Bull Market

Kristine Heykants

Manny's Steakhouse
Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, 1300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 339-9900

When Jon Landberg looks at his wine list he doesn't just see bottles and vintages; he sees a population of personalities. "I have a way of describing wines to people," says Landberg, the sommelier at Manny's. "I say they're like children. When wines are first made they're charming, cute, fruity--they look up at you with their big, innocent eyes--they have to be cute, or we wouldn't keep them around. As they age they get dumber and dumber--their fruit acids and tannins get all out of balance--they're awkward and ungainly, and you wonder why you had them in the first place. Teenagers. Then as they mature you find out if this once promising, once awkward thing turns out to be a doctor or a lawyer, or a janitor. Maybe this wine was just never going to be anything."

Or maybe it was born to outsize glitz, maybe it came into the world as the vinicultural equivalent of Ivana Trump--like the big, blowzy 15-liter bottle of Mumm champagne that awaits some big spender on a special shelf in Manny's nonsmoking dining room. Mumm has 200 of these bassinet-sized bottles made by hand every year, explains Landberg, and because the glass must be exceptionally strong to contain the champagne's pressure, the bottles are tested so rigorously that at least half explode before they're filled. And even so they remain fragile: Landberg says the staff at Manny's used to occasionally lay their 15-liter behemoth, known in the trade as a nebuchadnezzar, on its side overnight to moisten the cork--until they returned one morning to find a hair-sized crack in the glass and $1,500 of champagne soaked into the floor.

Yes, the nebuchadnezzar costs $1,500, and if you want it, you're advised to give Manny's ample time to ice it down. Also, says Landberg, beware of bargain bottles of this size. Once a large party brought a 15-liter bottle of champagne with them, but the staff was horrified to find that it held sour, bubble-free wine, ruined most likely by display in a sunny window. Just ask the Donald: Precious commodities need careful attention.

In addition to the extravagant nebuchadnezzar, Manny's offers the area's largest concentration of gargantuan bottles of wine--plenty of jeroboams (5 liters), imperials (6 liters), magnums, and double magnums (1.5 and 3 liters, respectively). Some of these offerings, like the 18-liter bottle of Stelzner Cabernet, are made exclusively for Manny's because Landberg knows vineyard owner Richard Stelzner from Landberg's days as a sommelier in Boston.

And by the way, don't call Landberg a sommelier to his face: "We don't even use the term 'sommelier' around here," he blushes. "It's a little too hoity-toity. We just call me the wine guy." A wine guy with 250 bottles on his standard list, another 500 on his reserve list, and a stash of 10,000 stored throughout Manny's dining rooms, coat rooms, and cellar. Ask to see the reserve list: It's simultaneously intimidating and enthralling, with pages and pages of spreadsheet printout listing vineyard and vintage. Find one you like and your waiter will search out Landberg who will quote a price. It's like conducting a private auction at your table.

These extravagant bottles with biblical names beg the question: Why would anyone want a wading-pool-sized portion of fine wine? Why would you want a single jeroboam instead of six separate bottles of different wines? For the same reason you can have your Rolex made of platinum and your Mercedes's wire wheels gold-plated: because it's more fun that way--and more obviously fun from across the room or recollected later. Just as flowers in the fields gain their strength from the glory of the sun above, these luxuries reflect the magnificence of far-off corporations' expense accounts.

There's always a festive hubbub at Manny's, and the close-set tables allow you to easily find out what's on the minds of those near you. On my visits I overheard patrons chortling things like "Well, we're not paying for it!" "We deserve it!" and "Use it or lose it!"--the latter, I imagine, referring to entertainment budgets that shrink if not fully spent. One night I sat beside a table of four ordinary-looking diners who ordered an 8-pound lobster to share as an appetizer (Manny's regularly gets Maine lobsters as big as 20 pounds) and then moved on to four orders of surf and turf--king crab legs and 10-ounce fillets--at $65 a pop, followed by three separate side dishes, each of which could feed three or four people, and four desserts.

I'm sort of conflicted on these displays of gluttony. On the one hand it's disquieting to see adults acting like preschoolers given the run of a candy bazaar. On the other hand, I figure that if people devote enormous portions of their creativity, energy, and time to corporations, they deserve to occasionally be treated like royalty while feasting on the choicest bits of the choicest beasts.  

