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NEW YORK — For one thing, Terrance Brennan looks more like a midcentury American chef than most of his preening colleagues. He cuts a sturdy figure, and his folded-arms silhouette could grace a soup can.
But lately, the French-Mediterranean cooking that Brennan perfected at Picholine has taken an affable turn toward retro America, too. In this moment of Fifties nostalgia — in movies like “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours,” Adolfo-inspired fashion from Marc Jacobs and Dixie quilts at the Whitney Museum — Terrance Brennan’s Seafood and Chophouse, the chef’s new outpost on Lexington Avenue, is just a chip off the postwar block.
“I’d been feeling that way, too,” Brennan says of the Fifties revival. “My wife gets all the fashion magazines and she’s been dressing that way. Then we saw ‘Charade,’ and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant got me thinking about that style. People are in the mood to not have things be so complicated. There’s still a place for grand restaurants, but you go in and it’s a whole ordeal. It takes 10 minutes to read all the adjectives on the menu.”
Thus, Brennan’s new, old-fashioned restaurant, with a modifier-free menu offering steaks served table-side, in plush banquettes where Grant might have entertained Eva Marie Saint.
“These days, where there’s room for improvement is service,” says the chef, “and I wanted to bring back a kind of classic glamour — tableside service with showmanship.” That means trolleys shuttling out Fifties fixtures revved up for jaded contemporary palates: a baked potato, for example, whose salt crust the waiter cracks with a wooden mallet before offering it with all the classic fixings; or Baked Alaska, with a passion-fruit-and-vanilla creamsicle instead of two scoops.
What’s also Fifties is Brennan’s portions: a brick-sized sirloin and a Dutch-oven’s worth of scallops. (“That Dutch oven reminds me, in a more soignée way, of the old Bakelite stuff,” he says.) The steaks, in fact, are so large and imposing on their kitchen phaetons that gasps are the standard audience response.
“People seem to have the appetite for them,” Brennan insists. “But there are more doggie bags here than at Picholine, for sure.”