Where beef is king
Char Steak and Lounge serves up old-school chops at the modern Strathallan Hotel
Steakhouses come in all shapes and sizes, from the humble suburban sizzler to the swankiest Manhattan Delmonico. The success of a steakhouse rises and falls on one factor: the steak itself.
When the Strathallan Hotel completed a $20 million renovation last year and joined the Doubletree by Hilton chain, its first floor restaurant, Char Steak and Lounge, offered a modern, stylish version of the American steakhouse. Char is under new ownership, but Chef Jeremy Nucelli is still at the helm. Through his leadership, the kitchen has stepped up its game with new cocktails, appetizers, and desserts. The focus on the beef, however, remains solidly intact.
The lobby and bar greet guests with a high society feel and pinch of South Beach. Cool lighting, bluesy jazz, and roomy booths alongside floor-length windows provide the setting for a girls’ night out or after-work drinks. During Friday night happy hour, the curvilinear countertop is packed with people in smart business attire slaking their thirst for the weekend. There’s local art on the walls, and natural stone, and a molded concrete behind the bar that looks like rippled sand on a beach.
The drink list features bottled beer and several drafts—including the nearby-brewed 3Head Common Man and the blueberry ale by Rochester’s own Rohrbach’s Brewing Company. Only one New York wine, a semi-dry riesling from Lamoreaux Landing in Loki, was listed among selections from the West Coast, Europe, South America, and New Zealand.
There is poetry in the cocktail menu. The name of each drink is colorful and enticing, evoking earlier eras or exotic locales. The Antibes Knees, for instance, is named for a resort city on France’s Côte d’Azur. This martini is an easy drinker: a subtle mingling of vodka, mildly-sweet honeydew juice, and cool cucumber. A basil leaf floats on top. You can imagine drinking something like this beachside from a glass pitcher as sleek yachts hoisting the flags of a dozen Mediterranean nations crisscross the bay.
Beef tartare is the sushi of a good steakhouse. Lightly-seasoned prime beef is generally served along with a raw egg and rye toast. Char’s version is topped with Iberico lard, made from acorn-fed Spanish pigs. The raw egg yolk is somehow contained inside a puff of fried batter in an act of culinary wizardry. Lightly buttered wedges of marbled rye toast offer crisp contrast to the tender flakes of beef. Slender carrot slices, a ribbon of onion, and a clover-like leafy vegetable called micro amaranth provide both color and fiber.
The pride of Char is a wood-burning grill that sears American raised and grazed Creekstone Farms premium angus beef at 900 degrees over apple wood and hickory chips. A four-ounce filet mignon soon arrives, dripping with house-made Char sauce reminiscent of sweet relish. There’s a peppery edge to the sauce that balances the tender filet. A knife slices easily through palatial premium Angus sirloin with a smoked bleu cheese and bacon butter topping. A simpler topping than smoky bacon—mushrooms, perhaps—would better allow the flavor of the steak to emerge.
The chef understands that every guest won’t want beef, and he presents an array of homemade pastas, seafood, and rotating specialties like seafood, duck, and lamb. Many guests were enjoying quarter-pound king crab legs from the raw bar.
Side dishes are served à la carte with beef entrées. Nucelli blends pancetta and pecorino cheese to make a lavish coating for the radiatore pasta, then finishes with a black truffle crust to add just enough crunch. Comfort foods are trending throughout fine dining establishments across the world, and this dish is a triumphant reinvention of a classic.
Pastry Chef David Baran presents a simple, yet confident selection of desserts. The medjool date and mascarpone torte was a whisp of sweet cream between two firm, rectangular sheets of cake baked to the color of swirling cappuccino. On top is a large flake of lightly salted caramelized sugar. The torte was hard to pierce with a fork, but ultimately rewarding. The variations of texture and temperature—to which a dollop of sweet potato ice cream richly contributes.
Attached to the dessert menu was a selection of cocktail coffees, ports, and scotches—but we went back to the cocktail menu for the Bourbon Negroni, a muscular hard liquor mix of Kentucky bourbon, Italian Cynar liqueur, and St. Germain elderflower liqueur from the French Alps. To enjoy the sweet bourbon bite and floral afternotes, we sipped around a gigantic ice cube floating in the middle of the highball glass. It’s a decidedly American take on the Italian gin negroni, but mellower than its more common cousin, the bitter boulevardier.
Char is out to prove it’s more than a hotel restaurant but rather an up-and-coming haven for the adventurous. As with many of Rochester’s top restaurants, Char rotates its menu seasonally. This visit took place as the leaves were just beginning to turn colors. Manager and sommelier, Simone Boone, let us know that a winter menu is underway.
Char, 550 East Ave., 585-241-7100.
Leah Stacy is a freelance writer and videographer.