Everywhere I looked it was money: the custom-made plates stamped with the tiny tortoise logo. The pearl earrings on the bartender, who was wearing a slim, black Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress. The sound of the jazz trio trickling through the rooms, wafting over leather chairs and bouncing off the dark wood panels on the wall—it may as well have been the sound of gold coins clinking together in a pocket.
Somebody put a lot of dough into this place (his name is Keene Addington, and he used to own Flat Top Grill) with the expressed goal to make it obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the place. “This is a club that anybody can join,” a server told me one night. I looked around and saw that, indeed, people were engaging in a brand of revelry that suggested they might think they’re behind closed doors, and not underneath a Chase Bank on State Street. I felt it, too. The service at Tortoise is polished and polite, and the details (those plates!) have been attended to. There’s a refreshing sense of hospitality, but nowhere does the place seem to be trying too hard. Certainly the restaurant isn’t trendy. The cocktails are solidly executed classics (though they fiddled with the Negroni recipe, making it a little sweeter than most), and if I overlooked odd touches like the plastic spray bottle of absinthe (used for rinsing the glasses), I could image I was in a very old place and not a very new one.
Some customers had a different reaction. There were tables of fiftysomething women who were here specifically because it’s new, and they treated chef Gray McNally—a name I hadn’t heard before Tortoise—as something of a celebrity. They waved him over, shook their breasts at him and cooed, “So good, it was so so so good.” I liked the food, too, but I wouldn’t go quite as far as these women did. Their exuberance, I think, can be explained by one of two things: They either love handsome young men in chef whites or they really love butter.
Is McNally’s heavy hand with butter and salt the one trick he has up his sleeve? Or is he just staying true to club cuisine? I think it’s probably the latter. The menu, after all, is not inventive, or even reinventive—it’s just classic. There’s lobster Thermidor and Dover sole and double-cut pork chops. And in the first courses, McNally shows he can do lighter fare: There’s a peppery steak tartare, a pleasant and lemony crab toast, a spicy tomato soup and a lifeless pile of flavorless fried shrimp served on a strip of newspaper. But after that, trying to avoid butter is useless. The butter crust of the pheasant pie is filled with cream and topped with molten foie gras. The pork chop is seared until the flesh is soft and the fat is crisp, and then it’s glazed in maple syrup. That lobster Thermidor is basically hot lobster salad, and sometimes you can barely taste the lobster through the cream. And the chicken, a very juicy bird nestled in a bowl with lentils and cabbage, literally drips in melted butter.
Is this how the club crowd eats? Before Tortoise Club I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, because I can’t get into any clubs. But now I know the answer is yes. And I don’t necessarily blame them.