How choice are they? Manny's serves steaks from the central third of the short loin, which is itself about a 10th of the cow, namely the area between the ribs and the sirloin. One of the assistant chefs, Todd Bray, told me that they get only two or three steaks per head of cattle, and serve a couple hundred steaks on a busy night. When you do the math, Manny's becomes a quite formidable threat to the cattle population.

Bray also says that Manny's steaks are dry-aged in the only dry-aging facility approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dry-aging, or storing meat for between three and six weeks at temperatures just above freezing in low humidity, prompts an enzymatic change that intensifies the flavor, softens the texture, deepens the color, and cuts down the cooking time of the meat. It also creates a taste like warm thunder on the tongue.

Some of Manny's steaks are truly luscious, setting your whole body humming with their fullness. The New York strip ($27.95) is the restaurant's most popular cut, and it is a sumptuous portion; the porterhouse ($28.95) is a New York strip with a bone and a section of the tenderloin. If you're insanely hungry, order the double porterhouse for $57.90; it weighs 48 ounces and isn't much smaller than a volleyball. On my visits a bone-in rib eye was always featured as a special for $28.95. This steak, which comes from the same section as the prime rib, is exceptionally tender, and keeping the bone in lends a swarthy depth to the beef.

The kitchen staff knows how to cook the beef perfectly, and they eschew the regular rare/medium/well standards for quarter-turn nuances like medium-rare/rare and "Minnesota medium"--the point between medium and medium-well at which steaks looks just like they do on TV, with an interior the rosy hue of a red-wine stain on a beige linen napkin. Cooking a steak to these fine distinctions can be a matter of, for a filet mignon, 30 seconds, and if the broiler chefs ever mess these pricey cuts up I've never seen it. Filet mignons run $24.95 for a 10-ounce cut and $27.95 for the 14-ounce serving; but beware that these steaks aren't as fantastic as many of the others because tenderloin can't be aged.

Part of the reason Manny's is so enjoyable is the professionalism of the waiters--confident, clear-speaking men all. (I never got a satisfactory answer to why there are no waitresses at Manny's, though it's clear why many of the men have been there since the restaurant opened 10 years ago: On top of the enormous check averages and dinner-only hours, the plastic-wrapped meat that spends its evening on a cart as a show-and-tell menu ends its night as employees' dinner.) These veterans will patiently talk you through the nuances of ordering not only your steak but the side dishes as well: Exactly how crispy do you want your skillet of hash browns ($6.95)? Fluffy, moist, and not that crispy? Crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle? Or do you want the nudity fried right out of them, so every bit is crisp as a chip?

These are important decisions, because your steak is going to come bare on a plate with nothing but a sprig of parsley. Side-dish selections also include the creamed garlic spinach ($4.95)--big, soft leaves melting in an extra-creamy sauce--and broccoli ($4.95) or asparagus (price varies seasonally), each an impressive display of green that comes with a capable hollandaise. On the other hand, I don't get the impulse behind the sliced tomatoes and onions ($5.95), inch-thick slabs of guess-what layered like teething rings in a dish.

Desserts also exude a decadent, "we are the guys with the most cake" sort of energy. The bread pudding is served in a goblet big enough to house a goldfish and accompanied by a full-sized bottle of Maker's Mark to drench it with. And if that doesn't sound rich enough, atop the bread pudding is a ladleful of what I initially thought was whipped cream--until I stuck a spoonful into my mouth and discovered it was hard sauce, essentially a flavored butter made from eggs, fresh butter, powdered sugar, and a hint of Frangelico. The brownie ($13.95) is a loaf of gooey chocolate cake piled chin-high with ice cream and (actual) whipped cream--and it's sized to serve your average dinner party of eight.

What's it like to get one of these big boys placed in front of you at the end of a steak dinner? Remember that one time when you were a kid and some distant relative took you to the circus and you finally got to eat everything you never could convince your parents you ought to have? And then on the way out you thought: This is pushing it, but I'm just going to order one more thing, to see what I can get away with. And you got that bag or box of extravagance, and ate it and felt sort of bloated, but more importantly you felt triumphant, victorious over all of the obstacles that ever kept you from full sensory satiety. Welcome to the celebratory essence of the bull-market boom.

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