As our elevator opened into the upstairs dining room, a slinky young woman led a middle-aged man past the elevator doors. He murmured, "I think I'm a little shy for you." And every intention I had of focusing on the food alone at Penthouse Steakhouse evaporated.
Why even visit San Francisco's newest strip club for the food? The chef, of course. Michael Ellis, who earned a Michelin star as the chef of Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, announced to the Chronicle soon after the club opened that he was angling for another star at his new gig. His ambition was not to be scoffed at: San Francisco is one of the few cities in the nation with the collective talent to make that happen.
Of course, there are few Michelin-starred restaurants in the country where, after taking your drink order, the waiter will point out the women sitting nearby. They're not allowed to approach the table, he says, but if you'd like one of the young ladies to join you here for a drink, I'll be happy to invite her over for you. Or as the server describes the sous-vide halibut special and explains that means it's encased in plastic and cooked at low temperature, his voice is overpowered by "Say good-bye to Aura and hell-oooo to Cassie!" over the loudspeaker, and the room is buffeted by the chrome-clad beats of Far East Movement's "Like a G6."
Then again, few strip club dinners begin with a raft of grilled asparagus, topped with a crisped round of white bread, a "62-degree egg" in its center. Sixty-two degrees is the temperature at which a knife, slid through the center of bread and egg, will unleash a flow of translucent whites and custard-like yolk over the asparagus; the eggs mingle with the Meyer lemon dressing on the asparagus to form an impromptu Hollandaise, its richness cut by the bitter, vegetal bite of chopped herbs and greens scattered over top.
The asparagus was a solid dish, more successful than the long, fat smear of avocado purée that swallowed up tiny, translucent slices of seared hamachi pressed into its length ($16), or a halibut special, cooked sous-vide and then encased in crisped, papery slices of bacon. A whole-grain mustard sauce smeared across the plate: wonderful. The braised cipollini onions and infant carrots perched against the side of the fillet: great. The fish itself: mush.
Seated within our gauzy, cocooned booth, looking out onto a flashing landscape of tablecloths and silver poles, my guests and I were presented with all the elements of four-star dining — not yet buffed to a polish. Our waiter kept recycling his best lines ("Another day in paradise!"), but had his eye out for the moment when our cocktails had reached their last sip or our silverware needed changing out. If the wines were priced far beyond their modest quality, it was only to be expected.
Amid the 36-hour braised wagyu beef belly and truffled chicken listed on the menu, the Penthouse Steakhouse did, of course, sell a few steaks. The 16-ounce, bone-out ribeye ($58) we ordered came to the table with a thick, gnarled crust and a pool of chimichurri sauce. Though dry-aged for 28 days, it didn't have that earthy-grassy funk that makes the luxury of a dry-aged steak so apparent; however, the center of the cut was the ideal shade of fuchsia and the fat had gone all buttery. And the duo of Rosen Colorado lamb ($52) with spring favas hit the perfect pitch for its surroundings: smartly done, meat-focused, and free of fussiness. A couple of roasted chops, so succulent we shaved every bite of meat off the bone, were paired with lamb shoulder cooked sous-vide until there was little holding the hunk of meat together but inertia.
To eat downstairs, closer to the entertainment, my guest and I had to pay a $20 cover charge at the door. But the downstairs waitresses made the upstairs staff seem like stiff greenhorns. Not long after we sunk into the leather chairs, arms regally resting on the wings, we were greeted with the warmth of a concierge at a four-star hotel by a server who bent over as far as she could just to make sure we heard her above the oonce-oonce from the speakers.
Penthouse's downstairs bar is opulent in the same way the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel is: too much to take in, even in the slowest of pans. One lit glass wall displays the bar's four-digit bottles, and the cooks in the open kitchen spend as much time polishing its shiny surfaces and the chef's counter as they do plating dishes. It is impossible to keep your eyes away from the action on the stage, and impolite to detail what is taking place there.
Chef Ellis serves most of the appetizers and salads from the upstairs menu at the bar. If you can fit all the plates on your hubcap-sized table, it's possible to eat a full meal and have a few drinks — a decent Manhattan, say, or a sweet and watery margarita — for $75 a person.
Whether you'd want to is another story. Crab and lobster cakes ($21) were precisely browned and carefully arranged on kumquat slices, cilantro leaves, and shavings of various vegetables, the colorful display lacking only a dipping sauce for the dry cakes. There was a decent vegetable flatbread, though it wasn't memorable enough to compete with the surroundings, and poached jumbo prawns ($16) that were far tougher than they should have been. Chicken pops ($16), brushed with a sweet soy-and-lime-leaf glaze and dusted with ground peanuts, were shiny with juice, as salty as they were sweet, halfway between a bar snack and something better.
The lounge was a surprisingly comfortable place to hold a long conversation with a tablemate, bolstered by regular visits from our waitress to swap out plates and deliver drinks, interrupted here and there by the screech of skin sliding down a stainless-steel pole. As we paid our bill, a dancer in 8-inch heels and a thong crawled down the pole from the ceiling like a jaguar stalking a rabbit. It was the most impressive display, culinary or athletic, I'd witnessed all evening.