At Monterey, you can have your steak and your pronouns too.
Glamour and Gloss at a Gorgeous New Midtown East Restaurant
As some of you may know, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away known as the 1990’s, I was a lawyer. I worked at some fancy firms, Charbourne & Parke and Shearman & Sterling, before clerking for a couple of federal judges, and then making the leap to the world of restaurants.
While I don’t have many good memories of the firms, or of the patriarchy and overt sexism that existed in the small hours of the mornings in those Midtown office buildings, I do fondly recall the meals. As a summer associate we were wined and dined at midtown’s finest—I’ll be dating myself here but places like The Quilted Giraffe, Remi, Le Bernardin, The Rainbow Room, Maloney & Porcelli, Sparks, and more. I may have been overworked, underappreciated, and regularly stomped upon for being a woman working in M&A, but I was very nicely overpaid and I ate very well.
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The other night, at dinner at the beautiful new Art Deco Brasserie Monterey, where chef James Tracey serves ice cold martinis, whole roasted prime rib, and flaming brown butter glazed bananas foster from custom-carved tableside carts (you will want to take the carts home with you, but they sadly don’t fit into a standard purse, I tried), I thought back to those three martini lunches and closing dinners. How different they would be today in the wake of #MeToo. And how different they would be at Monterey, a stunning new American restaurant resurrected from the testosterone-soaked bones of Maloney & Porcelli.
Designer Scott Kester and co-owner Dudi Sasoon have transformed what was a boy’s club steakhouse into a rose-hued gala of glamour on two floors, a main room and a lido deck of sorts, the entire effect reminiscent of a cruise ship; it’s where The Love Boat would dock after Puerta Vallarta.
Banquettes are wide and deep, many are U-shaped for large parties to snuggle in and take selfies. No filters will be needed for your photos as the lighting in here is magnificent; warm and golden, rosy like a sunset is happening in the far corner. The marble bar is long and sexy, a serpentine shape, with a mirrored wall of spirits soaring to the ceiling. A staircare fit for Scarlet O’Hara (or Julie McCoy) leads up to a second floor with a speakeasy, and more banquettes for big groups to gather.
As my friend said at dinner, “This is where the non-binary lawyers come to close their deals.” Indeed, with Monterey, the power dining room has been utterly reinvented — it’s soft, curvy, and luxurious in its decided femininity. This is a restaurant that says: you can have your steak and your pronouns too.
Now, about the food. It’s terrific. Would you expect anything less from James Tracey? The chef at Isabelle’s on Park Avenue South honed his chops with Tom Colicchio at Craft, Gramercy Tavern and also with Eric Ripert at Lespinasse. So yeah, the guy can cook.
There’s a raw bar, naturally, but you could skip the briny oysters and clams if you like and instead have salmon belly sashimi decorated with tart green apple and spicy horseradish, or a tuna tartare gloriously dressed with uni and soy. I was taken with this salad: castelfranco (a bitter green like radicchio), with figs, Asian pear, pumpkin and aged sherry vinaigrette.
At Monterey, what the team is calling an American Brasserie, it’s clear James does not feel hemmed in by culinary or geographical borders, and I love that. He shows off his passion for playing with flavors from all over the map. While there are Asian leanings—like that salmon sashimi, and his crispy lobster with avocado jalapeno, and kumquats—he honors American classics like Steak Tartare, but the beef is smoked, the quail egg is pickled and the accompanying potato chips are fantastic.
You may have come here for the steaks and you would not be wrong. There are plenty of steaks fit for all genders and pronouns. If Prime Rib is your thing, you don’t need to wait until your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah to get some. James’ Prime Rib is a beauty, rolled around in a cart so lovely I’d like to curl up inside of it and cuddle with the tender roasted steak, sliced tableside and plated so it’s pink juices run into a nice pool to be mopped up by your potato puree or the bread (more on the bread below).
He’s also doing a Porterhouse, a 30-day Dry Aged Strip, and a Tenderloin, for those who like something more salty and charred. If you’ve had James’ cooking before, you know he has a way with pasta – and he’s got some great ones on the menu. The Porcini Lasagne with Black Truffle Fonduta is possibly too rich, it’s nearly chocolatey in its intensity. It was marvelous, but too much. Spaghetti with crab and uni was more my speed—like spaghetti got tossed around in the salty sea.
While James clearly loves to play with culinary classics, Italian flavors, and Asian influences, it’s possible what he does best at Monterey are the dishes that channel his love of New Orleans; there’s a lot of exceptional Creole cooking happening here. Don’t miss the Barbecue Prawns in a rich, rustic crayfish bisque over Anson Mills Grits. It’s a dish you could easily be eating at Commander’s Palace. Ditto the Montauk Tilefish, a glistening white fish, in a spicy crayfish sauce with greens and lobster.
Now a word about the bread, baked by pastry chef Juan Pablo who’s cooked at Picholine, Boqueria, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Zengo, who does the breads and desserts at Barbounia and Dagon, too. Let me first say that I am sorry if you are gluten-free. I am sorry if you have Celiac. I am sorry about this in general because it’s hard to live with this sort of condition, but I am even more sorry at this moment because I must talk about the bread here. The breads – there are two – and both must be requested. The first is a Sesame Lavash, an inflated pillowy pita, ballooned like a poof, so soft and warm you might be tempted to lay your weary head upon it before ripping it and dipping it into the Carrot Tahini. The Comte and Onion Bread is like an old school Jewish delicatessen onion roll married a pull-apart Challah. This is one delicious offspring. I took a loaf home for the next morning. I wish I could say it lasted until afternoon. But it didn’t.
You’ll have the Bananas Foster for dessert, even if you don’t want dessert because you’ll want to linger, and it’s fun to watch the butter sizzle and the bananas flame, and what could be wrong with caramelized bananas and vanilla ice cream? Nothing. There are also cinnamon sugar donuts, a Grand Marnier Souffle, and a Dark Chocolate Tart with sea salt and freshly whipped cream. Those are all great choices, but you must have the Cloud Cake, an ethereal layered sponge with lime and strawberry. It’s beautiful, delicate, and feminine.
You’ll sink back into your oversized banquette when you’ve put your spoon down for the last time, and feel satisfied and happy. That’s what we want from a meal, from a restaurant, from life. It’s all there on East 50th Street, a beautiful reimagined Midtown spot for all the pronouns and all the people. This is Monterey.