Monday, February 20, 2012

Feel the Bern('s)

The first time I visited the famed Bern's Steak House in Tampa I was an 18-year-old baton twirler in town to perform at a college football game. My priorities at the time were:
1) Boys
2) Not dropping the baton
3) Not gaining weight as to look decent while trying to not drop the baton.

I have no idea what I ate at Bern's expect for a bite of gator appetizer, and I only remember that bite because I have a photo of it.

But now that my priorities have shifted, I've been curious about Bern's again because:
1) John T. Edge reviewed it recently in Garden & Gun
2) I read in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte that Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic at Vogue, once called it the best restaurant in America
3) My boyfriend's mother lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, so I knew I'd be near Bern's on a trip we were planning over my furlough.

We decided to drive up from St. Pete for our Valentine's dinner. But it seems Bern's is one of those restaurants even with its fame (or maybe because of its fame) that locals try to talk you out of visiting. They say it's overrated, too expensive and old-fashioned, and yes, it's a bit of all those things. But it's also an *experience.* It's a "last meal" kind of restaurant as Tony aptly put it. And while I certainly don't aspire to become a regular, I'm glad we went.

Once seated at our table, we looked over the menu. It's sort of like steak math.

You choose your cut of meat, then thickness, and then how many people you want it to serve.

With the help of our waiter, I went with a 6-ounce Chateaubriand and Tony chose a 17-ounce porterhouse, the most aged steak on the menu. Each entree comes with choice of French onion soup and salad, which could not have thrilled me more.

The French onion arrived in a perfectly sized pewter bowl -- refreshingly smaller than most vessels for purchase in a modern-day Williams-Sonoma. Tony upgraded to the lobster bisque.

I also should add my favorite thing about our server. He kept offering tips on how to make our meal more enjoyable as if they were secrets he had never uttered to another soul. Born in Yugoslavia and raised in France, he's been at Bern's for 13 years. He sat down our soups and pointed to a tray of garlic melba toasts that had arrived earlier. "Crumble these into your soup," he said to me, in a near whisper. Then to Tony: "To your soup, do nothing."

I slid a cracker under the blanket of cheese into a deep brown liquid, thick with soft onions, and waited a minute. Divine. Tony's soup tasted rich and velvety with cream and butter. Drops of sherry glistened on top. He refused to try even one spoonful of my soup. "That would be like drinking orange juice after brushing my teeth," he said.

Our salads came next -- also perfect in size and with grated white cheddar and vegetables compartmentalized neatly rather than tossed together. The dressing arrived on the side. Before we had a chance to taste them, our server spooned some of Tony's dressing on another garlic toast and handed it to him. "Try on this," he whispered again. "Danish blue cheese, aged 6 months."

Something about the server and our experience also reminded me of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. I imagined backstage at Bern's as more chaotic with clanging silverware and plates -- a foreign land where hardly anyone speaks English -- and vastly different from the civilized floor that prances to the tune of classical music. At one point, our poor guy was so in the weeds, that he hunched over a tray of baked potatoes, frantically dressing them with sour cream and butter, while muttering wildly to himself. But by the time he reached our table with the potatoes, he had regained his composure. "Anything you like," he kept repeating.

Our steaks arrived, and Tony's gigantic bone-in porterhouse looked like something out of a cartoon. But with a porterhouse you have bites of filet on one side of the bone and bites of strip on the other, with a small portion on the side of tenderloin. It was great fun to compare his cuts of meat aged like the cheese with my tender filet with the grain of the meat running horizontally in contrast to typical filet mignon. The steaks were garnished with shaved carrot salad.

"No one needs to eat half a plate of steak," Tony said as he cleaned his plate. "They need to eat their salad fully. Eat all their broccoli and half a filet."

No one needs to retire to the "dessert room" at Bern's either, but that's what we did.

Essentially a separate restaurant on the second floor, the dessert room is a collection of dimly lit cubicles -- very romantic and old school -- with a telephone in each for dialing up our server in the case of dessert emergency. The phones also have buttons for choosing the genre of music that you'd like to hear in your cube.

We passed on "broadway" and "contemporary" for the live piano jazz piped in from the dessert room foyer.

Being at Bern's, it felt apropos to order the oldest school of desserts on the menu, so I suggested the Baked Alaska.

"Baked Alaska?" Tony said. "I thought that was some kind of fish."

1 comment:

Beth said...

I wish I had read this before you dropped by my house the other day so we could've discussed this place in person!

R & I ate at Berns a few years ago on the same trip to Tampa that we also got engaged. He didn't propose at Berns, but boy, that would've been a story if he had. That place is like nothing else I've ever experienced!