“Are you ready for some Big Meat?”
My eyes were still adjusting to the low light of Alpen Rose. We’d just been vetted on the 13th Street sidewalk by a charming hostess who peeked out through a hidden panel in the door to check our reservation. Once inside, Michael Schulson, who was standing beside the fragrant grill that opens onto the dining room like a fireplace, stepped into the amber glow of crystal chandeliers to greet us like a carnivore showman: “Are you ready for some Big Meat?”
“We’ve got a porterhouse that’s aged for 65 days,” he said, before sending a cart of raw beef temptations rolling our way for a bit of show and sell.
Oh, hello rib chop! Even in this smallest bauble of his company’s rapidly growing stable of restaurants, where other dining rooms hit triple-digit seating, there’s a unifying instinct to this intimate 40-seater to Schulson-ize the main event. In this case it’s luxury beef, with a dose of more-is-more glam style. As a manager navigated the cart laden with thick slabs of marbled pink flesh between the narrow aisles of tufted leather booths, the long bone of a nearly three-pound tomahawk chop draped off the corner like a bike handle.
Once chef Leo Forneas and his crew roast those chops over the hardwood coals, he goes into the dining room to carve the 35-ounce paddles of beef tableside, multiple orders of these head-turning $125 showpieces set the dining room aflutter. A half dozen businessmen to my right ramped up their raucous, cocktail-fueled buzz into a red-cheeked frenzy, while the couple celebrating a birthday on my other side pulled out their phones to quietly memorialize their beast with the requisite social-media posts.
If the 24-ounce rib eye on my table — deeply caramelized thanks in part to 30 days of dry-aging, its crust greeting my bite like beef butter infused with minerals — is any indication, there’s much more to the satisfaction here than just a show. Although the steak-house show on this particularly cozy stage is definitely part of Alpen Rose’s charms.
This is hardly the only tomahawk stop in town. And there’s little about this menu template that differs greatly from the standard chophouse playbook. What distinguishes Alpen Rose as Philly’s most intriguing luxury meat haven since Barclay Prime is the quality of the ingredients, the well-spoken (though not overly intrusive) service, and the boutique intimacy of its space.
Schulson and his partner, wife Nina Tinari, once known for pan-Asian venues like Sampan and Double Knot, still are channeling the retro phase that inspired Giuseppe & Sons. Instead of the Rat Pack-era supper club look, though, the much smaller Alpen Rose evokes an even older vintage of clubhouse, with a barrel-shaped oak ceiling that gives warmth to the tall rectangular room (but also amplifies the considerable noise), an illuminated library wall of classic tomes like Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (“Nina loves to read"), cut crystal stemware for cocktails, and the bordello touch of velvet curtains framing window shades drawn closed against the glare of 13th Street.
The name is an homage to the flowers Schulson’s Nana always had waiting on the kitchen table when he visited his grandparents as a kid in New York, where his Popi Sam Yoselowitz owned a kosher butcher called Sam’s Butcher Shop in the Bronx. Schulson worked in the shop as a teen, gaining an appreciation for old-school butchering skills and dinners of leftover beef.
That meat knowledge has come in handy with this project. The company has its own dry-aging room and a band saw back at Schulson HQ on Sansom Street to break down the cuts and let that prime Pat LaFrieda beef intensify and tenderize with time on a rack. Forneas, the company’s culinary director, is the one responsible for assuring that beef hits maximum flavor without getting too funky (typically between 28 and 37 days), then rendering them consistently over the wide hardwood grill, which adds a different savor than the scorching heat of broilers in most chain steak houses.
Anything on a bone was stellar, from that rib-eye cut down tableside in wide pink ribbons thick enough to balance sweet cloves of confit garlic atop each fat-laced slice to a bone-in New York strip, which had a leaner chew but just as much savor. I usually avoid filet mignon, but the decision to use grass-fed beef for the 8-ounce cut here (at $41, the least expensive of the grilled steaks) gave its thick flesh some extra complexity to go along with its tenderness. An even better way to maximize filet’s luxurious texture is to order it as a Wellington, a one-pound tenderloin wrapped in a halo of mushroom duxelles, a thin sheet of Serrano ham and buttery puff pastry whose flaky crust is ideal to soak in a drizzle of Bordelaise gravy enriched with bone marrow. It’s a $92 splurge suggested for two, but it’s rich enough for more to share.
If that Wellington is Alpen Rose’s ultimate nod to Titanic-era opulence, the rest of the menu shows a deft touch in balancing classic steak-house options with modern updates. There’s a simple chopped salad I found bland, but I admired a salad of avocados, whose creamy green meat almost souffleed over the grill’s heat before it’s tossed with toasted hazelnuts and frisee in lime and shallot vinaigrette.
There is a perfect rendition of shrimp cocktail for traditionalists who like their crustaceans plump, peeled, and chilled for a cocktail dip. Then there are the more daring head-on prawns, still fresh from the Gulf and grilled to sweet buttery softness with a shot glass of fino sherry on the side into which Forneas suggests dunking the heads. The already bone-dry, oxidized golden drink hits another level of appetite-inducing power with that extra hit of oceanic brine.
