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Upscale dining at Barclay Prime offers a few surprises

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY  LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media

We visited Barclay Prime twice in recent months for celebratory dinners — once in late May for an anniversary dinner with six diners and once in late August for a birthday dinner with five diners.
Barclay Prime is one of two Stephen Starr steakhouses. (The other is Butcher & Singer.) It opened slightly more than 10 years ago at 237 S. 18th St. in Philly’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square in what used to be the Barclay Hotel
At Barclay Prime there is no Starr gimmick like the giant Buddha statue in Buddakan or the motorcycle hanging over the bar at El Vez. Even the obnoxious, cannon-loud techno music is absent. And the clubby dark mahogany ambience of most steakhouses has been replaced by light-colored woods (yes, the cutout walnut bookshelves are there), contemporary leather swivel chairs, gorgeous marble tables and crystal chandeliers.
The bar/lounge in front is New York-stylish, peopled by glamoristas who look as if they were sent over by Central Casting. Even in the unisex bathroom, one woman draped in a clingy dress that could have jumped out of Vogue magazine looked as if she should be walking down the aisle to pick up her Oscar, not leaving a bathroom stall.
Most of us rhapsodized about most of what we ate and were not bothered by the stratospheric prices. There were some glitches, though, which I will get to later.
Perhaps the ultimate in decadence is represented by the cheesesteak that costs $120 (for real). At this price they will not be taking too many customers away from Geno’s or Pat’s Steaks.
The cheesesteak is made with Wagyu ribeye that comes from American Kobe-style cattle, which are fed only grains and are pampered, as they are in Japan, where Kobe beef originated. I don’t know if they are given manicures and massages and are taken out to dinner and a movie, but they certainly deserve to be. The $120 tariff also will get you a half-bottle of champagne.
When Barclay Prime opened, there was a blizzard of publicity about the cheesesteak, which then cost $100. There were also protests over the use of foie gras (duck liver or goose liver) in them since the animals are force-fed huge amounts of grain and fat to make their livers swell up to about 10 times their normal size before they are killed.
This hideous process, known as “gavage,” makes the liver meat very rich, delicate and buttery. After Barclay Prime’s use of foie gras was publicized, there were protests by animal rights activists, whereupon Starr announced that he would no longer sell fois gras in any of his restaurants, that he would use poached lobster instead. Apparently, though, after Starr pacified the protesters, he went back to using fois gras because the menu states very clearly that the cheesesteak now includes “fois gras (and) truffled cheese whiz on a fresh baked sesame roll.”
The steaks are priced from $43 for an 8-ounce filet mignon to $59 for a 24-ounce dry-aged porterhouse to $115 for a 10-ounce Japanese Wagyu New York strip to $130 for a 50-ounce Pa. Tomahawk ribeye to $195 for an 18-ounce Japanese Wagyu ribeye. And if you want sauce, that’s $4 extra. Seafood starts at $35 for Scottish salmon and goes up to $62 for wild Dover sole (there is no tame Dover sole) to a mere $85 for butter-poached lobster.
When a steak is served, a server offers you a choice of several different steak knives, which may even include a florid description of each one. (I don’t know how the servers keep a straight face.)
This is amusing, but also ridiculously pretentious. Won’t any steak knife cut the mustard — and the steak? After all, for about $50 or $100 or more, a steak should be tender enough for a butter knife to cut it; shouldn’t it?
Almost everything we tasted was superb, starting with the amazing popovers that start the meal. The steaks and seafood dishes (with one exception) were simply sublime on both occasions. The same applied both times to desserts, again with one exception.
Two cocktails I tasted on two different occasions were nothing special and way overpriced at about $14 each. Ditto the white wines by the glass — mediocre Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay that were significantly overpriced for $14 or $15 a glass. And stingy pours at that.
The salmon was good, but no better than we have had at Red Lobster and not as good as we have had at Ruby Tuesday for less than half the price. One friend at our table could not eat any more, but she ordered coconut cream pie to take home. She told us she ate it the next day and that “it was absolutely terrible.”
The service was very professional on both occasions by the server and a virtual army of “runners,” although we were charged $12 for a baked potato (that is not a typo) that we did not order and did not receive. We were anxious to leave, however, so I did not look around for the waiter to point out the mistake. The entire bill, including tip, came to $340 for the two of us. That did not count the $24 for valet parking.
For more information, call (215) 732-7560 or visit www.barclayprime.com.

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