Michael T. Regan
Since the high-profile openings of Center City's new luxury steak houses, the foodosphere's been abuzz over all the salacious tidbits. Armored trucks delivering bottles of Louis XIII Black Pearl cognac. Reported eight-figure renovation costs. Rumors of establishments luring off-duty strippers to happy hour with free food and drink.
You didn't hear it from me, but I've also caught wind that — from time to time — these places also serve food.
There's a good reason we're savoring every delicious morsel of steak house gossip: Given the spiraling economic crisis, it's way cheaper than shelling out for tangible indulgence. Thanks to layoffs, cutbacks, pink slips and bailouts, one wonders how many corporate expense accounts are left to help keep these places afloat. What's worse: Before this latest wave arrived, Center City was already teeming with roughly a dozen premium steak houses. Given both the market saturation and the recession, who in their right mind thinks there's room for any more?
Del Frisco's Double Eagle does.
"There's always room for quality, no matter what the economic times are [and] no matter how many restaurants are in a particular market," Del Frisco's GM, Shang Skipper, told me in an interview. "As long as you set yourself apart with the quality of what you do, you'll be successful."
It sounds like M.B.A. prattle, but after experiencing Del Frisco's in its newly renovated space in the Packard Building, Skipper may have a point. The latest (and largest) installment of this eight-restaurant chain already seems to be on its way to carving off a prime slice of Philadelphia.
With the help of Chicago architect Aumiller Youngquist, Del Frisco's turned this three-story, 23,500-square-foot former bank into a tasteful, impressive modern dining scene, while still retaining the building's 86-year-old integrity. Large, swooping red drapes add dramatic flair to 20-foot brass-trimmed windows. Existing 40-foot columns delineate the tightly packed main dining area that, along with a newly added mezzanine and five private dining rooms, gives Del Frisco's a staggering 525 seats. Surrounding the 34-foot, 2,500-bottle wine tower is the restaurant's focal point: a beautifully curved 40-seat marble bar.
Skipper said they wanted to create a vibrant bar scene. And despite the lack of draft beer (there are currently 20 selections by the bottle), they've already succeeded. On one Friday night, the crowd of mostly mid-30s professional men spent almost as much time drooling over the colossal tempura-battered onion rings zipping by as they did over the impossibly short skirt of the waitress who served them.
Skirt length aside, the way Del Frisco's aims to set itself apart is through service. The staff is friendly, outgoing and energetic while still maintaining the level of professionalism the setting calls for. They're not shy about recommending apps and sides — had we listened to every suggestion, it would have been way too much food. Still, the wise advice to try both the shrimp sampler and crab cake set an impressive tone for the rest of the meal: We were in for bold flavors from chef John Stritzinger's kitchen.
Horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce and a peppy Cajun remoulade give unexpected life to Mexican brown shrimp. Four ounces of sweet, jumbo lump crabmeat in a feisty Cajun lobster sauce was held together with as little filling as physics will allow. The combo of garlic, rich cream and Parmesan made the lobster mac and cheese the best side dish by far.
Del Frisco's signature move is its "swarming service." I swear I could hear the frantic, circus-y "Sabre Dance" playing in the background as an army of staffers feverishly buzzed around our table, working against an invisible clock to deliver our entrées in record time. Performing this blitzkrieg maneuver in such a crowded space can magnify even the slightest confusion or hesitation. But when the choreography's done right, it has both the elegance of a Julliard-trained ballet company and the efficiency of a championship NASCAR pit crew.
I also loved that the servers asked us to cut into our steaks to ensure they were cooked properly, allowing for the immediate correction of any errors. All four of the steaks I tried were pitch perfect. But I wished they had included the pan-seared tuna steak in this ritual, too, since after the servers left, we discovered it was well-done instead of rare — a surprising misstep. Once corrected, though, flavorful shiitake mushrooms and a marchand de vin sauce easily made this dish one of the highlights of the night.
Given the chain's New Orleans roots, it's not astonishing that Del Frisco's seasons its food generously. Steaks receive a liberal dusting of kosher salt, black pepper and a little butter at the finish. Yet all of the natural flavors of these perfectly cooked cuts still shine through. The 16-ounce prime strip delivers the signature bouncy texture you expect. I still dream about tender pieces of 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye melting on my tongue. But the long bone tomahawk rib-eye steals the show. This tender, dry-aged specimen also gets a week of wet aging, giving it deep, distinctive flavors. Even if you're hungry enough to finish all 32 ounces, you'll instinctively want to save some to take home as an excuse to keep the mammoth bone as a trophy.
Del Frisco's knows when to back off on the seasoning, too. The 14-ounce cold-water Australian lobster sees only a touch of butter, freeing the complex sweet and nutty flavors in this crustacean to set a new benchmark. Still, I was disappointed that it was a tad overdone — for $70, it should've been perfect.
Even aficionados will be impressed with the attentive, thoughtful wine service from the steak house's sommeliers. Some bottles on the 1,100-label list carry higher markups than you'd expect — the 2003 Torbreck "The Steading," for example, is listed at $120, but typically retails for around $30. But a featured wine list, which offers value-conscious bottles for between $40 and $78, ensures you won't go thirsty.
The rich lava that flows from the soft, finished-to-order chocolate soufflé makes it a dessert worth repeating. But if you're lucky, you may be able to score the apple crisp (it's not on the menu and only a small number are made each day). With apple zest worked into the batter, crisscrossed caramel and a dollop of locally produced vanilla ice cream, you may need to wave that spent tomahawk bone at your dining companions to fend them off the last bite.
Time will tell whether all of Philly's new steak houses will survive. But despite a couple of shortcomings, Del Frisco's definitely has what it takes to stand tall — regardless of the economy. You can take that to the bank.
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House | 1426 Chestnut St., 215-246-0533, delfriscos.com
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-10 p.m.
Lunch: Appetizers, $10-$17; Entrées, $13-$29
Dinner: Appetizers, $10-$17; Entrées, $30-$90