John Mariani on Wine:
There are not many good or savory reasons to get off the new England Thruway at Bridgeport except for the fact that Connecticut’s best steakhouse is located there.
Which didn’t surprise me, given that fact that the owner of Joseph’s Steakhouse (360 Fairfield Avenue; 203-337-9944) is Josip Kustra, a Croatian immigrant whose earlier effort, Ye Olde Tollgate Steakhouse in Mamaroneck, NY, was the best steakhouse in Westchester County when it opened ten years ago.
For 15 years prior Kustra had been a waiter at Brooklyn’s venerable Peter Luger, whose porterhouse is justly considered-even by many of its competitors–to be the finest piece of beef in America.
A back injury sidelined Kustra for seven months causing him to think about opening his own restaurant, which became Ye Olde Tollgate, where he copied the Luger model for great beef.
One of the Tollgate’s regulars was Bridgeport’s Mayor Joe Ganim, who begged Kustra to open a branch in his city, which is known more for restaurants with name like Beverly’s Pizza house and Fish Flake.
Kustra sold the Tollgate to partners and opened in a former Bridgeport police station that was afterwards an Irish bar, then a sports bar before debuting as Joseph’s Steakhouse.
Unfortunately Ganim didn’t get to ear at the new restaurant much: In 2001 he was charged with 16 counts of corruption and sentenced to a nine-year prison term.
It’s taken a while for me to get around to visiting Joseph’s (it opened in 2000), but with friends in tow–one of whom to see if Joseph’s could possibly measure up to Luger.–I headed north and found the restaurant to be a handsome, cheery place with none of the attitude Luger is.
Joseph’s manly man decor is in the sacrosanct steakhouse tradition–red walls, old brickwork, dark wood, and a beautiful, carved mahogany bar that draws a regular cadre of locals.
Having learned a thing or two during his tenure at Luger, Kustra chooses his USDA Prime beef very carefully, but he’s also added two items Luger has never had: A fine wine list and a very warm, welcoming atmosphere clearly due to Kustra’s personal attention to every customer. In Brooklyn the beginning and end of waiters’ tableside manner is, “We got sliced porterhouse. How you want it cooked?” At Joseph’s you’ll be coddled throughout the evening.
Joseph’s well-marbleized beef does indeed give Luger’s a run for the money: grilled at 700 degrees, it achieves a crusty char on the outside while maintaining a lush, rosy rareness inside, It is then brought already sliced to the table and set on a sizzling plate angled to catch the running juices. It is such a fine piece of impeccably cooked beef that to pour on even a drop of the sweet bottled steak sauce would be to sully it.
There’s a massive porterhouse with a large filet mignon attached for one person at $48.50. Otherwise the sliced steak for two is $66.50, for three $99.75, and for four $133.50.
The same impeccable grilling applies to three generously proportioned, flavorful lamb chops ($29.50), while the veal chop is at least an inch-and-a-half of succulent meat ($30.75).
True to steakhouse form, side dishes (all extra) like creamed spinach, crusty home fries, and greaseless fried onion rings have been brought to a no-mistake level of consistency.
Of the appetizers I most enjoyed a thick slab of fat-and-lean, triple-smoked bacon ($9.75) that easily serves two. Shrimp cocktail ($15.95) was standard fare, but on the night I visited a crabmeat cocktail ($15.95) was less than stellar, lacking the large, sweet lumps of crab I craved.
Desserts run the course, with the best item the nonpareil New York-style cheesecake ($7.95) from S&S in the Bronx.
Where Joseph’s diverges from Luger is in the wine list, never a Luger strong point. Instead Kustra follows the competitive lead f the big chains steakhouses like Morton’s in Stamford and Ruth’s Chris in Hartford that have formidable wine lists.
Joseph’s is not huge in numbers but of ideal size and scope for an independent steakhouse that doesn’t get a lot of transient big spenders. Kustra, accordingly, keeps his prices low.
The white wine list has perhaps too many commercial labels, but there is good value to be found in the 2001 Toasted Head Dunnigan Hills Chardonnay ($35) and in the prestigious names like 1999 Far Niente Chardonnay, which, at $75, is only about $10 above retail.
And if you’re feeling celebratory, 1993 Dom Perignon Champagne at $190 may actually be less than at a wine shop–if you can find it.
The red wine list is bigger and better, well selected and balanced with moderately priced bottlings like 1999 M. Trinchero “Family Selection” Cabernet Sauvigno at $39 and 2000 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon at $51.
A superb 1998 Il Piggione Brunello di Mantalcino goes for an amazingly modest $95. Most astonishing is the 1999 Guyon Chambolle-Musigny- one of the finest estates on the Cote d’Or — at only $69.
I asked my Peter Luger lover what he thought. “Well, it’s damn good beef,” he said rather happily, picking the last meat off the porterhouse bone. “The wine list is better, the people are nicer, and I don’t have to drive to Brooklyn and hope I find someone to watch my car.”
Sound Level: Not bad for a steakhouse given to a largely male clientele.
Bar: Up front as you walk in, an old mahogany beauty.
Date place? Not for a first date, but if you both want steaks and chops, it’s very appealing.
Special Feature: A good wine list to go with the beef.’
Will I be back: If I’m hungry and on my way up or down I-95 I’ll be there.