Executive chef Sean Brasel tried a Lincoln Road meatery once before: KISS Steakhouse, located in the Albion Hotel, opened and closed in 2002. The restaurant's failure probably had more to do with the scantily clad go-go dancers gyrating on Plexiglas stages above the tables than the food's quality: The steaks, as I recall, were excellent. And while belly dancers and flame throwers never scared away the clientele of Touch (Brasel's other rowdy Lincoln Road eatery), KISS proved that not everyone wants to be titillated while masticating on a T-bone.
Live and learn: The same group has gotten everything just right with Meat Market (beginning with the name; one shudders to think where they might have headed next after going from Touch to KISS).
It's hard to envision this space having formerly housed Pacific Time. Some diners at our table thought the room appeared larger than before, some insisted it looked smaller, but all agreed the radical makeover looks fantastic. The décor is incongruously forged from materials that range from warm wood and stone to cool translucent fiber-optic panels suspended from the ceiling. Then again, there is such a hubbub of activity spilling from the crowded entrance to the bustling bar (and raw bar) area to the dazzling dining room that climate and clientele meld into one dizzying, effervescently sexy scene.
The food, too, shows pizzazz. Diners are brought an assortment of soft rolls and butter, followed by a four-compartment platter that on the night we visited was packed with spiced cauliflower, spicy wasabi peas, fried garbanzo beans, and assorted olives. The plates to come included a similar panoply of potent flavor combinations — something of a Brasel signature. Among the crudo selections, mahi-mahi gets spiked with jalapeño juice, tequila, and cilantro; tuna tartare touts ginger, soy, and mango molé; oysters on-the-half-shell are chaperoned (strong-armed?) by yuzu-truffle mignonette, "atomic horseradish," and habanero cocktail sauce.
Among hot appetizers, "crispy crab tail" is the most distinctive; according to chef de cuisine Aaron Taylor, only one or two purveyors in the country carry this cut, which is a medallion-shaped flap pulled from Alaskan king crab. It comes served as two thin, tender, circular scaloppine that have been bathed in egg batter and pan-fried. A stir-fry of bok choy, shiitakes, and micro shiso sprouts propped the crab rounds, the pile pooled in passion fruit butter sauce punched with sesame-and-aji-panca oil. Another highly recommended starter is a single, singular, sizable ravioli of slightly sweet gourmandise cheese, ethereal bites of which get embraced and contrasted by a marmalade of Harris Ranch beef, wilted locally grown arugula leaves, a scattering of walnuts, and light lemon vinaigrette.
The only dish that left us cold was a trio of tuna tacos — cubes of seared fish arriving in fragile rice paper shells, the add-ins consisting of cabbage, grilled watermelon, guajillo chilies, and roasted garlic sauce. The tastes blended well enough, but using my hands to pick up crumbled taco pieces in so posh a surrounding made me feel as if I'd been banished to the children's table.
If you haven't figured it out by now, Chef Brasel obviously has a thing for chili peppers; he is also blessed with a deft hand in applying them. Chipotles, for instance, provide a perfectly proper prick of piquancy to the smoky bacon broth that bolsters a pristine Florida grouper. Soft strips of conch, borlotti beans, and browned goat butter are the finishing touches — the sort of entrée Escoffier might have dreamed up had he indulged in recreational drugs (and he known what chipotle was). Wild salmon cooked in cedar paper and brushed with candied jalapeño-orange glaze, one of the chef's old tricks from Touch, looked delectable — in front of the person at the next table, that is. We'll catch this one on a return.
It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that most folks come to the Meat Market for meat. They surely won't be disappointed with a center cut of wood-grilled New York steak, the crust so crisply caramelized it could double as the cap to a beef brûlée; the tenderloin-tender meat within was nearly as soft as that pudding might be. This steak, as well as 12-ounce filet mignon, are offered in half portions, which is such a smart thing to do. Eating nine ounces of New York strip is — let's be honest — better for salubrity and weight than indulging in 18 ounces, and spending $26 instead of $47 portends better economic well-being. Plus fewer doggy bags are needed, which environmentalists will be happy about — if not Fido.
Other under-$30 options include prime deckle steak prepared three ways, wild African pheasant, that luscious grouper, and braised brisket. The last gets cooked with mango, Cuban sweet potato, and wild mushrooms in a coconut-infused broth. This is probably not your mother's brisket preparation, but the tropical touches proved tasty with the meat. The prime cut was presented uniquely too — an unsliced, steak-like rectangular slab that unfurled into soft, juicy strings.
It is again being less than prophetic in concluding that most folks don't come to a steak house to eat brisket. And some will shy away from the "reserve cuts" too, but only because of the cost. Reserve prices top out at $95 for a six-ounce A5 Kobe tenderloin, followed by a 30-ounce Harris Ranch bone-in New York steak ($84, for two). From the same renowned ranch, we rounded up a 16-ounce bone-in filet mignon with a clove-and-allspice accented ancho-and-coffee spice rub ($49). The fat filet was outrageously soft and succulent, the beef taste as subtly pleasing as veal — a great steak that would have been greater without the gritty, potently seasoned crust; in this case, Bernal's blitz of flavors proved disproportionate to the delicate meat. The more assertive, gamier notes of buffalo tenderloin steak are probably more capable of standing up to its "chili and espresso" dusting.
The list of four steak butters and ten steak sauces, each of which is respectively available for a $3 and $2 surcharge, reads like a court summation of Brasel's punch-drunk charges of flavor (and I mean this in the best way): chili molé butter, Jack Daniel's pasilla garlic sauce, smoked paprika chimichurri, mango and Scotch bonnet sauce, and atomic horseradish truffle sauce. For the traditionalists, there is Cabernet reduction, peppercorn cognac sauce, and béarnaise. Which of these pair best with Meat Market's delectable steaks? That's like asking which veil would best mask Carla Bruni Sarkozy.
Our favorite among Meat Market's 21 side dishes were crisp "tater tots" retooled with a tad of Gouda cheese, although caramelized Brussels sprouts flecked with bacon and almonds, as well as a gratin of Yukon Gold potatoes, apples, and aged goat cheese, disappeared from the serving dishes just as quickly. The only bum steer was a risotto of barley with fresh artichokes and enough garlic to gag a gaucho.
The wine list treads a global terrain but covers more ground in domestic regions. Diners can spend anywhere from $40 to $4,500 a bottle, with most of the big, steak-friendly reds going for $65 to $300 (with an average markup, according to the sommelier, of 28 to 35 percent). There are about 20 wines offered by the glass.
The notion of deconstructing banana cream pie and layering the components into a martini glass just seems wrong — but damn if it wasn't delicious with its bronzed meringue topping. Also scrumptious was a mildly tart sour-cream cheesecake sided by a strangely satisfying squiggle of translucent jelly.
On one visit, service was spotty (long waits for nearly everything). On a return, it was spot-on — our waiter's tableside manner and his timing in tandem with buspeople was simply impeccable. Overall, the crew is well trained and well versed in the menu, and the management team, experienced from its time at Touch, seems to have all systems in place. This is one Market still worth investing in.