Saturday, November 14, 2009

An American Institution

I know I’ve written a lot about steaks lately so let me apologize right up front. I have no greater affinity for steak than I do other foods; I love it all. It’s just that I’ve been to a couple of places lately that commanded my attention and last week was no different. On my second trip to New York City in less than a month, I was planning to have at least one great meal. On my first trip, I worked too many hours to really seek out anything other than the great neighborhood food that Chelsea has to offer. While I wasn’t even remotely disappointed with that idea, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to look for that special destination that I always look for. This time would be different. My hours were a bit more normal at work so the evenings were mine.

After reading about and seeing several TV spots dedicated to Peter Luger Steak House, I wondered how far my Long Island hotel was from the place. Turns out, Great Neck, NY (just outside the city) had a location 12 miles from me –so off I went. I was pretty excited. I knew that this place had been in business for over a hundred years. I knew they had a unique way of selecting their prime beef (only certified family members could select the meat). I knew they were rated New York’s #1 steakhouse time and again by many publications. I knew I had to eat there.

Walking in to the restaurant was a bit unimpressive. Dark beams running in the walls, dim colors and stained glass windows inspired thoughts of lederhosen, oversized blond women sloshing steins of beer and large Oktoberfest banners draped across the ceiling. I’m a firm believer in preserving tradition, but I have no need to sit beneath a dimly lit sconce to look at my menu. Plus this is a newer location (there are only 2) just a short ride from the original. They could have fast forwarded at least a few decades, if not a century, from the original.

While many of the reviews I read citied overly rude host and wait staff, I was greeted by friendly people and served by a wonderful waiter who wanted to make sure my first experience here was great. He succeeded. If the décor was unimpressive, the menu is less so. There are only a few choices to select from and there are no real choices on the cut of steak. Everything is “Steak of one”, “Steak for two”, etc. There’s a fish of the day, roast chicken, pork chop, a few sides and appetizers. It’s obviously about the steak. Steaks are always porterhouse. Unfortunately for me, “steak for one” is just the NY strip without the adjacent filet but after watching a few steaks go by, there was no way I could down the two-finger thick “Steak for two”. I settled on the classic Peter Luger meal: a tomato and onion salad, a slice of grilled bacon, creamed spinach and “Steak for one” with hash browns. The salad was chuck wagon style. Thick sliced onion and thick sliced beefsteak tomato and that’s it.

The waiter said it is eaten with the house made Peter Luger steak sauce. While there was nothing special about this, the steak sauce was great.

It has the requisite smoky, vinegary, tomato-y flavor of most steak sauces with an added horseradish kick. I took a bottle home. The bacon slice was unique, delicious but a little unnecessary.

The creamed spinach was also just… um… well, creamed spinach. Tasty… good… but creamed spinach. I’m not even going to talk about the hash browns.

But the steak! This is what makes Peter Luger famous. Set before me was still a sizzling, pre-sliced NY strip that couldn’t have looked more magnificent. The contrast of dark outer char and pink medium-rare center were only topped by the beefy smell and buttery drippings that are drizzled over the meat tableside.

This could be a post card, a greeting card or a screen saver. The flavor was packed with perfectly dry aged lightness. It was tender, succulent and frankly, the best steak I’d ever eaten.

Seared under an 800 degree broiler just like they were 120 years ago, Luger found a magic that persists. Any disparity about my salad and sides melted away just like the rich mineral-flavored beef did as it passed my lips.

While the critics pan the cash only policy, boring side dishes and marginal service, there are few businesses that have thrived since the late 19th century. Just like the sizzling steak that is set before the guest, that says something. I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, maybe a few things but, hey, this is Peter Luger’s legacy.

1 comment:

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