If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you know by now that the Europeans - and the Canadians - that I work with are always on the lookout for steak each time we get together for dinner at a trade show. At last fall's Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City, it was no different. The only problem is that we had steak EVERY NIGHT we were there. Now, being that I'm from the Midwest, I'm a big beef eater. Even I can get burned out on steaks after three nights in a row. On our last night in Manhattan, I wanted to go out for an authentic New York City pizza. I was roundly shouted down on that request. The guys wanted steak and one of our guys from Montreal said that there was a steakhouse - Uncle Jack's Steakhouse - that was a block away from our hotel, down 34th St. and around the corner on 9th Ave. It was a five minute walk to Uncle Jack's Steakhouse (see map).
Over 20 years ago, Willie Degel was working as a bartender in a working class Queens neighborhood bar. Degel and his brother, both sons of a longshoreman who worked a second job at the main post office in New York City to keep his family going, bought the bar and building, renovated it and turned it into an upscale lounge/restaurant. That went over extremely well and Degel decided to get open an upscale steakhouse. In November of 1996, he opened his first Uncle Jack's Steakhouse in the Bayside neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. (see map)
He named his steakhouse after his godfather - a gentleman by the name of Jack who ran a speakeasy on Manhattan's upper west side during the height of prohibition. After the repeal of the 18th Amendment, Jack's saloon became an upscale restaurant that served a high class clientele. Degel's godfather exhibited a presence where each patron - famous or not - was treated with respect and class, and no detail was overlooked. Degel adopted this philosophy in running his upscale steakhouse.
Willie Degel (pictured right)
Degel perfected his restaurant blue print over the next seven years and in 2003 he began to look for a second location, this one in Manhattan. He found an old Victorian-style saloon on 9th Ave, near 34th Street in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. He bought the property and other than a little clean up and renovating, he didn't have much to do with the place. The mahogany bar and walls were in place, as was the copper plated ceiling. He opened his second location in December of 2003 and from the beginning captains of industry, the rich and famous, and the average Joe's and hungry tourists made it a hit. In September of 2004, Degel opened his third - and reportedly his last - Uncle Jack's Steakhouse in Upper Midtown Manhattan, three blocks south of Central Park and a block and a half away from Carnegie Hall (see map).
During his time of operating his restaurants, Degel has also found time to come up with his own line of gourmet steak sauces, mainly because he didn't like any of the sauces that were available to him through food purveyors. He also started a side business in which his company builds luxury houses in The Hamptons out on Long Island. In 2010, Degel began working with the TruTV cable television network on a concept show tentatively called "The World's Toughest Boss", that would follow Degel through his day-to-day chores as the owner of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse. I've yet to find out if any programs have aired or if any production work has even started. It could be pretty interesting as Degel is a self-described "obsessive perfectionist."
The 9th Ave. location of Uncle Jack's is certainly elegant. As I mentioned, it features lush mahogany walls, cooper pressed ceiling tiles, elegant, yet subdued lighting and a cozy feel to the dining area. The appearance of the dining room belied the fact that it's only been in existence for 7 years - it looked like we had walked into a place that was just as elegant as it could have been back in the 1930's.
The bar area is just as polished and stately as the dining area. The bartenders and waiters are all in starched shirts, bow ties and snappy vests with aprons draping across the front of their pants. Oh, yeah. This was a pretty spiffy place.
The menu at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse (below left) sits on opposite walls of the restaurant, one above the bar and the other on the far wall. It's not a large menu as you can plainly see - five seafood appetizers, five different prime steaks, pork chops, fish of the day, salads and a number of sides served family style for the table. Uncle Jack's also features a Kobe beef steak for those who really want to throw down a wad of cash for dinner.
For starters, our waiter talked us into two skyscraper appetizers of seafood including jumbo shrimp, crab meat, lobster claws, oysters on half-shell, clams and mussels. Everything was fresh and very tasty. It was an excellent start to the meal.
For wine, my colleague Ian found a wonderful bottle of the Joseph Phelps cabernet on the wine list. It was full-bodied and had a great taste for a hearty red. This was promising to be a great meal.
Since many of us pigged out on the seafood towers, we eschewed salads and went directly for the main course. Steak, steak, steak and more steak was ordered at the table. I was no different - I went with Uncle Jack's 16 oz. bone-in filet, rare. I also ordered a side of sauteed mushrooms for the table to share.
