress pestled in a mortar with scallions, celery, chervil, tarragon, breadcrumbs, butter, Tabasco, and absinthe. Nowadays spinach and Pernod are routinely substituted, and sometimes, as here at Christy's, Parmesan is placed in the mix. This is a rich recipe even without the cheese (thus the name "Rockefeller"), and, with a cheesy caesar salad to follow, is for my money too lavish a prelude to the robust meal ahead.
No problem importing escargot these days, the standard garlic-butter version offered here as another starter. Crabcakes, a shrimp cocktail made from two truly jumbo shrimp, and a fresh sea bass ceviche with minced peppers, lime juice, and cilantro round out the appetizers. Black bean soup, a purée with pleasantly meaty undertones, is served with a snifter of sherry on the side.
Every entrée is preceded by a generous plate of Christy's caesar salad, one of the most celebrated in town -- yet I have come not to praise caesar, but to bury it. I am as appreciative as anyone regarding the crisp romaine leaves, softly crunchy croutons, and glistening, bright brown anchovies, but the dressing was so permeated with sharp Parmesan that no garlic or lemon flavors could be discerned; I found the salad a little too salty and way too potent.
Main courses also include vegetables and a hefty baked potato with sour cream and sliced scallion options. Dinner prices range from $19.50 to $35.95, which isn't bad for a complete, filling, quality meal. Of course the cost will rise commensurately with the wine you choose, the moderately sized selection encompassing well-known labels from America and France, with an emphasis on hearty, beef-friendly reds. Non-reserve bottles range from $20 to $40.
Although Christy's motto is Famous for Prime Steaks and Fresh Seafood, most diners seem to order the steaks. Can't blame them for doing so, as the beef is prime, Midwestern, corn-fed, and dry-aged. The menu correctly informs that aging takes four to six weeks and results in a significant loss of weight through shrinkage. It is therefore more costly, but produces rich, flavorful beef that is naturally tender. Amen. Offerings include a 14-ounce New York strip, 18-ounce rib-eye, 24-ounce porterhouse, 8- or-12-ounce filet mignon, and a trio of thick double lamb chops, broiled to succulence and sided by kelly-green mint jelly that is so old-fashioned and so delicious in tandem with the lamb.
Veal was tasty too, a pair of generously sized cutlets with fresh porcini mushrooms and champagne-based brown sauce. The accompanying vegetable, which comes with many of the main courses, was a medley of steamed carrots, green beans, yellow squash, and zucchini -- unseasoned, undercooked, fat-free, and flavor-free.
Whenever I eat prime rib I feel as though I'm at somebody's wedding, or, worse, a bar mitzvah. Maybe that's why I don't order it much, though the real reason would probably be that non-steak houses rarely offer it.
Associations with tasteless catering halls aside, I've always been partial to this cut of beef. I see the difference between a sirloin strip steak and prime rib as being like that between a futon mattress and Sealy Posturepedic -- the extra depth provides a lot more comfort. I opted for the 14- to 16-ounce serving, brought to the table an impeccable medium-rare (defined by the menu as "red, warm center"), a moistening marbling meandering through the meat.
Seafood selections are limited to a balsamic- and honey mustard-glazed salmon, a couple of shrimp treatments (scampi and fried), fish du jour, and herb-crusted fillet of sea bass that actually contained just a mere sprinkling of parsley on top. That was all right, as a horseradish sauce broiled into the sizable fillet provided more than enough spunk. Grilled asparagus came alongside, with, again, the baked potato -- you can substitute mashed potatoes upon request and, for that matter, ask for your fish to be blackened, grilled, sautéed au meunière, and so on. Christy's is big on being accommodating.
We have scientist Benjamin Thompson to thank for baked Alaska, his studies on the resistance of egg whites to heat laying the groundwork for the browned meringue topping that crowns this renowned dessert. Christy's version, billed as "for two" but hefty enough for four, is classically prepared with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream with a thin layer of sponge cake, covered in meringue, browned in the oven, and finished tableside, where the waiter pours a glass of cherry liqueur over the mound and ignites it in a crowd-pleasing show. Blackout cake was less impressive visually, but the dark chocolate cake, layered with equally dark chocolate ganache and topped with darker chocolate icing, was darkly scrumptious.
Christy's may not have been around during the fabled Gables of long ago, but the food and ambiance evoke the time when men were men, a steak was a steak, and McCarthy and Nixon were plotting against us. Ah, things change yet remain the same. Christy's just remains the same, which is what makes it so very charming.