The idea that a chef or restaurateur should always be in his restaurant has for years been dismissed as out of touch with the way the industry now works. Thus, names like David Chang and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have joined the ranks of TV celebs like Giada de Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri in simply signing management contracts, then going on to the next one, while international steakhouse chains like Smith &Wollensky, Ruth’s Chris, Palm and Del Frisco’s open unit after unit with little more than a commissary game plan and chefs whose names you’ll never hear. The name on the door in no way indicates that person will be within a thousand miles of the restaurant.
Author: John Mariani
(Published in Forbes Magazine, May 9, 2019)
Ken Aretsky is a veteran in the tough New York steakhouse business and has never opened a chain.
PHOTO: DAN KRIEGER
Ken Aretsky, as owner of Aretsky’s Patroon, which vies for the same carnivorous clientele as a slew of established New York East Side steakhouses, put his foot down, quite literally, by committing to being in his restaurant on a daily basis.
Aretsky has been in the game for a long time now. Starting in his family’s restaurant supply business at 16, he opened his own successful restaurant, Truman’s, on Long Island in 1971. Eight years later he opened Oren & Aretksky’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attracting a considerable sports star clientele. Next came the New America-style restaurant Arcadia with Chef Anne Rosenzweig at a time, 1983, when there were virtually no women chefs in New York. He then did a ten-year long stint as CEO of the prestigious ‛21’ Club, and afterwards opened Butterfield 81.
The rooftop is ideal for open air dining in warm weather, enclosed for cold.
PHOTO: DAN KRIEGER
When the space that was previously a gritty, old-line steakhouse called Christ Cella became available in 1995, Aretsky and two partners took the townhouse, naming it Patroon, after Dutch gentry who founded Manhattan. The first chef was Geoffrey Zakarian; the Times gave the restaurant three stars.
Ten years later Aretsky and his wife Diane Lyne bought out his partners and attached his last name to Patroon, “under the assumption that my earlier restaurant history might bring some additional customers.”
Now, on any given night, he knows at least a third of his guests whom he cordially greets and schmoozes with. To add to the familiarity, maître d’ Stephane Legouill has logged 22 years at Patroon.
Foie gras comes as a torch with fruit.
PHOTO: DAN KRIEGER
Given his longevity in a tough industry, Aretsky is considered by peers as one of the masters of form and substance. Always impeccably dressed—and it must kill him to allow men to be seated without jackets—Aretsky fits well among his clientele and knows what they expect, which is neither novelty nor pandering, and the restaurant’s décor of brown leather banquets, polished wood and classic black-and-white photographs of New York looks as fresh today as when Patroon debuted.
Steak is carved table side at Aretsky’s Patroon.
PHOTO: DAN KRIEGER
The restaurant maximizes its three floor-structure: The main dining room is on the first floor, private rooms on the second (a cigar bar here is history), and on the third an open roof space. “Although there is overlap, the rooftop bar attracts a young, professional clientele looking for more casual after-work fun,” says Aretsky. “The ability to offer a slider and a cold beer under the summer skies, or in the cozy enclosed winter roof is an advantage over the other restaurants you mention. The roof also offers the best al fresco lunchtime dining during the summer months, as we are up two stories from the sidewalk, so we offer a bit more of a respite than the usual outdoor scene.” Proximity to the U.N. doesn’t hurt either. And on Fridays there is a prix fixe dinner with live jazz, which appeals largely to a neighborhood clientele.
Originally the menu was in the sacrosanct mold of New York steakhouses like nearby Palm, Smith & Wollensky and Spark’s—none of them known for warmly greeting new customers. Aretsky realized that in such a competitive market, “Getting the food right is common sense but getting service and the experience right is the utmost important factor in running a successful restaurant.”
Today seven-year veteran chef Aaron Fitterman’smenu slants away from the steakhouse template. You might begin with an array of both East and West Coast oysters, but there are also unusual additions like chicken and foie gras meatballs with a apple and Calvados chutney ($15) and arancini riceballs with uni and a jalapeño jelly ($18). Among recommended appetizers, I often order the foie gras torchon with strawberry, ginger and pistachio on brioche ($25), and the crab cake contains plenty of jumbo lumps, with a dressing of a lobster tarragon aioli ($23).
Kudos to the kitchen for using American lamb for its rack with smoked eggplant, goat cheese polenta and grape tomato ($59), and I know of no New York steakhouse that has a confit of suckling pig on a nightly basis; here it comeswith a mustard spaetzle, guindilla pepper and apple cider jus ($46).
In the New York market all the principal contenders can rightly claim they buy the best Prime beef available, and Aretsky’s Patroon’s is clearly in the big show. Its 40-day dry-aged ribeye not only has the enormous, mineral-rich flavor that distinguishes great aged Prime but also the perfect searing, carved tableside with pommes soufflé, tomato harissa jam, mushroom jus,grilled baby gem lettuce, black olive vinaigrette and massive marrow bones. It’s priced at $163 for two, but no other steakhouses in the area give you even a single potato with their ribeye.
Dover sole comes with side vegetables, which always cost extra at Aretsky’s Patroon’s competitors’.
PHOTO: DAN KRIEGER
The menu also features crisp roast duck with cashew-apricot wild rice and grilled scallions ($49), and for seafood there’s steamed black cod with carrot dashi, soba noodle and enoki mushrooms ($42), and a two-pound smoked lobster Americaine with buttered pommes fondue and spinach ($78). So, too, Dover sole gets an accompaniment of a butter-braised leek & roasted tomato tart ($72), so you’re not really going to need any side dishes, though it’s hard to turn down the spinach and lobster gratin with leek and tumbleweed cheddar ($16).
Desserts go well beyond the cheesecake-and-pecan pie formula, including a chestnut torte with dark chocolate, whipped panna cotta, spiced white chocolate and pear sorbet ($14) and a Creamsicle baked Alaska (for two) with pistachio cake, buttermilk ice cream, tangerine sorbet and Grand Marnier ($21).
If you haven’t been to Aretsky’s Patroon for a while, you’re still going to get a steak as fine as any in New York and better than most anywhere outside of it. But these days you get a good deal more, not least the kind of hospitality that is still, sadly, missing in so many other places that are far less appealing.
John Mariani, Author
I cover the world’s best hotels, restaurants and wine.
John Mariani is an author and journalist of 40 years standing, and an author of 15 books. He has been called by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press” and is a three-time nominee for the James Beard Journalism Award. For 35 years he was Esquire Magazine’s food & travel correspondent and wine columnist for Bloomberg News for ten. His Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink was hailed as the “American Larousse Gastronomique” His next book, “America Eats Out” won the International Association of Cooking Professionals Award for Best Food Reference Book. His “How Italian Food Conquered the World” won the Gourmand World Cookbooks Award for the USA 2011, and the Italian Cuisine Worldwide Award 2012. He co-authored “Menu Design in America: 1850-1985” and wrote the food sections for the Encyclopedia of New York City. In 1994 the City of New Orleans conferred on him the title of Honorary Citizen and in 2003 he was given the Philadelphia Toque Award “for exceptional achievements in culinary writing and accomplishments.”