Photographs by Bobby Ampezzan
Two-pound-plus porterhouse with garlic mashed potatoes at Sonny Williams’ Steak Room
Thursday, May 10, 2012
LITTLE ROCK My brother and his wife came into town from Maine, where they treat lobster as deferentially as we do crawdads, and call them “bugs” to boot.
“Let’s get our beef comas on,” he said.
I suggested Sonny Williams’ Steak Room. It has been around long enough to win as many out-of-town devotees as local haters.
For instance, when former major league baseball player Lou Brock stopped in for the opening of the Cardinals exhibit in March, he dined at Sonny Williams’ — as he has many times before, he said.
But look online and you’ll find plenty who’ll pipe up about the dim lighting, the stupendous steak prices, the uncomfortably empty dining room.
The night we visited, a Monday, it was nearly full. Yes, the restaurant is matinee-house dark, punctuated in places by big posters of Rat Pack bonhomie. There’s Dean-O and Sammy and that famous Bergen County sheriff’s office mug shot of Frank Sinatra. “How come steak places love to recall the Rat Pack?” my brother asked.
I concurred: “You never see Beach Party-theme steak joints.”
We began not with a martini and cigarette the way the Rat Pack would have but with shrimp cocktail and crab cakes the way a pack of muskrats would have.
Each appetizer arrives on a full dinner plate filled in its respective gravy. Six jumbo shrimp ($13.25), meticulously deveined, each one hooked to another and laid upon a bed of spring lettuce aside a lemon wedge. The remoulade, a mayonnaise with dijon and Creole mustards, fills another third of the plate, while the house cocktail sauce with a zigzag of horseradish cream gets the remaining wedge.
Where the shrimp come au naturel, which complements the cloying condiments, the lump crab cakes ($12.75) are less “lump” than shredded and pressed with onion, red pepper, mayonnaise and house bread crumbs, then floated in Nantua sauce, traditionally a kind of cream roux flavored with onion, clove and pepper but here given a hearty Creole treatment. The whole effect is to backlight the fulsome cakes in a bath of high-watt pepper seasoning. Far, far too strong for a dish not served with tortillas.
The dining arrangement is exclusively tables and chairs. No plush oblong corner booths, no booths at all. In another restaurant, steelframe chairs with hardwood backs would feel appropriate, but the kind of dinner Sonny Williams’ serves up calls for more sumptuous seating, like armrests, or upholstered backs.
On a subsequent visit I tried the French onion soup ($6.50) and the house salad ($7.25), a heap of field greens lightly sprinkled with feta cheese and topped with a couple of red onion rings and several fresh strawberry slices, all dressed in a strawberry and white balsamic vinaigrette. I strenuously recommend one or both of these for a starter. The strawberry salad, especially, is so dewy fresh and sweet you may order it again for dessert.
Our meals arrived less than 15 minutes from the time of ordering, and I suspect that if we had piggybacked the order onto our appetizer, the two courses would have logjammed. I’m always more leery than delighted when food arrives in less time than it would take me to boil an egg. Did they know what I was going to eat before I did?
On the other hand, the wait staff, every man in white tuxedo and bow tie, provides fastidious service. Our waiter stopped several times to pick up the wine bottle and freshen our glasses. He gave us reasonable advice, careful not to gloat about a new item or solicit our trust with a facile criticism of a lower-end dish.
Sonny Williams’ slate of steaks includes 6-, 10- and 12-ounce Filets ($33-$44), a Ribeye ($43), a bone-in Cowboy Ribeye ($48), a New York Strip ($46) and a Porterhouse ($48).
Pink-slipped is the rankand-file sirloin!
Apprenticed out, the prime rib!
Notwithstanding, here’s the trade-off I believe Sonny Williams’ makes: Other steakhouses in the capital city may offer more cuts of beef, but they likely don’t taste as varied as these. The aging process — about 24 days, says Chef Clay Sipes — makes unctuous bone-in cuts like the ribeye and porterhouse almost teriyaki-sweet. It’s a much different bite in texture and taste to the filet, which has a more customary steak sensation and is prepped primarily with salt and pepper.
The 26- to 32-ounce porterhouse arrives tableside like a Cadillac Brougham to a Shriners parade, and makes the 12-ounce filet, itself a bully 2 to 3 inches thick, look like a truffle.
To be clear, Sonny Williams’ steaks are absolutely worth the price. We all agreed that nights like this one sharpen our expectations of future steak dinners.
Given the size of the steaks, I was not surprised to be served oversized lamb chops ($36.25) — the size of small pork chops — that was a bit underwhelming to my tongue. As red meat goes, lamb chops have a particular flavor profile that lamb diners seek, that tell-tale mountain musk that is also common to goat. These chops — either because of their feedlot size or because they were too-long marinated — bore less distinctive lamb character than most.
This is a dish tweaked many times at Sonny Williams’, and Sipes says the restaurant has already rolled out a new lamb dish that replaces the risotto with a balsamic honey reduction.
On my second visit, I tried the sturgeon with shiitake mushrooms in a beurre blanc sauce ($36), a serviceable steak substitute but by no means its equal here. In all my years on the banks of the Great Lakes where sturgeon spawn, I’ve never seen this fish — better known for its roe — on a menu before. The flesh was filling but not flavorful — not monkfish — and this was the first and last time I’ll eat it.
The sides at Sonny Williams’ are as rich and heavy as the meat and in the tradition of renowned Southern steakhouses like Ruth’s Chris. The au gratin potatoes and the risotto swoon with melted cheese and cream and are noticeably salty. The garlic mashed potatoes are an Italian’s delight — gusto garlic! — and just as salty. In fact, the salt-lover would do well to forestall that instinctual toss of salt on anything before tasting.
The creamed spinach is the most delicious of all the sides. Heavy on cream, it’s the only side that competes with the beef for attention. The asparagus is excellent, too.
We finished off our special meal with the white chocolate nocello creme brulee. The glassy sugar cap broke without yielding a watery substratum, and the egg custard was perfectly set up. At $6.50, it proved the pennywise choice this night, which gave us a little chuckle. Actually, a laugh. Really, we laughed like warlords.
Many of Sonny Williams’ online critics end their complaints with “I won’t return” or some similar coup de grace. But I will. I will for steak nonpareil. I will, with people near and dear to me. But I will wait until after next year’s tax refund.
Address: 500 President Clinton Ave., Suite 100, Little Rock
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Cuisine: Steaks, seafood
Credit cards: AE, MC, V, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Reservations: Parties of five or more
Wheelchair accessible: Through Museum Center entrance
Weekend, Pages 33 on 05/10/2012