If there is comfort in familiarity, there's cool comfort in Steak 954 at the W Hotel Fort Lauderdale. A new chef arrived in October, but not much else has changed at the boutique beachfront steakhouse operated by famed restaurateur Stephen Starr.
That's mostly a good thing, because the popular, 7-year-old eatery remains a dependable albeit pricey place that has become part of Fort Lauderdale's fine-dining firmament. The jellyfish aquarium along the dining-room wall still glows and wows visitors. Top-notch pastry chef Sarah Magoon, around since the early days, is still knocking out her signature Key lime baked Alaska and ice cream sandwich trio along with seasonal treats. And the gimmicky luxury cheesesteak, a nod to Starr's Philadelphia roots, remains on the menu, although the price has been sliced from its original and ridiculous $100 to a merely ostentatious $65, including a split of Moet & Chandon Champagne.
Steak remains the star attraction, with prime cuts and American Wagyu broiled at 1,700 degrees, then brushed with clarified butter. The meat is expensive and delicious — $75 for a succulent, marbled strip sirloin of American Wagyu from Snake River Farms in Idaho, a crossbreed of Japanese and American cattle. The 40-day, dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye, from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey, costs $57. Is it worth it? That's in the eyes of the beholder, or the American Express black-card holder. Let's put it this way: It helps to have an expense account, or the net worth of a Trump cabinet member.
"We have a very loyal clientele, locals and visitors, and they want the same things they always have: the lobster-and-crab-coconut ceviche; the dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye; the miso cod," says Jonathan Capó, the 29-year-old chef, who previously worked at Starr's Continental in Miami Beach. "There was a couple who came in recently and said, 'I hope you still have the tuna and foie gras tacos. We were here before a cruise six years ago, and we've been dreaming of them since.' "
Those tacos ($19 for three, they'll add an extra one for another $6.33) offer a case study in Steak 954's virtues and drawbacks. On the bright side, they're delectable: hunks of seared bigeye tuna with avocado salad, chipotle aioli and a splash of lime vinaigrette, topped with a decadent globule of foie gras and accompanied by pickled jalapenos. But the crunchy taco shell is pedestrian: a hard, commercial variety that was cut in-house to a smaller size and had no flavor. Capó says people love the crunch, and a housemade shell wouldn't deliver the same consistent results. I say the superior interior components deserve a casing to match, not something that that evokes Old El Paso.
Many people are apparently happy with the tried and true, including management. But it would be nice to see some fresh wrinkles and experimentation to ward off staleness. Capó says he wants to introduce some new menu items, but he's going slowly. Perhaps after high season.
There have been some subtle changes. For its premium marbled cuts, the restaurant switched from Australian Kobe-style beef to American Wagyu a few years back. It's a bit less expensive, Capó says, and more accessible to American palates, with slightly less fat and more familiar flavor.
Thankfully, the décor hasn't changed. Steak 954 is visually appealing, more airy ocean breeze than testosterone-heavy, clubby steakhouse. Instead of dark wood, there are white walls and light-green upholstered chairs in the main dining room. The smaller, more sedate back room we sat in had floral prints on the walls and white coral in glass casing. Striking design is a hallmark of Starr's restaurants, and Paris-based Gilles & Boissier did the work at Steak 954.
I dined on a recent Saturday night, and my party waltzed to our reserved table (in a companion's name) without a hitch. Service was polished and professional. Warm ciabatta bread with sea-salt butter arrived promptly. Red wine was stored and served at the proper cool temperature, warming after it was poured.
As a starter, the cheesesteak almost worked. It was cut into four pieces, shavings of American Wagyu rib-eye piled onto a house-baked hoagie roll, blended with truffled Cheez Whiz and bits of foie gras. There wasn't much cheese (which I consider a blessing) nor truffle flavor. The pillowy bread soaked up the rich, fatty juices (on a poor man's sub, we'd call it grease). A vibrant mound of mixed pickled peppers on the side cut the fat beautifully. I couldn't imagine eating a whole one. And I don't know if I'd order it again. But a few bites provided nice carnivorous foreplay for the steak main event.
The fish and seafood dishes we tried were beautiful, but each was marred by a little too much sauce. The scallops with bacon Cabernet appetizer ($17 for two) was a wonderful reduction of shallots, bacon and Cabernet vinegar, mixed with "flash-pickled" heirloom and cherry tomatoes and slivers of chive. The hamachi crudo ($16) featured small slices of raw yellowtail drowning in wasabi ponzu, topped with crunchy corn nuts, daikon, cilantro and micro greens.
The miso black cod entrée ($39), was an exercise in simplicity, a perfectly poached piece of meaty white fish served with maitake mushrooms and baby bok choy. There was plenty of broth in the bottom of the bowl, and part of me wanted a crunchy carb component, perhaps a crispy rice cake or the like. "I don't think it needs another element," Capó says. "We let the cod be the star."
The steaks were superb, served with side slices of pickled onion, although the rib-eye came out a bit underdone to the ordered medium. Side dishes ($11) were serviceable, including smoked cauliflower and kale, light whipped potatoes and sinful truffled potatoes au gratin, with fontina cheese baked to golden, crunchy goodness and topped with shavings of black truffle.
Capó calls pastry chef Magoon "a rock star," and her desserts are pure platinum, including some that rotate seasonally. The chocolate soufflé ($10) was small but oh, so satisfying — bittersweet ganache poured into the center and salted caramel ice cream on the side. And the rustic apple tart ($12) was perfect, its flaky crust and streusel topped with sour-cream ice cream.
One of these days, I'd like to see Capó and Steak 954 push the envelope, but I can think of far worse things than being stuck in a comforting rut such as this.
401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale (inside the W Hotel)
954-414-8333 or Steak954.com
Cuisine: Steaks and seafood at dinner. Also open for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch.
Price: Very expensive
Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and extensive wine list with limited moderately priced bottles
Atmosphere: Lively, with large main dining room, more sedate and smaller partitioned rooms in back, and an oceanfront patio
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $5 valet with validation, added to check. Otherwise, $15 valet.