There are plenty of special-occasion restaurants piling lobster tails and giant prawns onto icy platters aiming to replicate the opulence of a Nantucket wedding these days.
But at Flank, the new high-concept, high-testosterone Waltham steakhouse from the owners of 29 Sudbury, this is not sufficiently lavish.
No, unsatisfied with merely putting the “ham” in Waltham, Flank puts the “ham” in shellfish: a $75 shellfish tower, the Mallard, arrives with a dense, grapefruit-size wad of cured ham nestled on a bed of ship’s crackers at the center of the cold platter. As the ice melts, the clump of ham begins to test the structural integrity of the hardtack. God only knows what’s on the $95 shellfish tower. A rib eye, probably.
The crackers aren’t the only thing straining under the weight of Flank’s wild-eyed notions of luxury. All the glassware is cut like Waterford crystal. A huge, open fire pit rages on the nearly empty stone patio. Portraits of historical figures are blasted with graffiti, like a Banksy hanging in an actual bank. And though there are surely other eateries dishing out $325 Osetra caviar service and $98 glasses of Opus One, how many of them share a parking lot with a Market Basket?
Flank bills itself as a “New American Beefsteak,” a nod to a 19th-century all-male banquet tradition that involved eating large amounts of meat without aid of utensils — a concept resurrected on an episode of “Top Chef” last year, to the bafflement of several accomplished young chefs. In accordance with public accommodations law and probably the local health code, Flank has updated the beefsteak tradition to include (a) women and (b) silverware. But never fear, carnivorous men’s rights activists: Two visits to Flank in recent weeks suggest that women are still thoroughly outnumbered, and the menu notes that cutlery is optional.
And the first course of The Banker — the middle tier of three beefsteak options, ringing in at $110 per person — serves as a pretty good reminder that you’re welcome to use your hands. A server outfits everyone with an apron, then delivers a long platter of oysters, shrimp, and salads, the lettuce in the last is cut into palm-able hunks of anchovy-heavy Caesar and bacon-bleu wedge varieties. The shrimp and oysters are natural for hand-to-mouth eating, but the salads are clever and work well pinched between three fingers and a thumb; it’s a wonder lettuce never caught on as a hand-fruit. Naturally, a plate of cured ham — Flank’s answer for everything — shows up too.
Soon, though, the wheels come off. A massive platter of meat and vegetables with a good 8 ounces of clarified butter steaming in the center makes for an impressive display if you’d like to wrap your whole life — your car, your 4-year-old, the phone on your desk at work — in bacon. But in practice, bacon-wrapped lamb chops mean undercooked bacon or overcooked lamb. That goes double for bacon-wrapped shrimp. And by the time you’ve discovered the flank and strip steak sliced underneath, it’s gray through and through — a $440 pile of criminally overcooked beef. Whether it was overcooked in the kitchen or steamed to well-done under a heap of things wrapped in bacon doesn’t really matter: It’s shoe leather now.
The dessert tray is a whimsical mess of cookies and whoopie pies and ice cream pops and fresh fruit that is completely and delightfully at odds with the whole hypermasculine mess that came before it. But while nothing at Flank is too little, this is too late to save the previous course.
The beefsteak may be the main event, but it’s far from the best that Flank has to offer.
For that, start at the bar, with a deep and innovative cocktail menu. Classics are well handled — they won’t shake your Manhattan and deliver it watery and full of ice chips, a bizarre plague all over the region — and modern creations are plentiful and appealing. Then add a deep, impressive wine list that’s buoyed further by a state-of-the-art wine preservation system that allows Flank to pour wildly expensive bottles of wine by the glass.
Knock back a couple at the bar, maybe in one of the comfy booths by the windows, and that ham on the shellfish tower will seem perfectly natural. And maybe you won’t notice that it would take a boning knife and a blowtorch to get the lobster meat from its shell (though really, you’re in no condition to be handling a blowtorch).
A thorough review of executive chef Jordan Mackey’s menu is enough to trigger the meat sweats. Every one of the six salads contains either meat or dairy, sneaking some butter into the house salad in the form of “tiny brioche.” The “hand selected” steaks section — how else would you select them? — includes several cuts from California supplier Brandt Beef and Creekstone Farms in Kansas, from an 8-ounce filet mignon to a 50-ounce tomahawk rib eye.
A 16-ounce strip loin dry-aged for 35 days arrived cooked precisely medium-rare as ordered, and though the rich, funky flavor of aged beef is largely missing, it’s a deeply satisfying steak, with a nice char on the outside that does not sacrifice succulence through the inch-thick cut. A filet, with a la carte sauces served on the side, is also spot-on to temperature, and tender enough that you can leave the fancy steak knife on the table.
Roast rack of lamb, however, lacks the satisfying crust that comes with a good sear. And though Bearnaise and lamb occasionally meet, it’s always a little awkward. Pappardelle — the only nod to the full-on vegetarian who walked in by accident — is studded with meaty wild mushrooms, and crisp fried onion strings provide needed textural variety. But the pasta, bouncing and dodging the tines of a fork, isn’t quite pliant enough.
A la carte side dishes are mostly adequate. Spinach is treated with surprising tenderness, sauteed gently but still leafy and fresh. A giant twice-baked potato could have been baked one-and-a-half times and been perfect.
Service is uneven: On a weeknight, a pleasant but overmatched server retreats to the recesses of the restaurant to confer about even the most mundane questions. But on a busier night, things are more comfortable. A staff sommelier helps with the expansive wine list. A server describes Flank’s plan for a “cigarden” — an outdoor cigar lounge and tomato garden — far enough away from the building to be legal (though, he acknowledges, you won’t be able to drink out there; this would seem to be a problem). In either case, block off several hours.
All that time gives you plenty of opportunity to examine your surroundings. There’s the table in the corner — a group of guys with more dollars than sense wearing their Flank aprons and taking simultaneous selfies. There’s the guy vaping at the next table, and the big bay windows looking out on I-95. And over by the bathrooms are the wine lockers, with little plaques for local celebrities. Prominently positioned is one belonging to Flank’s spirit animal.
It just says “Gronk.”
Nestor Ramos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.