Praise the lord and pass the statins – our pilgrimage to the mecca of meat, Peter Luger.

Oh, I sing a song of meat.

Not just any meat, mind you, but the meat of the gods. Peter Luger meat.

If you are a vegetarian, or heaven forbid a vegan, I beg you to turn away. This will not be pretty, and I don’t want you to hate me. Come back some other day, when I write an essay about the glories of carrots or yeast, or somesuch. I have deep respect for your excellent choices, but as my beloved former boss Paul Brest used to say, if god had meant us to be vegetarians, he wouldn’t have made animals out of meat.

I can’t tell you how many times I have made my way across the Williamsburg Bridge and been tantalized by the glimpse of what may be the world’s greatest steakhouse, Peter Luger. There it sat, lurking beneath the bridge, beckoning to the hungry, the gluttonous, or to the seekers of meaty self-actualization. Someday, I would often think, I’ll have a Peter Luger steak. And yet nearly a half century went by and I failed to keep my promise.

Why didn’t I just go, you may ask? There were any number of reasons. For many years I would have had to sell my baseball card collection and a few quarts of blood just to make it past the shrimp cocktail. And for heaven’s sake, it was in BROOKLYN, and in Williamsburg, no less. But times have changed in oh so many ways. I’m all grown up with gainful employment (sort of) and Williamsburg is the BOMB. And if you have been following my recent journey, you will know that I am finding any opportunity I can to go back and either perfect the past or fine tune the future. I recommend it, by the way. When we decided to spend part of our trip in New York, I swore to myself that we would at long last make it to Peter Luger.

What’s so special about this place? Certainly not the décor. It’s a room. It has wood floors, it’s nice, it’s old, but if they didn’t make steaks that made you want to weep, you wouldn’t think twice. The waiters wear long aprons, which bring to mind a Bemelmans sketch, so that’s nice, but still.

IMG_1909[1]

Nothing fancy. A little too bright, a little plain, but just right.

No, what’s special is the meat. They buy these fancy, shmancy USDA Prime cuts of beef and then hang them in some special room for a month until they get good and funky and covered in mold (good mold, they say). They say that this concentrates the flavors. Then they hack off the mold (I assume) and cut up the hunks of beef into steaks on the day they’re going to serve them. The cut of choice at Peter Luger is the porterhouse, or what you and I know as the t-bone. The t-bone has a piece of filet mignon on one side of the bone and the strip steak on the other. Then they take your t-bone and throw it in an 800 degree broiler that creates a crust that you could stand on, but which leaves the inside a very comfortable medium rare. Don’t be afraid. The steak looks really rare, but with all that aging and tenderizing and whatever else they do to it, you won’t die. On the other hand, if you were to order your steak well done I suspect that the rotting corpse of Herr Luger himself would rise up out of the floor and strangle you with his moldy hands, and good for him I say.

So they take this crazy good meat and blast it with a krillion degrees of heat and then they start improving on it. When it comes out of the oven, they slice for you, which coaxes the juices onto the platter, at which time they drown the whole operation in a stick of butter, which somehow never undermines the structural integrity of that magical crust. The salty, fatty, buttery sauce seems to wick its way back into the steak through some kind of magical capillary action. The filet mignon becomes the foie gras of meat – livery and tender and spectacular. When I took my first bite I groaned. The strip is marbled and fatty and ridiculous.

Quite simply, the world's greatest steak.

Quite simply, the world’s greatest steak.

By this point, every cardiologist in the tri-state region orders a new Mercedes. They serve your steak with a boat of Luger’s famous steak sauce and a defibrillator. For dessert, you can order the carrot cake or a bowl of Lipitor.

I might add that the sleeper of the evening was the creamed spinach. Mercifully, they seemed to go easy on the cream, but somehow found a way to make the spinach even spinachier. I think they put spinach on the menu at steakhouses as a joke, but Lugar’s doesn’t mess around. If they’re going to serve spinach it will be the best damn steakhouse spinach of the plant. We order the mysterious bottle of private label Peter Luger Napa Cab that was, as everything else was, right on the money.

