April 20, 2009

A True American Steakhouse

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of eating at one of my favorite restaurants in Ithaca, John Thomas Steakhouse. For me, John Thomas is my Peter Luger’s away from home. The meat is prime dry-aged beef, just like Peter Luger’s and everything from the steak sauce to the menu selections represent how a true American steakhouse should be. Though rustic and low key from the outside, the quality of food clearly demonstrates why John Thomas’ has been an icon in Ithaca for so long.

The exterior of John Thomas is quite plain on the outside and along with the overcast weather, paints a fitting picture of Ithaca.


At John Thomas, the experience is not about the quaint exterior nor the trite interior nor the inconsistent service. It is purely about the food. Because of this, I am only focusing on the food. True, nothing about the restaurant is particularly original and the attentiveness and attitude of the waiters varies upon the day. However, if you put all of that aside side and focus on the steak, with its impeccable marbling and incredible tender texture, you will have a very enjoyable meal.

My most recent meal at John Thomas began with the lobster bisque which was the soup of the day.


I generally stay clear of specials because they usually are just dishes the chef is experimenting with or those that do not have enough of a following to make it on to the permanent menu. The soup of the day has proved particularly tragic for me many times, but I cannot resist lobster bisque, so I took a chance and was glad I did. It looked so fantastic when I received it that I forgot to take a picture until halfway through the bowl. With a small island of paprika floating on top, it was elegant and the taste was even better. It had the perfect balance of spice, tomato, lobster, and cream. The texture was such that when you took a spoonful of the soup, it would take a second or two before the indentation left from the spoon would resume its original shape. This richness was complemented by a generous amount of lobster morsels. Surprisingly, it was one of the best lobster bisques I have ever had.

Next came the porterhouse steak for two (40 oz) and steak sauce with the accompanying sides of mashed potatoes with roast garlic and creamed spinach.


The mashed potatoes were far different from how I remembered them. They used to be the moist creamy whipped kind of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, these potatoes were as dry as they look in the picture. Though the roast garlic was clearly present and imbued the side with a great flavor, the texture was too far gone for it to make a difference. What was most sad about the potatoes was how the flavor was so good, but the chef had failed every lesson in making good mashed potatoes. They were gummy (a sign of adding in cold milk as opposed to warm or hot milk), dry (over-cooked), and too airy (mashed far too much).


Luckily, where the potatoes had failed, the spinach came through. The spinach was creamy and even in flavor and texture throughout. Sometimes, creamed spinach has a problem of being too leafy, but this was consistent and smooth. Other times, it gets too watery, but there was no excess water, only a perfect incorporation of cream with the spinach.

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Finally, there was the porterhouse steak. This was the highlight of the meal and for good reason. The steak came out as red and rare as I like it and my mouth watered as the waiter dished out the tender slices of filet and sirloin. It was presented in the typical American steakhouse fashion, with the steak already carved into small slices and divided between the fillet and the sirloin. Both sections of the steak were equally delicious in their own distinct way. The fillet was far more tender while the sirloin had a much heartier and richer flavor. I tried a few pieces with the sauce, but I felt that it did not do the meat justice. The sauce tasted almost exactly like that of Peter Luger’s, which I have always thought tasted like ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Without the sauce, I could taste the full flavor of the meat and all of the nuances that came with it. Its exquisite marbling lent it a fatty texture, that wasn’t overpowering. Each bite of the tender meat was accompanied by my tongue being surrounded in fat. However, the fat itself tasted different from most fats in that instead of sticking to the sides of my mouth, it melted and became a liquid that just enhanced the flavor of the meat. It was a magnificent steak.

For dessert, my friend and I split the cognac crème brulee with a brown sugar walnut top and the cranberry raspberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

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The Cognac crème brulee with a brown sugar walnut top tasted much like a normal crème brulee, but with slight subtleties. Everything from the brown sugar to the cognac was only a slight flavor. It was an interesting twist to put on the classic dish and I especially enjoyed the cognac flavor in the cream. Overall, it was not too much different from the average crème brulee, yet still very tasty.
Next was the cranberry raspberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. This dish was very good, but the structure was not quite like how I imagined it would be. I thought that it would be mixture of fruit, encased in breading, topped with ice cream. Instead, all three parts were completely separate. The breading and ice cream were at equal levels, covering a layer of fruit. It still tasted very good though, especially when the ice cream blended with the fruit. Unfortunately, the breading was a little bland and it was grossly overpowered by the fruit and ice cream.

I had a great time at John Thomas steakhouse and had a delicious steak. The service was pretty good this time around. In fact, the waiters were so attentive to the level of water in my glass that I stopped drinking as often since their presence started to become a bit of a nuisance. The food as a whole was good and the steak was fantastic. So if you are looking for a great steak around Ithaca and could care less about the atmosphere, I highly recommend John Thomas.