Restaurant Review: The Willett House (3 Stars)
When was the last time you saw a T-bone steak on a menu? It seems like a glorious excess of the fifties, something people ate in a more optimistic age. We were a big people back then, requiring big cuts of meat. Astronauts needed protein!
Times are more restrained now, at least in terms of steak size. Even temples of beef like New York City’s Smith & Wollensky don’t list a T-bone or Porterhouse steak on the regular menu. What’s a big, beef-loving guy supposed to do?
Head for Willett House, a two-story brick building in downtown Port Chester. It specializes in T-bone and Porterhouse steaks. That’s why people go there. “Some people feel more manly ordering a T-bone than a filet mignon,” observes Casey Cobb, who, as owner of Hedley Feedlot in Hedley, Texas, knows the beef business (and my cousin Alice Hall Cobb) intimately.
If you’re a little fuzzy on your bovine anatomy, the most tender and expensive cuts come from the short loin, the steer’s “lower back,” from the last rib to the pelvic girdle. But there is steak, and steak. Why do steaks at expensive restaurants—especially great steakhouses—taste so much better than what you can buy at the grocery store?
It starts with the selection of calves, according to Cobb. Breeders know the lineage of their animals, and only those with a “superior genetic heritage” go into a program designed to turn out prime steakhouse cuts. Growers look at 100 calves with the right parents—but only 60 will qualify for a restaurant “prime beef” program based on their “muscle score,” which is determined by an experienced eye. These 60 will get certain advantages: a higher grain diet, less traveling, less stress. If a calf gets sick and has to be treated with antibiotics, it’s out. If it doesn’t fill out the way you hoped, it’s 4-F; good enough for some restaurants, but not the very best.
At this point, maybe 40 animals are left out of the original 100, and they’ve all been fed to a heavier than normal weight. They’re trucked off to a specialty packer, where everything is done more slowly than at the big packers. Once slaughtered, the carcass is evaluated again.
“By this point they’re down to 35 percent of what they started with—and they started with a select group,” says Cobb. The beef is “dry-aged” hanging in refrigerators instead of “wet-aged” in cryo-vac bags. It is fabricated or turned into “cuts” at the packing plant...and ends up at places like Willett House.
The restaurant has two dining rooms to choose from. One is a large, open room with high ceilings and exposed brick walls. The other is an elevated dining area. Stairs lead up to comfy banquet seating that offers a “prime” view.
Attracted by the live piano music, we chose to eat in the bar—and discovered how “live” it was. (Hard surfaces like brick walls and wood floors make everything louder.) The music is a nice touch, but it needs to be softer—and instrumentals only. I liked the design of the room: the dining tables are set behind partial walls of wood and etched glass, with openings every 10 feet or so. This creates a nice sense of privacy, with the bar (and baby grand) on the other side.
I am not a big fan of clams casino ($8.95), but these were excellent—sizzling hot, buttery, lightly breaded, and brightly flavored with lemon and a touch of Tabasco. Minced bacon and red pepper gave range of flavor as well as interesting texture. The Denisco salad ($8.50), a plate of chopped lettuce, tomatoes, onions and Roquefort cheese was a fine starter—fresh, cold and flavorful. The Willet salad ($8.50), a bowl of green beans, tomatoes, onions and chunks of shrimp, had good ingredients but needed more seasoning.
The wine list is extensive (and fairly expensive). The steaks
are expensive too, but at least you know you’re getting the very best quality.
Cuts of meat are tricky because the same piece of meat can have a different name, depending on how it’s fabricated. For instance, a steak off the short loin with the bone attached is a club steak; off the bone, it’s a strip steak, boneless top loin, or, at Willett House, a shell steak.
Whole and removed from the backbone, the long piece of beef known as the tenderloin (filet in French) becomes tips, chateaubriand, filet mignon, tournedo tips and tenderloin tips. If you leave the strip loin and tenderloin on the bone, you get the stars of Willett House: the T-bone and the Porterhouse. Both have a bone down the middle with strip steak on one side, filet mignon on the other. You don’t have to choose between steaks: You get both!
The T-bone cut ($45) has a sizable shell steak but less filet meat. Moving toward the steer’s rear, the muscles get bigger, creating the mighty Porterhouse ($80). It is distinguished by its especially large serving of filet. Eating this is a job for two people.
“We sell a lot of T-bones to big men,” explained Lisa, a confident server who knows her cuts of meat and was willing to offer an opinion. I ordered a T-bone, medium, fully expecting to take most of it home. It came to the table with a slightly alarming black char on the outside, but when Lisa cut it away from the bone, sliced it into strips, and placed some gently on my plate, a beautiful pink interior was revealed—perfect. She spooned the juices that had run off the steak onto the slices and, what can I say? It was heaven. It was worth $45. And I ate more than I ever thought possible.
We also tried the extra-thick lamb chops ($32.95). The flavor wasn’t as complex, the texture not as satisfying, and one chop was done medium-well instead of medium. When we mentioned it, the manager said, “Let me put another one on the grill for you”—an offer we didn’t take, but much appreciated. With all the care and attention going into the beef, I would just stick with that.
For side orders, we had deep-fried onions, something we would have passed on except for guidance from Lisa. The batter-dipped onions, smaller with more crispy edges than onion rings, were unbelievably good—better even than the fried potatoes. (They didn’t have enough butter, given the competition.) The sautéed spinach greens were bright and pretty, but were doused in too much olive oil, and perhaps not of a sufficiently high quality.
Was there room for dessert? No, but that didn’t stop us. The tiramisu ($7.95) was excellent, with distinct textures of sponge cake and whipped cream, laced with coffee flavor. The carrot cake ($7.95) was acceptable, but a little cold and dry. Maybe I should have known. In a steakhouse, don’t get a vegetable dessert.
THE WILLETT HOUSE
Lunch, Mon. to Sat.
Dinner, Mon. to Sat. , Sun.
Live jazz is played in the pubroom Wednesday through Saturday
Side dishes: $6.50