Old-School Oasis in Uptown
Izzy’s Steak & Chop House does good steaks like the old days.
For him, cooking steak was akin to a blood sport. If he ordered it at a restaurant, he asked for it “charred rare.” “How rare?” “Blood rare.” If he grilled it at home—and on warm summer evenings in the East Bay suburbs, he loved to barbecue a big rib-eye or T-bone or several New Yorks—it came off the charcoal “charred rare” for him and my mom, and closer to medium for my sister and me. He then sliced the steaks in half-inch strips and fanned them like a poker hand next to a baked potato with sour cream and chives. Some sort of vegetable (peas, green beans, corn, lima beans) played third fiddle on the plate.
My recollections of my dad’s love for steak are mixed like succotash with Mad Mannish memories of his fondness for gin, steak sandwiches, and baked lasagna at Vanessi’s in North Beach, and tailored suits and stylish fedoras. That was more than 50 years ago.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, according to an Oakland friend who grew up in San Francisco and has her law office there, if you wanted a steak in the City, Izzy’s was the place to go. Another friend told me stories about the gay couple he assisted late in their lives, and how he’d drive them half an hour across town in horrible traffic for special dinners at Izzy’s.
Now those steaks and special dinners are available in the Town, in Uptown, to be exact, at the corner of Grand and Webster where Vo’s once resided. In a neighborhood trending both upward and toward culinary originality and ethnic sophistication (with Plum Bar, Locol, Calavera, Pican, Ozumo, Hawker Fare, and Agave Uptown), Izzy’s Steak & Chop House is an old-school oasis, harking to a time before calorie and cholesterol counts dictated dining habits and before small plates, small portions, tweezer-cuisine, and celebrity chefs besieged contemporary restaurant culture.
The huge interior, divided into a bar, two dining rooms, a space for private dining, and a mezzanine overlooking the bar, doesn’t aspire to the high-end Mad Men luxuriousness of say, Daniel Patterson’s faithful revamp of Alfred’s steakhouse in San Francisco. Here, sheets of white paper protected the white tablecloths. Along with a basket of sliced sourdough, butter was served in foil-wrapped pats. Friendly servers and runners were dressed in basic black and comported themselves with charm and efficiency, if not with balletic grace and impeccable choreography. The décor, chockablock with novelty signage, decorated mirrors, nostalgic paintings, memorabilia, slowly rotating ceiling fans, a TV over the bar, and rows of bottled sauces and condiments on the low walls between rooms, bordered on theme-park kitsch.
But the food and drink were to be taken seriously. There was nothing terribly modern or complicated about the menu. There were no ingredients in the drinks you won’t recognize, nothing reimagined or reinvented, and nothing sculpted or hued to look like something it wasn’t. The specialty cocktails were basic—Izzy’s Manhattan, Hennessy Sidecar, Classic Negroni, Hemmingway Daiquiri. The fussiest was a Dragon Fruit Cosmo. The beer list was bigger than the wine list; the latter was limited but interesting enough and reasonably priced. The salads included a chopped Caesar, a wedge with blue cheese and bacon, hearts of romaine with blue cheese, and warm goat cheese. The core of the menu, “Steaks and Chops,” held no surprises, unless you’re shocked to see steak Dianne and New York steak au poivre on offer in 2016, alongside filet mignon, prime rib, braised lamb shank, baby back ribs, a pork chop, and a blackened hamburger steak. Of course, there was a burger and fries, with optional add-ons of cheese, bacon, and grilled or caramelized onions. No ranches were named; meats were simply designated USDA Prime. Alternatives to quadruped flesh ranged from salmon, flounder, Cajun drunken shrimp, crab cakes, and prawn scampi with linguini to chicken (roasted or picatta), large Caesar salads, and vegetarian pasta primavera.
You can probably guess the desserts: New York cheesecake, crème brûlée, key lime pie, and chocolate mousse cake.
Although he taught me about dry-aged beef before I was old enough to vote, I didn’t inherit my father’s passion for steak, and I almost never cook it or order it out. Robin was the kind of kid who sneakily passed meat from her plate under the table to her sisters, and she grew up to eat beef only when it’s cooked beyond recognition as, well, red meat. So, Izzy’s was a conversion experience for us both. At dinner No. 1, after starting off with a fine Manhattan (made with Templeton rye) and a Sidecar that erred sharply on the citrus side, and sharing a pretty magnificent prawn cocktail, with five huge chilled shrimp poised on the rim of a big goblet of cocktail sauce and parsley, we took the steak plunge: a blackened filet for her, a bone-in rib-eye for me. Ordered medium well, the filet came with the faintest trace of pink in the middle, a crusty exterior, and a smooth texture that made a qualified believer of Robin. The enormous 22-ounce rib-eye, offered regularly as an off-menu special (perhaps because it’s priced at $11 more than any other steak), arrived precisely medium rare, heavily salted and peppered (perfect for my taste, maybe overseasoned for others), with crosshatched scoring from the grill and a slightly coarser texture and more richly and unctuously flavored than the filet.
On our return visit, we started with roasted mussels—a must-order appetizer that could feed four, served in a cast-iron skillet sizzling with garlicky, buttery wine sauce—and tested two non-beef entrées. I had to insist that Robin not order the blackened filet again. The bronzed salmon was a good option, well cooked and served with a fresh, sweet and spicy mango salsa, but it was no blackened filet. The extra thick pork chop stood out for its texture, flavor, and bed of large, pie-spiced cubes of green apple (described as a “chutney”). It was among the best I’ve had in Oakland, but it doesn’t displace that that rib-eye in my rare meat dreams.
Keep in mind that servings were unfashionably large and that dinners came with two generous sides. The choices were Izzy’s Own Potatoes (scalloped, creamy, cheesy with Gouda and Parmesan, wow), creamed spinach (so addictive, with a trace of nutmeg, that I had it twice), french fries (classic cut and perfectly cooked), baked potato, baked sweet potato (overly sweetened with brown sugar), sautéed onions and carrots (boring), and, for the calorie-conscious who shouldn’t have come here in the first place, steamed broccoli, vividly green and al dente. And if you could even think about dessert after all that—the cheesecake had the ideal balance of creaminess and cakiness, and the crème brûlée met Platonic expectations—do consider sharing. We took food home both nights.
On our weeknight visits, Izzy’s wasn’t full of Don Draper wannabes. I didn’t run into the ghost of my father at the bar. It was a more family-friendly, more casual, more Oakland place than that, a comfortable commingling of classicism and cliché where the steaks were not high concept; they were just good steaks; a temple of gastronomic hedonism, where, if you’re so inclined, you could smother the multiple possibilities for guilt (based on ethics, ecology, or saturated fats) under uncountable thick slices of pleasure.
Izzy’s Steak & Chop House
American. 59 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-452-2822. Starters and salads $6.50-$12.95, steaks and chops $15.95-$49.95), other entrées $14-$27.25, desserts $8, specialty cocktails $10, wine by the glass $9-$12 by the bottle $36-$100. Serves dinner Sun.-Thu. 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. Happy hour Mon.-Fri. 4-6:30 p.m. IzzysSteaks.com. CCG☎$$$–$$$$
Published online on Nov. 18, 2016 at 8:00 AM