The Boston Phoenix
March 11 - 18, 1999

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Abe & Louie's

Boston gets its own kind of steak house

Dining Out by Robert Nadeau

Abe & Louie's
(617) 536-6300
793 Boylston Street, Boston
Open Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m.; Sat, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight; and Sunday, 2-11 p.m.
Full bar
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Visa
Sidewalk-level access to most tables
Smoking allowed at the bar
The Palm steak house opened in Boston at about the same time that WBCN gave Howard Stern the morning radio spot that used to belong to Charles Laquidara. In my review of the Palm, I tried to write about the threat to Boston sensibilities posed by the New Yorkization of steak and radio, but it didn't work because, well, what was the Charles Laquidara of Boston steak houses? Boodles and Grill 23 are locally owned, but neither really has the accent down.

But if another New York steak invader lands, I'm all set for similes, because Abe & Louie's is here, courtesy of the Back Bay Restaurant Group. It has the form of a New York steak house, with big knives and bigger portions, big prices and à la carte vegetables, waiters pushing carts, and dark paneling. But the owners have trimmed the New York nonsense: waiters with attitude, walls plastered with photos featuring quasi-endorsements by semi-celebrities, ritual displays of raw meat, and homages to gangsters aimed to amuse the gray suits.

Abe & Louie's puts out a great steak, the way you ordered it, and makes things easier for customers lacking in blood lust or big money. This, I think, is how Boston wants a steak house.

Now, about the beef. It's really, really good. It has the right tenderness and flavor for each cut, although in general US Prime (on the porterhouse and sirloin steaks) is not as heavily marbled as it once was. Using US Choice for the prime rib and filet mignon is a good idea, since these cuts are well marbled, and the Prime versions can lack flavor. My benchmark steak is the porterhouse ($28.95), because it has both tenderloin and top loin -- and because it requires some intelligence to cut and cook, since the tenderloin side cooks faster than the top-loin side. So I ordered mine rare, and got an enormous steak, reasonably rare on both sides and with superb dry-aged flavor. It didn't have the game-like, more-aged flavor you sometimes get at Morton's, but that's an old-fashioned taste, and most people won't miss it. In any case, the fun is in eating pieces from one side and then from the other. And given the size of this portion, you can have fun with a cold steak sandwich the next day, too.

Filet mignon ($25.95) is not billed as dry-aged, but mine had very good flavor for this often-bland, tender cut. Lamb chops ($28.95) are sometimes the best thing in steak houses, and here they were beautiful -- three inch-thick loin chops -- but almost flavorless, with none of that distinctive mutton tang.

My companions weren't all carnivorous, and for them there was chicken, tuna, and shrimp. We also savaged the bread basket, with its excellent trio of lavash, dense-crumbed sourdough, and wheat bread with nuts and raisins. Breads this good alleviate the pain of à la carte potatoes, of which the "hashed brown potatoes" ($5.50) were dry, salty, and lacking taste. Fried Vidalia strings ($6.50) had a little onion flavor, and useful proportions of grease, but were very, very salty. Caramelized onions, however, were irresistible -- a great steak topping. Creamed spinach ($5.50) was also very good, and not overly creamed.

In the land of big meat, appetizers are superfluous, but they're on the menu anyway. Clam chowder ($5.95) is good but not especially clam flavored; with plenty of cream and some potatoes, a hint of sweet spice, celery, and a peppery bite, it tastes as much like cream of mushroom soup as clam chowder. Crab cakes ($9.95) are smallish, but with serious crab flavor. A lively salsa would be a welcome garnish on almost any platter here; they should offer it as a side dish. "Abe & Louie's Salad" ($6.50) contains the only obvious culinary reference to Abe, who is presumably the late Abe Sarkis, father of owner Charles Sarkis. It's a good Bibb lettuce salad with blue cheese, pistachios, and apple slices with cinnamon and a hint of rosewater.

The wine list features big-night bottles but also has a few half-bottles and several wines by the glass. (All the glasses are large burgundy bubbles, proving that size is more important than wine-specific design.) We had reds, an Anapamu pinot noir ($6 glass, $23 bottle) and an Estancia cabernet sauvignon ($4, $17). The latter had lots of spice; the former, whiffs of black cherry. Both are friendly to red meat and black pepper.

Desserts follow the format: oversized, simply flavored, rich. The most pretentious, mocha crème brûlée ($10.95), was also the best -- just flavored cream topped with a burnt-sugar shell. Very good with the top-quality coffee and decaf ($1.95). Apple pie ($6) is offered with vanilla ice cream or melted cheddar cheese. Either way, it is a large piece of nondescript pie tasting more of spice than apples. Cheesecake ($6) is sensibly unadorned, and seemed light and delightful after steaks. Health considerations aside, I recommend it. Chocolate cake ($7) was way tall, way big, with lots of layers for extra frosting, and maybe a bit much.

Service was quite good, straddling the line between attentive and chatty, but we did find a major lapse when we got home: someone else's doggy bag. We had saved porterhouse and lamb chops, and got back chicken and prime rib. A human error, but an important one in a restaurant where large portions will have many diners asking for bagged leftovers.

The old steak houses were also cigar bars. Smoking in the dining area is now illegal in Boston, but the cigarettes in the bar area provide a subliminal sense of rightness without too much smoke. Abe & Louie's is also somewhat loud, with wood floors where the Capitol Grille, say, has carpets. This positions A&L between the top-class steak houses and the old middle-class steak houses like Valle's and Emerson's. It's a comfortable niche, and a lot of people are already comfortably filling Abe & Louie's. The décor has upscale references, like marble and paneled bathrooms and napkins with buttonholes; and downscale references, like big-band background music and copies of French Impressionist paintings. (Steak isn't Paris, it's England or cowboys.)

One of the subtexts of Abe & Louie's is that, decades ago, Charles Sarkis opened his first restaurant a few blocks away and named it after himself: Charley's Eating and Drinking Saloon. This was not the present Charley's, but an earlier one on the last block of Newbury Street. There was talk at the time that young Charles wasn't really in charge; his father was a "known gambler" and was suspected of secretly owning Charley's. Many years of whistle-clean business, and the obvious creativity and drive behind numerous successful restaurants, have put those rumors to rest. No one today credits anybody but Charles Sarkis for the quality of Papa Razzi, Atlantic Fish Company, J.C. Hillary's, Joe's American Bar & Grill, and now Abe & Louie's. Sarkis never whined in public, never weaseled. And only now, in quiet love, has he named his best restaurant after his late father.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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