Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Restaurant Review: Strip House

Location: Lan Kwai Fong, Central
Type of food: steakhouse
Rating: ** (2.5 out of 5)

Harlan Goldstein may not be as world renowned as Mario Batali, but within the culinary circle in Hong Kong, the New York-born chef and entrepreneur is a big shot with a big attitude. After a short stint in Beijing, Goldstein moved to Hong Kong in 2004 to become a private chef for the super-wealthy, earning the nickname “Chef to the Tycoons.” What followed was a meteoric rise to culinary stardom. With a little help from property magnate Walter Kwok, he became the chef and co-owner of a string of successful F&B ventures including Harlan’s, H One, G Bar and the Box, all upscale hangouts at the IFC that cater to the white-shoe banker clientele. But a nasty falling out with his business partners in 2008 severed his ties with his namesake restaurants. His first solo act, Tuscany by H, lasted only two years. Down but not out, the self-proclaimed “mad chef” got back on his feet and now owns two restaurants in Lang Kwai Fong: Gold (a hipper reincarnation of Tuscany by H) and Strip House.

Strip House by Harlan Goldstein in LKF

Opened this summer, Strip House is located on the fifth floor of Grand Progress Building in Lan Kwai Fong. It is one of the many new steakhouses that have popped up in the city in the past 24 months, perhaps a result of the carb-free diet movement. I went there for lunch with four carnivorous friends this week. The first thing that hit you is the strip club-inspired interior, a design predicated on a bad pun. The black-and-red palette, combined with vintage portraits of pin-up girls from Hollywood’s Golden Age, is meant to recall the decadence of a New York night club in the 1940s. While most restaurateurs would go for the more romantic Jazz Age, Goldstein prefers post-WII America, the time of Harry Truman and George Marshall.  Either that or he just really likes the movie Casablanca.

Despite its tongue-in-cheek, low-brow décor, the prices at Strip House are anything but. Steak lunch sets start at $288 (rib-eye) and go up to $468 (Brandt Beef). As is obligatory for every restaurant in Central, Strip House features an appetizer buffet. And so like lemmings to the sea, my friends and I lined up at the buffet counter and came back with the same boring pile of cold cut and salad. I wish the kitchen would bring me a simple consommé or mushroom soup instead.

A bold entrepreneur, with an ego to match

After the stodgy appetizers came the entrees: our rib-eyes. The cut's tenderness and intense flavors blew everyone at the table away. Finally, there is a steakhouse that knows how to cook a steak! And it was no fluke. Goldstein explained his secret techniques in a recent magazine interview. Rejecting the traditional dry-aging method (fermenting the steaks in open air) as outdated, Goldstein seals the meat in airtight bags and let it age in its natural juices for weeks. He calls it “wet-aging.” And instead of grilling the corn-fed beef on charcoal, he uses a high-powered gas grill with lava rocks that cooks at much higher temperatures. The result is steaks that are tender, juicy and sinfully delicious.

Service at Strip House is decent, although the staff can be a bit aggressive. Our waitress kept pressing us to open more bottled water, even after we already ordered four bottles for the five of us. Half way through the meal, Chef Goldstein made an appearance from the kitchen, albeit looking rather smug and grouchy. He walked right past our table to talk to the VIPs at the corner and disappeared into the kitchen again. He made eye contact with me and my friends but there was neither a smile nor a nod. What a way to make an impression.

Strip House is a good try. The steaks are brilliantly executed, but the décor does a major disservice to the quality food. The striptease theme is a strange choice for an upscale steakhouse. Rather than playful and edgy, it comes off as tacky and sleazy. I don’t think I can take my business client there without them making assumptions about my character. To make things worse, the urinal in the men’s room is literally a pair of giant red lips, giving new meaning to the phrase "in-your-face." Sometimes miscalculations beget miscalculations.

A jaw-dropping fixture in the men's room

UPDATE:  In January 2014, Harlan Goldstein finally realized what a terrible mistake Strip House was and shut it down before it offended more customers. He replaced it with a new casual dining concept called Comfort, which opened two months later. It appears that Goldstein might be smug and grouchy, but he is not entirely blind.


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