There were other seafood dishes worth noting, like the tender octopus seared to a crisp with sumac and fingerling potatoes, or the tuna carpaccio pounded into a pretty pink moon sparked with green olive tapenade. A butterflied branzino grilled in a basket directly over the coals is a popular move here. But since branzino is so common, I opted instead for another throwback in the stuffed lobster, though, it was less successful than the Wellington. The chunks of meat were good and moist, but too much breadcrumb in the shrimp and onion mousse stuffing made it dry.
In general, meaty indulgence is the reason most people come to steak houses, and Alpen Rose fulfills that primary mission well from the start, when thick slices of house-smoked bacon come glossed in sweet and spicy Banyuls wine aromatic with rosemary and Calabrian chilies. Sourdough toast is topped with velvet shreds of braised beef cheek that become even more unctuous with a side of grilled bone marrow to scoop out and smear on top. The raw filet mignon minced into a ring of beef tartare has a luscious texture piqued by a mustardy dressing and lavished with a creamy egg-yolk sauce cooked sous vide to a veritable custard.
There are other red-meat entrées worth noting, like the incredibly tender veal chop (I’d have loved it more with just a splash less vinaigrette over top), and a creative “lambchetta” slow-cooked with a crispy flap of belly wrapped porchetta-style around its loin. I wouldn’t opt for either, though, over the main event beef.
A few of Forneas’ vegetable sides, however, brought memorable new school updates to the usual fare, including some tiny hakurei turnips that were roasted sweet and snappy over the grill smoke; and a thick seared cauliflower steak that still had its crunch over a creamy swipe of lemony crême fraîche scattered with pickled golden raisins and briny capers. I couldn’t resist the towering stack of onion rings, a personal obsession, but found the beer batter disappointingly thick. No such letdown, though, with the classic creamed spinach (another obsession), a traditional Béchamel-enriched green wave that would be awesome lathered over the buttery fluff of warm Parker House rolls scattered with everything spice.
There were no missteps when it came to dessert — but also few risks. Schulson’s corporate pastry chef, Andrew Ling, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, simply delivers satisfying renditions of tried-and-true favorites. A chocolate cake over dark cookie crumbs layered with dense ganache should satisfy any chocoholic. The pies I could eat all day, their flaky crusts (a dash of vinegar is the secret) wrapped around coconut cream infused with natural flavor and a banana cream version that triangulated the ideal balance of ripe fruit, rich diplomat cream decadence and a refreshing icebox chill. A strawberry-rhubarb pie harnessed the season’s ripest fruit to its sweet-tart essence.
Wash it down with a glass of sauternes or maybe even a customized cocktail noted behind the bar on numbered cards cataloged for regulars. In a steak-house genre full of cookie-cutter corporate widgets, that kind of personalized service — perfectly in scale for this 40-seat room — can only be a boost. With well-aged chops that already rank among the city’s best to gild its distinctive space, Alpen Rose’s success is not just about being better, but being different.
116 S. 13th St., 215-600-0709; alpenrosephl.com
Go for the big chops and intimate setting at Alpen Rose, where the barrel-shaped wood ceiling, library wall, and crystal chandeliers feel like a retro clubhouse dedicated to prime beef. The tableside carving, customized cocktails, and tufted leather booths evoke a vintage vibe, but the top-shelf dry-aged meats and skillful tweaks to menu favorites from culinary director Leo Forneas are what elevate the experience to Philly’s best luxury steak destination since Barclay Prime.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Avocado salad; tuna carpaccio; beef tartare; shrimp cocktail; smoked bacon; bone marrow toast; octopus; prawns; beef Wellington; grass-fed filet; bone-in rib eye; bone-in New York strip; veal tomahawk; beef tomahawk; branzino; cauliflower steak; creamed spinach; banana cream pie; strawberry-rhubarb pie; chocolate cake.
DRINKS Classic cocktails get deft updates — like smoked tea, sherry, amari or cardamom spice; but regulars customize their own with numbered recipes filed into an index card catalog for future reference. The growing wine list, with around 100 labels, features mostly reds, with international options and a focus on California, including bottles from Pride, Neal, Siduri, Piedrasassi and PlumpJack. Try the Sonoma viognier from Chester County’s Kieran Robinson. Markups aren’t great, at three-times plus cost. Glass selections aren’t cheap, either, but good options come from Spain (Ostatu’s Rioja white), Chinon (Les Caves des Vins de Rabelais) and a lighter, earthy red option in Lagrein from Alto Adige.
WEEKEND NOISE What’s that? Alpen Rose’s biggest flaw, considering the prices, is the roar of meat-fueled crowds in a tiny space with a barrel-shaped ceiling that funnels the din toward tables in the center of the room. Corner booths are the best shot for an actual conversation.
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday and Tuesday, 5-10 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, until 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight.
Entrées, $32-$125 (for 45 oz. tomahawk steak).
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.