Written by Hulda Lawrence
Sometimes when visiting a new restaurant, the guidance of a knowledgeable waiter can make all the difference in ordering and appreciating the food. Such was our case when we came to Benjamin Steak House at 52 East 41st Street, between Park and Madison Avenues (212- 297-9177). Although Chef Arturo McLeod and Benjamin Prelvukaj are Peter Luger alumni, we were lucky to have John from Albania as our waiter. He knows everything about the menu and was great in helping us order.
We began with Oysters on the Half Shell and, something new to us, a Sizzling Extra Thick Slice of Canadian Bacon. The oysters were fine and the bacon was great. Other appetizers include Shrimp Cocktail, Jumbo Lump Crabmeat, Lobster Cocktail, Baked Clams, Lump Crab Cake, and a seafood platter. The bacon is $3 per slice and the foods range up to $23.95 for an extra large shrimp cocktail. If diners prefer a less adventurous choice they can order Lobster Bisque, Onion Soup or German Soup, done with beef broth and potato, $9.95 to $13.95.
There are salads available with such popular choices as Fresh Mozzarella and Beefsteak Tomatoes, Caesar Salad; at John's suggestion, we shared Benjamin's Salad with red onion, fresh apple slices, crabmeat and greens. Salads start at $9.95.
A variety of wines and liquors are available. But we were there to taste the steak, and we shared the best porterhouse I can remember. It was bleu as we both prefer, tender with a marvelous flavor (they age the meat themselves). Of course there is a filet in the steak and we were very happy. We also enjoyed a vegetable dish of peas with onion along with sautéed asparagus. All kinds of steak can be ordered for one, two, three or four people. There also are sirloin, filet mignon a ribeye. But the porterhouse, their style, is a super choice. If you want something other than steak there are Double Thick Veal Chops, Lamb Chops, Chilean Sea Bass, Grilled Norwegian Salmon, Grilled Yellowfin Tuna, and Lobster, broiled or steamed. Prices for steak at dinner start at $41.95 for sirloin; the seafood is from $32.95. Lunch prices are a bit less expensive.
Desserts include Apple Strudel, Chocolate Mousse Cake, Cheesecake, Crème Brulee, Tiramisu and Bourbon Pecan Pie. All desserts are accompanied by excellent schlag. The bourbon pie was not too sweet and a fitting end to a great dinner. A cheese platter is available as are ice creams, sorbets and fresh berries. Desserts start a $10.95 for a Hot Fudge Sundae.
The steakhouse occupies what was the Chemist Club and now is the Dylan Hotel. The restaurant is open for breakfast. It is not fancy, but the steak is superb.
With the economy dictating that travel is more and more expensive, it is a pleasure to report that visiting Toloache at 251 West 50th Street near 8th Avenue (212-581-1818) is easier and cheaper than flying to Mexico City. This high-ceiling restaurant is fairly new, but it is presenting traditional and very good guacamole, ceviches, tacos, quesadilla, botanas (small plates) and platos principales (entrees) in a friendly atmosphere. The room is hung with authentic tin lamps, the walls are covered with Mexican tiles and a small flight of stairs leads to a large dining area seating 50. The ground floor is set with fewer tables and seats 36 to 40.
There is a wood-burning fireplace on the ground floor with a working area where the cold dishes are prepared and a huge bar is devoted to wines, liquor and Margaritas. There are many kinds of Margaritas as well as Sangria and Mojitos. By the way, "Toloache" is the name of a Mexican plant used in love potions. As we became accustomed to the atmosphere, Rafael, the manager who hails from a Mexico City suburb, insisted that a Margarita was in order, and brought me one he named as the most popular. It was the signature Toloache done with hibiscus, muddled blueberries, fresh lime and Frida Kahlo tequila. The drink was very good, as were the three kinds of guacamole which we nibbled with it. There is Frutas Medium with avocado, pomegranate, Vidalia onion, mango, apple, peach, habanero and Thai basil. The second, Guacamole Rojo, is avocado, tomato, red onion, chipotle, and queso fresco on the spicy side. My favorite was traditional with avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro and Serrano chile. These were made within our eyesight.
The next course was ceviches: Atun of spicy yellow tuna, key lime, Vidalia onion, radish and watermelon; and Camaron Veracruzana of shrimp, charred tomato, olives, capers, pickled jalapeno and basil emulsion. These cold snacks were fascinating.
From the Brick Oven we enjoyed Quesadilla de Mongos of wild mushrooms, corn quesadilla, Mexican cheese and tomatillo salsa. We had a marvelous taco with foie gras, mango, and habanero salsa on a corn tortilla. A special for the day was lobster served spicy and hot on a taco.
Our waiter, Nelson, from El Salvador was prompt in bringing us these hot dishes. There are so many unusual creations of Executive Chef Julian Medina that I must return for another Margarita and another dish. There is a prix fixe lunch for $24 which starts with a choice among Sopa de Tortilla, tomato and chile guajillo soup; Ensalada de Jicama and avocado with mixed greens, orange, almonds, tamarind vinaigrette; or Tamal de Puerco, sweet corn tamal, with crisp pork, mole verde, crema queso fresco. And then come the entrees.
Enchiladas de Pollo, chicken enchiladas with dried fig, quince salad, and mancha manteles salsa; or Tilapia con Huitlacoche; or Chili Relleno Poblano, pepper filled with spinach, Mexican cheese, and dried fruit picadillo.
Individual dishes are from $10. Three ceviches are $27. Quesadillas and tacos are $13 to $14. Sandwiches start at $13 and entrees including Pollo Toloache and Camarones Toloache, roasted garlic shrimp are $13 to $20.
The menu is vast with a tremendous variety of dishes at reasonable prices. Desserts or postres include Meyer lemon cake soaked with three milks, Flan, and Pastel de chocolate, a delicious warm chocolate cake with dulce de leche ice cream. We shared that along with Churros served with chocolate dipping sauce.
Hours: Open seven days a week. Lunch 11:30 to 3p.m. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. (bar is open until 12:30 a.m.) Weekend Brunch 11:30 to 3 p.m.
The dollar sign indicates the approximate cost of dining for two persons, excluding beverages, tax and gratuity.