We may not yet have gastropubs such as The Breslin in New York or Waterloo & City in L.A., but what we do have are pubs with good food. Move over, Todd English: The new standard-bearer for this genre is a transplanted New York City bar/restaurant, P.J. Clarke’s, in the Forum Shops at Caesars. The only problem is a challenging location—too close to Joe’s Stone Crab, and hard to spot.
Credit for the good cooking goes to iconic American chef Larry Forgione, the consultant on this second P.J. Clarke’s location. He launched what we call “new American cuisine” at An American Place in New York, and taught an entire generation of chefs such as Charlie Palmer and Rick Moonen what a chicken potpie is really supposed to taste like.
That seems apropos, because this business model is more of a restaurant than a bar. Drinking may be the focus at Clarke’s New York, but it’s about eating here. Tables draped in red-and-white checkered cloth spill out onto the mall floor. You have to look inside to spot the well-manned bar, stocked with boutique whiskies, beers on tap and fine wines by the glass.
Clarke’s has a rich history. Walk in toward the kitchen and the walls are plastered with black-and-white photos of early New York (Clarke’s New York opened just after the Civil War) and headshots of people such as Jimmy Durante and Fiorello LaGuardia.
There are fairly classic versions of French onion soup and a thin, rich chili to start with. Called Patrick Joseph Clarke’s Chili, it comes fully loaded, with onions and cheese on top. Progress to entrée salads, such as one with crispy duck and sweet potatoes, or a terrific Asian slaw—a mix of cabbage, carrots, sesame oil dressing and thick chicken strips.
In my “Seven Great Burgers” story (Feb. 3), I lauded the burger; fresh-ground Meyer Company Ranch Red Angus beef on a chewy bun served simply with pickle and onion slices. The fact is, all the steaks on this menu—including a mammoth Cowboy steak sliced in the kitchen—are from this producer, an organic ranch in Montana. I can’t find anyone using tastier beef in this steak-mad city.
Traditional shepherd’s pie is made with an intriguingly spiced mix of ground beef and lamb, and it is delicious. The chicken potpie has a big, buttery crust, which gives way to reveal a flavorful white sauce filled with mammoth hunks of tender, shredded chicken and chunky potato.
Baked macaroni and cheese served as an entrée, not a side dish, is generously studded with bacon and peas and is hard to stop eating. Steamed Penn Cove mussels and fries are an homage to French bar food, tasty but lacking in broth. Pan-seared salmon with soft corn pudding is vintage Forgione; ask to have the fish done medium-rare, or it might be overcooked, as mine was.
Desserts are a strong suit. Fresh apple cobbler has a rich, almost shortbread-like crust, and the classic chocolate pudding with whipped cream is the best in town. The chef sources Bellwether Farm’s cheese for the fluffy cheesecake, and the bread pudding, fragrant with Bourbon sauce, is one for the ages—all 127 years of the venerable pub’s history.