Tuesday, December 27, 2005

One Fine Thing New York City Entry #47

The great steakhouse chef has the touch of a masseur. In preparing a soup, sauce, pasta, or panna cotta a cook can - and should - taste and taste, modulating ingredients until they are just so. Even many main courses can be prepared as to permit tasting. However, the steakman lacks this luxury. He must have an internal clock for each of hundreds of steaks broiling. To assure the clock is not in error, he pushes and prods his meat until it feels just so. When I spent a month observing in a fine local steakhouse, I was impressed what these young men could calibrate doneness by the heuristic of the hand: rare steak had the give of the webbing by the thumb and forefinger, and so forth. (This was in Minnesota, where I was told rare means medium rare on the east coast).

Steakmen also have the problem of truculent customers. Customers know how their steaks should be prepared, but medium can cover many colors and textures. If not cooked to their preferred level of doneness, diners, who take whatever fish or fowl they are served, demand that their steaks are recooked. Steakhouses often cook steaks slightly less than what they believe their customer really wants knowing that a hunk can always be cooked more, never less.

At a steakhouse three things matter: the steak, the ambiance, and the service. Get those right and you have customers for life. Combined they create the “idea” of the steakhouse: one’s unique selling proposition in marketing-speak.

Last night some friends and I traveled to Peter Luger in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. Peter Luger has been rated in Zagat as the best steakhouse in New York for 22 years running (I couldn’t discover the previous winner, but I guess that it might be Gallagher’s - now fallen on hard times, more than 30 steakhouses are rated more highly in Zagat. Gallagher’s is the palace of meat I knew of as a child - that and Tad’s, the charmingly grisly chain where, if God is weighing, I ate more pounds of muscle - and gristle - than anywhere else).

Peter Luger has been in business since 1887 (a year before Katz’s Deli). In 1950, after Luger’s death it was purchased by Sol Forman; his family stills runs the place, and the women in the family, famously, select the sides of meat from several competing purveyors whom, it is said, save the most glorious marbled prime cuts of porterhouse for Luger.

The decor at Luger is hardly decor. The establishment has the charms of a rather spare (but clean) German workingman’s beer hall: simple decorations (perhaps slightly more elaborate at Christmas time) and wood tables and floors. Peter Luger does not cater to fantasies of an exclusive men’s club or the ultrahip designer strip.

Waiters are known for their gruff New York charm (not Stage Deli faux-gruff, but the real New York deal). Our server, however, had been working for five months (at some point in their career every long-time waiter at Luger had worked there for five months!). He was charming with only the slightest touch of gruff, and he provided us with a menu without (much) complaint. Like the steaks, he will need some aging. Luger is terminally efficient. Had we not ordered dessert, we would have been out the door in well under two hours. We didn’t feel rushed, but there was no downtime between courses.

Unlike most steakhouses, Luger serves porterhouse all the time (steak hamburger is available at lunch, surely a decadent burger). Aside from sides, the choice is doneness.

Appetizers, sides, and desserts remind diners that one travels to Williamsburg for the steak. Nothing else was memorable. The tomato and onion appetizer combined a Vidalia-type onion slice with a beefy and flavorless tomato slice. Covering these slices with the sweetish steak sauce mostly added empty calories. The shrimp cocktail arrived with large meaty shrimp with a cocktail sauce that had a fine punch, but neither the shrimp or sauce justified our travel. The “Canadian bacon” was a thick slice of belly bacon, not true Canadian bacon, and was more dry than moist. Rolls were purchased from TriBeCa Bakery and were fine.

Sides included German fried potatoes and creamed spinach. The fried potatoes had been broiled slightly too long, but were nicely buttery and crunchy. As for Luger’s creamed spinach, I would choose Stouffer’s spinach souffle. Desserts were a sweet cheesecake and chocolate sundae. Both were adequate, but the schlag (heavy whipped cream) was more memorable than the desserts themselves. Perhaps the appetizers, sides, and desserts are not afterthoughts, but it is hard to imagine the family squeezing the tomatoes or potatoes, the way they squeeze the beef. One senses that Luger finds anything other than porterhouse as faintly embarrassing (even if the waiter did recommend these extras, as surely they boost profits).

Now the steak. We ordered a pair of two-for-two steaks: one rare and one medium rare. The rare steak was by far the most charismatic. Most steakhouses use meat as charcoal-delivery systems. Diners are drawn to char-o. Our medium-rare steak had that crusty quality. Luger’s steaks are not as soft as many (these are not steaks to be cut by a butter-knife), further they are not served as a huge hunk of muscle, but are sliced into smaller hunks. The medium-rare steak was a high quality steak, but not uniquely delicious.

The rare steak was another matter. It was less broiled than expected, permitting us to taste the naked beef. I was reminded of the recent “Cote de Boeuf” that I was served at Alain Ducasse. Of course, a Luger steak is topped with butter, and perhaps a little salt and pepper, but the desire to have customers experience an essence was similar. I was impressed. The heat had been perfectly calibrated to produce a cut of meat that was cooked but not past the point where taste gets muddled with the charring. Often charcoal and steak sauce, salt and pepper, leads diners to assume that steak is heavily pungent, but a great steak is like a fine Dover sole; it is a most subtle repast. Whether the flavor notes are those of grass or corn, I cannot say, but they demand a philosopher in the kitchen.

The wine list at Luger is odd. It is heavy on young Cabs from California and Bordeaux. We couldn’t resist a 2002 Chateau Beychevelle - a baby at three years, too young, but at $75 worth tasting, at least if I can recall its taste when it is time to open a 2002 Beychevelle in a decade. Wines this young clearly will not show to their best effect, but the prices are modest.

To eat through New York without visiting Peter Luger is a sin. I have had a few steaks this satisfying - in Fort Worth and in Sioux Falls and a great one before Morton’s went national - but Peter Luger is a temple of beef, even if it has but one altar.

Peter Luger Steak House
178 Broadway (at Driggs Avenue)
Brooklyn (Williamsburg)

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