Photo: Matthew Kassel/Business Insider
There’s a small patch of black on the celestial ceiling of the main concourse in Grand Central Terminal that you might not notice unless you’re looking for it. It was left there to show how dirty the ceiling used to be—stained through the years by smoke and dust and tar—before a restoration was completed in 1998.
Ted Pryor, head chef at Michael Jordan’s: The Steak House, pointed it out to me on a recent visit to the restaurant, which is situated across the way from Cipriani Dolci on a corner balcony of the concourse, directly below the patch itself.
Michael Jordan’s was the first of many restaurants to move into this majestic space in ’98.
“We try to live up to the room, basically,” Pryor, 42, said over lunch (disclosure: it was on the house) right after the arrival of spring. Natural light filled the area as commuters and tourists hurried through: a surprisingly soothing and intimate environment for a meal.
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Pryor has been working at Michael Jordan’s for 14 months and told me he is mostly French-trained. He previously worked at the John Street space of Brasserie Les Halles, the French steakhouse whose Park Avenue location employs Anthony Bourdain as its chef at large. (Pryor knows Bourdain, in passing, and said “he’s just as he seems.”)
As a child, he would take the train with his father from Westchester, where he grew up, into Grand Central to eat at The Palm. He loves the terminal and its history (it will turn 100 next year) but added that “it was really a dump” before renovations.
He started me off with a crab cake made of Indonesian lump crab and covered on the top and bottom with a buttery slice of brioche that added a necessary crunch. It was joined by a celery root remoulade, creamy with a hint of mustard.
Pryor said he’s tweaked the menu since coming on board, but emphasised that there are certain parameters that steakhouses stay within: having a sirloin or a double porterhouse on the menu, for example. And the fare at Michael Jordan’s is supposed to reflect the tastes of the basketball star who founded it (these days, its owners licence his name).
In her review of the restaurant when it opened 14 years ago, Ruth Reichl, then the Times food critic, wrote that Jordan and his partners, Penny and Peter Glazier, “have invented a new kind of celebrity restaurant.” She described the menu as “a straightforward document offering serious food that is a far cry from what you find at the All-Star Cafe or Mickey Mantle’s.”
“It’s kind of unfortunate,” Pryor said when I told him that I had originally associated the steakhouse with the likes of bad celebrity restaurants. “I like to think we’re surprisingly good to most people; they think they’re coming into a touristy spot, in a train station, and we’re a real, actual, functioning good restaurant.”
Jordan still comes into the restaurant, Pryor said, but he’s not involved with the day-to-day menu. They have never met: “I’m a Knicks fan, you know. He’s broken my heart many times.”
After the crab cake, the waiter brought me a 16-ounce New York strip, accompanied by a side of creamed spinach, salty and piping hot. The steak, which Pryor told me is the kind he usually eats at Michael Jordan’s, was well-charred on the outside, tender and juicy within.
“Basically, it’s right below burnt, is the way we try to do it,” Pryor explained.
The strip steak costs $40, a seemingly fair price for a good steak at a good restaurant in a city where many steakhouses—Porter House New York, Old Homestead, Smith & Wollensky, among others—have passed the $50 threshold.
Business Insider‘s recent survey, which asked readers to name the best steakhouses for Wall Street types in New York, didn’t include Michael Jordan’s. Businessmen occupied the balcony when I ate there, and Pryor said that a variety of commuters and tourists come by for dinner.
For dessert, I had a rich chocolate cake—a hefty steak of a slice—layered with chocolate mousse. (Delicious, but I couldn’t finish it, even with Pryor’s help—a lunch this heavy I rarely have.)
Pryor told me he likes Keens and The Palm (after Michael Jordan’s, of course) and would go more often to Peter Luger, that New York institution, if it weren’t in Brooklyn. He described his fondness for “the six-inch drop,” a practice at that restaurant where the waiter hurriedly drops your plate in front of you from six inches above the table.
“It’s got to rattle when it gets in front of you,” he said. “And in some ways, I miss that gruff New York,” he added. “I like the fact that we’re a nice city and people are nice, but some of the old waiters were—like P.J. Clarke’s, before it got bought out—those waiters and bartenders were almost mean, but we loved them, they’d treat you really badly and you always went back.”
That New York may no longer be, or perhaps it never was, but eating at Michael Jordan’s, on the balcony overlooking the bustling Grand Central concourse, is an experience I am glad to have had. And of course, if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can always look up to the ceiling to find that little patch of black.
Ted Pryor has worked at Michael Jordan's for 14 months and loves the history of the building he works in.
I ate a crispy crab cake, covered on the top and bottom with a thin slice of brioche and joined by a scoop of celery root remoulade.
The fare at Michael Jordan's is supposed to reflect the tastes of the basketball celebrity for whom it is named, but Pryor said that Jordan is not involved with the day-to-day menu.
My steak, medium rare and healthily charred on the outside, was accompanied by piping hot creamed spinach.
Restaurateur Peter Glazier was in that day and along with his wife, Penny, manages Michael Jordan's.
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