rip: ben benson’s

I couldn’t really say if Ben Benson’s was one of New York’s better steakhouses because funnily enough I’d never sampled one of their steaks but for my money they served the best crab cakes I’d ever tasted. Lump crab meat, onion, celery, Old Bay seasoning and a little egg to bind it all together. Somewhere between the size of a hamburger and a pancake they came seared and served two on a plate, unadorned save a wedge or two of lemon and a few flecks of parsley that always looked like an afterthought. They tasted like crab and the sea at the same time: sweet and briny. And although they cost a jaw-dropping $42, it always seemed like a bargain once I had the first forkful in front of my gob. Ben’s did a lemon pepper shrimp, too, with shellfish half the size of your fist. It, too, tasted as it was supposed to taste – like shrimp. Simple, to the point, without any pretensions or airs about it, I hate that I have to speak about the place in the past tense, yet after 30 years on West 52nd Street the restaurant was forced to close up shop in June when the landlord decided to treble the rent. I’m just glad I happened to be in town for one last meal before the inevitable curtain came down.

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not quite top 100: sparks

Is there a restaurant in New York with more mobster mystique than Sparks Steakhouse, sight of John Gotti’s infamous takedown of Big Paul Castellano? Maybe Rao’s, but that’s primarily a red sauce joint – and good luck getting a table, mortals. Twenty seven years after the grisly fact a frisson of excitement still lingers on East 46th Street. Not only was the head of the Gambino crime family murdered in broad daylight, but in an act of reckless bravado both Gotti and his co-conspirator, Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, watched the scene play out in a car across the street, reportedly driving over to view the bodies before leaving the scene of the crime. The unsanctioned assassination by the ascendant Dapper Don sparked a big beef among New York’s five families: Genovese boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante was so outraged he enlisted the help of Lucchese boss Anthony Corallo in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Gotti. Ah, those were the (pre-Giuliani) days. Who gets whacked north of the Rio Grande these days? Today the only beef that matters at Sparks is of the aged, prime steer variety.  More to the point, sirloin and filet mignon. Steak master brothers Pat and Mike Cetta stick with what works and the result is a carnivore’s delight: thick-cut Jurassic-sized sirloin unadorned with anything save a sprinkle of salt and a pair of perfect sides, hash browns and creamed spinach. It’s an offer you can’t refuse – unless you go for the equally Brobdingnagian seafood. The wine list is legendary, too, full of breadth and depth, though to my mind you can never go wrong with a beefy bottle of Bordeaux.

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