New York Times - July 2011

Dining & Wine - Palm and Palm Too

By Sam Sifton

“ALMOST no one who has ever eaten at Palm feels lukewarm about it,” Mimi Sheraton wrote in The New York Times in 1976, at the start of a review that awarded the steakhouse four stars, the newspaper’s highest rating. Either you saw Palm as a boisterous and exciting house party, Ms. Sheraton reported, or a crowded, shouty bore. There was no middle ground. (Everyone loved the steak.) The restaurant was then 50 years old.

It is now 85, the father figure in an international chain that has 27 locations, all of them inspired by the original, with its sawdust-strewn floors, gruff, uniformed waiters and celebrity cartoons on the walls. The restaurant’s first child, a Palm in Washington, was born in 1972 and soon became a power haunt; its second, Palm Too, directly across Second Avenue from the original, came the following year, and Los Angeles after that. There are now Palms in the theater district and TriBeCa; in San Diego; Nashville; Boston; Orlando, Fla.; Mexico City; and San Juan, P.R.

Palm is many things to many people. (Ms. Sheraton later downgraded the restaurant to three stars. Bryan Miller, her successor, took it to one in 1992, the last time the restaurant was reviewed.)

In New York City, the flagship restaurant and its annex have become almost a single entity — a restaurant with a front dining room on the west side of Second Avenue (Palm) and a back room on the east (Palm Too), a combination that is set-ready for new episodes of “Mad Men,” missing only ashtrays and a strictly followed dress code. They are almost entirely interchangeable unless you have been to both enough times to have developed a preference for one over the other.

Here is the cheat sheet: Palm is for groups, for first-timers and those who gather around them, for anyone interested in eating at the heart of the Italian steakhouse beast, with its composed salads and cold seafood, its excellent steaks, fat grilled lobsters and starches, or anything you’d like to consume under a blanket of melted mozzarella and sticky red sauce. At Palm the bulk of the dining room is made up of broad tables of four and six and eight, all of them raucous and crammed into a space that is smaller than it appears from outside its wide windows, and just as merry (or miserable) as it was when Ms. Sheraton stalked its aisles. Waiter, another round!

Palm Too, meanwhile, is better should you desire to eat alone or with a single friend, quietly occupying a comfortable booth beneath a caricature of the publisher Jason Epstein as a green bookworm emerging from a Random House title, or a seat beneath a framed photograph of Dave Winfield, then a Yankee outfielder.

Palm Too is the more intimate Palm. (And it is always Palm, not the Palm. This is a result of a city clerk’s corruption of the 1926 desire of the founders, Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi, to name the restaurant Parma, in honor of their hometown in Italy. The clerk nodded, and wrote “Palm” on the form.)

The food on both sides of the avenue is first-rate, at least if you stick to the original script of salad and tangy, prime-rated beef, or salad and huge, perfectly acceptable lobster, along with potatoes and greens. (The best dessert is a cigar and a long walk home, or just the cigar, though you can certainly get cheesecake.)

The best salads at Palm are brusque and proprietary. There is a requisite hearts of palm version, which offers a mixture of the slick, delicious vegetable with romaine, tomato, egg and kalamata olives. (Who needs blue cheese?) And there are two salads named for Gigi Delmaestro, who was the maître d’hôtel at Palm Too when it opened, later moving to the Los Angeles branch in 1975. The East Coast version combines shrimp, green beans, tomato, onion and bacon in a simple red wine vinaigrette; the West Coast version adds to this chopped iceberg lettuce, egg, roasted pepper and avocado. (It should be called the Kitchen Sink.)

Against this bounty there is no reason to order a Caesar. It seems and tastes disloyal.

Seafood starters include a marvelous rendition of baked clams oreganata, and a size-large crab cocktail that offers plain lump crab meat with a cocktail sauce that takes well to the loads of fresh horseradish that come on the side. You might have shrimp instead, which receive the same treatment, or a silky lobster bisque of deceptive heartiness — it derives its thickness almost certainly from rice rather than cream, and lists only 120 calories on the menu.

Yes, there are calorie counts listed against every dish at the Palms. This is in keeping with a 2008 New York City law that requires all restaurants with 15 or more outlets nationwide to display calorie information. It is terrible for a steakhouse as good as Palm to have to comply (those clams oreganata top out at 400 calories; the West Coast Gigi at 380; a plate of hash browns will deliver or set you back a whopping 980), but this is the price of success for the Bozzi family, which still owns the business. Guests who walk into the restaurants talking of beef blanch at the numbers and bail into green salads and plain fish. Moods are ruined, arguments begun.

It is better to do as was always customary at Palm in the past, and ignore the menu entirely. Most want steak — the prime porterhouse if it’s available is generally the most crusty without and tender within — and some want a giant lobster, and a very few more than that want a veal Marsala or a chicken parm (and they’ll regret it). So do not read about anything. Just ask for the steak after some Gigis and a crab. You may certainly ask for mashed potatoes or broccoli or fries. These will come with a shrug and perhaps some sucked teeth. The waiter knows you want creamed spinach and hash browns.

And then have a drink while you wait for the food to arrive, and catch up with your tablemates about work or family gossip or the affairs of the day. Do not order wine — the selection is not very good. Cut into your buttery meat, your buttery potatoes, your creamy greens. These are prepared with real skill and care, and taste it. Meanwhile, look at that sawdust on the floor and the twinkle in everyone’s eyes. Palm may be a chain restaurant. But not on Second Avenue, no matter where you sit.

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