Monday, June 17, 2013

Bern's Steak House/Harry Waugh Dessert Room

"Respect the classics, man, it's Hendrix...", Fillmore (George Carlin), Cars (the movie)

More than any city in the country (with the possible exceptions of New York and San Francisco), Chicago is loaded with beloved, traditional eateries (not all of them good, by the way) that have long histories (going back several decades in some cases). In Tampa, however, there appears to be only two restaurants that can be described as such: Columbia (which was recently chronicled in this blog) and Bern's (1208 S. Howard), one of America's premier steakhouses, at least if you believe those advertisements in the airline magazines. Having read many of these magazines, Bern's was always the first restaurant that popped into my head whenever I heard the word "Tampa", long before I became a resident of this fair city. Now that we're here and being a firm believer that you can't really get to know a place's dining scene without experiencing its classic dining venues, Mrs. Hackknife and I made it a top priority to visit Bern's for dinner as soon as we possibly could. With my mom in town to watch the progeny, I made a Memorial Day evening reservation for the missus and I to get some Grade A beef, some good wine, and all the accoutrements.

Originally conceived as a saloon by founder Bern Laxer in the mid-1950's, Bern's was forced to add more words to its name because of phone company regulations (hence the moniker "Steak House") and also to serve food due to an unexpected dispute with a landlord over alcohol sales. At first, Bern and his wife Gert ran the joint as more of a luncheonette, but over time, the operation morphed into the elevated dining establishment that it is today, eventually expanding to include seating for 350, a wine cellar with selections that dwarf those of most restaurants, a cheese cave, and a separate "dessert room" upstairs. Throw in a thriving wine and takeout food business (Bern's Fine Wines), a popular second eatery serving modern cuisine (SideBern's), and even a small farm plot in northwest Tampa to grow some of the steakhouse's produce, and you've got quite a local juggernaut.

When the missus and I arrived at the restaurant, we briefly waited in the hostess foyer before being escorted to our table, spending a few moments taking in the manor house-meets-bordello vibe (red walls, portraits of comely Victorian ladies, etc.). The building's interior is a mazelike warren of mismatched dining rooms, giving the impression that they were added somewhat haphazardly over the years. Although some of the decorations slanted towards cheesy (a giant, faded aerial photo of what appeared to be a Tuscan village, for example), we were seated in a small room that was sparse, even a bit elegant. Now, if you're a frequent reader of this blog, you're no doubt aware that Mrs. Hackknife and I have dined in many different places in the past 10 years, but even we were a little intimidated by Bern's menu, which can only be described as encyclopedic, featuring a comprehensive history of the restaurant, a dizzying array of classic American and French-inspired dishes (think foie gras, steak tartare, shrimp cocktail, oysters, etc.), and charts documenting the weight, thickness, and price of each available steak cut (I noted 51 distinct combinations, not counting the several different sauce/topping options). I would have happily paid $19.95 just to have a copy of the menu to bring home for my archives and I won't even try to address the wine list, which had a depth/breadth of vino selections that would have made Robert Parker blush.

Once our heads stopped spinning and with some guidance from our helpful server, we decided to start small with a smoked fish appetizer platter (see photo below). This platter included three types of fish (swordfish, salmon, and snapper), plus a tuna pate, assorted pickled vegetables, toasted baguette rounds, and three dipping sauces. We had no trouble whatsoever polishing off the entire plate.

Unlike most modern steakhouses, soup, salad, and sides are NOT a la carte at Bern's, a greatly appreciated gesture that takes some of the sting out of a $50 beef slab. For soup, we both chose the house French onion soup au gratin, daintily served atop a doily with a buttercup yellow cap of lightly browned Gruyere (see photo below). I found this version of French onion to be among the best I'd ever encountered, thankfully not the typical salt bomb that bistro kitchens churn out worldwide.

The house salads were fresh, large, and also quite delicious (see photo below). I'm not sure how much of the ingredients on the plate were grown in the Bern's farm plot, but, regardless, I had successfully tricked my brain into thinking that we were at a health food establishment thus far.

That notion was immediately dispelled with the arrival of my 12 oz. Delmonico, cooked medium rare (1 and 1/8" thick according to the menu chart, although I had no ruler to verify - see photo below) and accompanied by a horseradish cream sauce. All of the included sides (loaded baked potato, fried onion strings, sweet shredded carrots, green beans, and tomatoes) were perfectly cooked.

Oddly, the worst part of the meal was actually my steak, which ended up being quite gristly, especially surprising given the amount of verbiage in the menu devoted to how carefully the kitchen trims the beef. I should have complained to our server (I'm sure he would have removed it from the bill). I didn't, and the only reason I can think to explain why I didn't is that I don't consider myself to be a steak aficionado, so clearly if the steak from a place serving them for over 60 years doesn't seem good, it must be me. Still, considering how outstanding the rest of the meal was, I have no problem giving Bern's a second chance on this.

When I mentioned to some longtime Tampatriots that we were going to dine at Bern's, they all told us that we had to do both the kitchen/wine cellar tour and visit the Harry Waugh Dessert Room before departing (more on that in a second). I asked our server before the meal started if he could make arrangements for us and he happily obliged. The kitchen was extremely large and bustling, but the staff only allowed us brief entry before escorting everyone into the wine cellar (not really a "tour", per se), which was actually quite eye-popping. Among other treasures, the house has an extensive collection of rare sherries and madeiras (some dating back to the 19th Century), plus aisle after aisle of wine racks like you see in the photo below.

After geeking out in the wine cellar, we headed upstairs to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, which occupies the entire second floor of the restaurant. Bern Laxer was inspired to create a separate dessert facility after spending time at the French estate of his good friend, Harry Waugh, who was a wine connoisseur and one-time director of Chateau Latour in Bordeaux (Harry always brought guests into his drawing room for dessert and coffee following dinner). In order to give his apres-meal palace an American flair, Bern purchased 48 giant redwood wine holding tanks from wineries in California and had each of them reconstructed into a private booth, also adding individual controls for a sound system to play classical music, jazz, even live songs from a pianist playing in another part of the building (a phone headset is included for requests if you so desire).

You can see the old-school analog control panel in the photo above, along with my dessert selection, a chocolate-orange tart of sorts that was not quite as decadent as it looked (Mrs. Hackknife was much happier with her selection, a candied green apple dish). To wash down our sweets, we opted for a flight of 4 different Canadian ice wines from Inniskillin (not an easy decision, by the way - Bern's offerings of dessert wines is likely unparalleled and worth a visit alone). Conceptually, I love the separate dessert room (the only other place I can recall seeing one was at Bazaar in Los Angeles) and wish more fine dining establishments would try them. Next time, I vow to stick with the house classics (like the banana cream pie or macadamia nut ice cream) instead of venturing off into the nightly specials.

Now that we've been to Bern's, I can certainly understand why my fellow Floridians find it to be so popular. If you ever come down to visit and you're in the mood for a big steak and a tall glass of Port, we know where to go...

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