This is where the story gets interesting...
Our steaks were brought to the table and, oh, man! Did they look delicious. After our customary "Bon app!" salute to one another, I cut into mine and it was more medium-rare than rare. Not that I couldn't eat it, it just was a little overcooked. I was content enough to have it as it.
Sitting next to me was one of the pro audio dealers from France, Alain, who ordered the exact same thing and his, too, was more medium-rare than rare. When the waiter came over to check on the steaks, Alain said that he thought his was a little overcooked. The waiter said, "Sir, we'll get you another steak right away. Anybody else have a problem?"
I said, "Well, now that you mention it, mine was supposed to be rare, but it's more medium-rare. I mean, I can eat it, but..."
The waiter cut me off. "Nonsense, sir," he said as he grabbed my plate. "You ordered rare and we'll get you rare." It was sort of embarrassing and pretty impressive at the same time. Alain and I sat patiently while playfully snide remarks came at us from around the table accusing us of being steak snobs and how we were probably going to cost the cook his job.
The second steaks came out and they were covered in more au jus than the first one. But I could tell from the outside of the steak that it was overcooked. I've grilled enough steaks in my life that I can usually tell from the texture of the outside of the steak that it's over-cooked or undercooked. The manager came over and asked us to cut into our steaks to see if they were cooked to our liking. Alain cut into his and he said, "Oh, perfect." And it was - red and cool in the middle.
Mine, I knew it was overcooked and I said so before I even cut into it. In fact, it was even more overcooked than the FIRST steak I was served. The manager immediately said, "Sir, our goal here is 100% customer satisfaction. We will get you a rare steak, I guarantee."
He took the plate away and there was a moment of silence at the table as he moved back toward the kitchen. When he disappeared with the steak through the kitchen door, my colleagues let me have it. "Jesus Christ, Will," my colleague Simon playfully chastised me. "I've seen people send one steak back for being over-cooked, but never TWO!"
Ian said, "It's that Midwestern steak-snobbishness that's coming out, Will. It doesn't suit you well."
Once again, I patiently waited for my next steak to come out. I mean, seriously, I could have eaten the first steak, but they took it away so quickly before I could protest that it was edible.
The others were well through the bulk of their meals before my next steak showed up in front of me. The manager stood over me as I cut into it. This time - perfect. In fact - and I'm chuckling as I write this - it may have been just a tad UNDERcooked. I swear it was 35 degrees in the middle as the meat was COLD. But it was rare and that's what I asked for. Hey, I'm still alive, so it didn't have any microbes that weren't cooked.
And it was wonderful. The USDA prime beef was tender and overly flavorful. It was lean, yet juicy. Along with the sauteed mushrooms that I had with it, it was a fabulous steak. Ian said with a laugh, "Are you happy now?"
Absolutely! It was worth the wait.
This is a picture of the aftermath of my absolutely wonderful steak. You can see, even close to the bone, that it was pretty rare.
Since my colleagues were playfully appalled at the fact that I sent not one, but TWO high dollar steaks back to the kitchen, they made me pick up the tab that evening. It wasn't a cheap evening by any means, but the service, the attention to detail and the whole customer satisfaction philosophy was extremely worth the price. When the manager brought the bill over to me, he leaned over and said, "Sir, we're terribly sorry for the condition of the steaks. We took your steak off the bill as our way of apologizing to you."
I said, "Oh, sir. Honestly. You didn't have to do that. I was overly happy with my steak once it was right. And, quite honestly, I could have gotten by with the first one."
He said, "Well, sir, 100% guaranteed customer satisfaction is our policy. And we want you and your group to come back and see us at some point."
Our waiter came over to thank me and our our group. Even waiters who didn't wait on us made a point to come over and thank us. I was up by the bar and the bartender even asked, "How was your dinner, sir?" After I told him it was excellent and the service was exemplary, he said, "Very good, sir. Please come back to see us."
Everyone made us feel important at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse. We were just schmoes off the street who came in for a good steak and we were treated like big shots. Uncle Jack's is the epitome of a classic New York steakhouse. Great service, great food and total customer satisfaction. I haven't been able to stop talking about the place to anyone who will listen to me. If you ever find yourself in New York and are looking for a great steak with great service, Uncle Jack's won't disappoint.