Hook & Cleaver
68 Greenpoint Avenue, Greenpoint
As opposed to monied, meat-loving Manhattan, and with the noted exception of the 125-year-old Peter Luger (currently holding the title of Brooklyn’s longest running restaurant), our borough actually doesn’t have much in the way of traditional, old-school steakhouses. Which is precisely what’s made the recent Greenpoint launch of Hook & Cleaver, an ode to 18th century, boys-only “beefsteak clubs,” seem so refreshingly novel—especially since it was opened by a woman (frequent food TV cheftestant, Diane DiMeo). So while we always wish the best for any new restaurant, we admit we found ourselves actively rooting for this particular concept to succeed, and why it came as a rather rude shock—the forgivable foibles inherent at any neophyte eatery notwithstanding—when our actual dining experience went so actively, so entirely wrong.
Situated at the back of a dimly lit lounge, the main dining room is undeniably handsome, anchored by a beautifully appointed, glass-enclosed kitchen. But instead of the cushy digs inherent in steakhouses, that give themselves to lolling about for hours and loosening your belt notch by notch as you work your way through baked potatoes and bloody hunks of beef, the seating options at Hook & Cleaver are almost entirely limited to tall, teetering tables, ringed by backless wooden stools. The kind that (in our advanced age), we can only stand for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of a single negroni. Thankfully, we were (saved?) when the wall next to us began to shake in earnest (evidently, the opening band at the bar next door had just begun sound check, and we were essentially on the stage), which literally threatened to knock us right off of our already precarious perch. A quick conference with a server bought us a considerably comfier banquette back in the lounge, where, after being faced with a night of slicing steak on a stool with prog metal ringing in our ears, the rowdy banter of neighboring Polish expatriates was more than welcome.
Once we were finally ready to order, a trolley of raw meat was rolled over for our inspection. But instead of being flourished in classic steakhouse fashion, by straight-backed waiters in long, starched aprons, the modern version gets you two exceedingly young girls no bigger around than T-bones, clad in sweats and street clothes, who giggle at each other embarrassedly and improvise wildly when asked basic questions about the price or provenance of their beef (it’s from Happy Valley Meat Co). After taking a chance that we had enough green on hand for the rib eye (Hook & Cleaver is cash only) we selected a few non-steak items from a separate menu including the French Dip, which arrived with a dried-out ring of unmelted Swiss, a watery au jus and a pile of pre-fab, pre-frozen fries. “Ooohh…you’ll love this!” cooed our waiter as he set down a ramekin of Cauliflower Cheese; we didn’t have the heart to tell him it was woefully waterlogged, unappetizingly mushy and essentially flavorless. Still, we were ready to forgive all with the arrival of the rib eye, which sported grill marks so pronounced, they could have been applied with a branding iron. Sadly, it didn’t have a lick of salt on it, or seasoning of any kind (dabbing on the corn syrupy steak sauce, which had a strange, sour aftertaste, proved no help at all), rendering what should have been a gloriously mineral, beefy feast akin to chewing on a juicy, fat-ringed washcloth. “I’ll bring you salt if you want,” shrugged our server. “But that’s chef’s style. She wants you to taste the flavor of the meat.”
All this would have been merely unfortunate, but not actually offensive, if we had any reason to believe that DiMeo was in the kitchen, hustling, doing her best, proudly and willfully unsalting her steaks. But during the entirety of our meal (not to mention that of the party of 8, who had reserved a table in the back, as well as a string of unsuspecting two and three tops, who wandered in throughout the night), “chef” remained in the lounge, audibly gossiping with the bartender, actively not giving a damn. Basically, it’s a slap in the face to both paying customers and hardworking chefs, who—forget about their first Friday night in business—would rather die than ever relinquish control of their kitchen. Especially not when there’s still so much to do, like cutting potatoes into wedges, perhaps, instead of ordering in bags of frozen fries.
And it’s a kick in the teeth to the friendly, if undertrained, staff, who are left to deal with the obviously befuddled patrons. After a spirited conference with DiMeo less than a foot away from us at the bar, ours wandered back to tell us he couldn’t comp us the steak because “chef” stood firmly behind it. We hadn’t asked for a free rib eye. We didn’t want a free rib eye. But goodness knows (this being the hospitality industry and all), DiMeo could have spared us two seconds of her own time, to thank us for visiting Hook & Cleaver, to ask if she could get us anything else, or perhaps, to explain why she elected to open a steakhouse, when she plans to flout one of the single, inarguable rules of handling steak.
When attempting to assess a restaurant that drops the ball in so many areas, you begin to wonder what, precisely, to award (as opposed to withhold) stars for. So, it’s with—perhaps misguided—hope that we’re giving Hook & Cleaver an “L,” on the off-chance that DiMeo sincerely cares enough to go back to the drawing board with everything, from the silly stools, to how she educates her servers, to her willingness to stay in the kitchen, to her stance against seasoning steaks. Because if not, Brooklyn is surely destined to become home to two record-holding restaurants; both the longest running steakhouse, and the shortest.