And how do I describe the steak? It’s easy. It was the best damn piece of meat I’ve ever eaten. I went back and read some reviews and some of the jaded restaurant critics crapped and moaned about indifferent service or the fact that they don’t take credit cards (although they take debit cards and who doesn’t have one of those?) or their location or some other cranky pants minor infraction. But my good god people, this is one of those instances in which somebody has perfected a task that requires time, money, and skill, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

And for the record our waiter Ivan was funny and sassy and we wanted to take him home with us. Like our friend Larry from Russ and Daughters, he knew that what he was feeding us was poetry and he was damn proud of it.

On the other hand, there are any number of fussy, expensive, self-important places that send the gastronorati into a frothy frenzy but which then close before we can remember what we ate. Don’t get me wrong, I like hipster food as much as the next guy, but if you gave me twelve hours to live and made me pick a last meal, it might just be a Luger steak, the mystery cab, and that crazy spinach.

The Chicken Story

When I was twelve, my friends and I found a chicken in the bushes in Queens. For those of you who already know this story, there is a dramatic revelation ahead. For those of you who don’t, you’re in for a real treat.

Just another chicken story.

A heartwarming story about a boy and his chicken.

But first, a stunning acknowledgement. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

What, you may ask, do Thomas Wolfe and a wayward Queens chicken have in common? Be patient, dear reader, I’m getting to it.

My friends and I found the chicken in the bushes as we were coming home from the park. Keep in mind that this was 1977. There were no backyard chicken coops in Queens for the homesteading New Yorkers who wanted fresh eggs to go with their morning organic wheatgrass juice and kombucha colon cleanse. We might as well have found a live alpaca, or a Martian. How on earth did that chicken get there? Your guess is as good as mine. We didn’t ask the poor thing too many questions. The first thing we did was to take it to my house. There was no way we were going to leave this defenseless chicken in the bushes like that. I, for one, am a lover of all living things, except when I want to eat them. In this case, it seemed like the kind thing to do to take the chicken home and care for it.

The second thing I did was to call the New York Post and tell them to send a photographer.

Which they did.

I have been telling this story for years, but I have never been able to produce any evidence of the event. I am happy to report that I have been telling the truth, and I shall now habeas clipum:

chicken clipping

New York Post – December 30, 1997 (a very, very slow news day)

You might be unsurprised to learn that twenty years after this auspicious debut as a self-promoting flack I would be a press secretary on Capitol Hill.

(The sidebar to this story is that the chicken spent the winter in our garage in Queens. We neglected to tell the photographer that we were looking for a good home for the poor creature, and he added a line of total hooey to the caption about how we took the chicken to the police, who called the ASPCA. The New York Post, by that time, had abandoned all journalistic tendencies. They’ve gone downhill since then.)

I’ve often thought of that chicken, and the guys who I grew up with, (although not necessarily in that order). I moved out of the neighborhood when I was seventeen and eventually lost touch with the gang (as well as with our ringleader, my childhood best friend Sam). Most of us were reunited here last month at a surprise birthday party for Sam, but I didn’t want to lose the momentum, so we organized a dinner last weekend with the guys in the photo, from L to R: Neal Sanders, Steve Klein, Rick Del Favero, me, and Bryan Sanders (Neal’s twin).

chicken clipping 37 years later

37 years later. We look exactly the same, don’t we?

Our hairlines and waistlines have changed, but not much else.

I hadn’t seen these guys in almost thirty years, but if it wasn’t like we had seen each other yesterday, then it was possibly the day before. We settled into the kind of comfortable evening with old friends that everyone hopes for. Someone remarked that our childhood was a lot like a Little Rascals movie – we wandered the neighborhood in a tight little scrum playing sports, trading baseball cards, riding bikes, launching rockets, building go carts, and getting ourselves in and out of various scrapes.

Little rascals, circa 1975

Little rascals, circa 1975

We’d leave the house in the morning and return home at dark. Somehow we got ourselves fed and we managed to avoid being hit by moving cars. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the time Bryan tossed a match into an empty gasoline can, with predictable results. Luckily, he walked away with some singed eyebrows and some funny looking bangs, but he was otherwise unscathed.) I don’t know if it was really a more innocent time then. In fact, New York was something of a hell hole in the 70’s, having reached its modern low point on practically every social measure. And yet we roamed free, for good or ill. Nevertheless, we survived the era more or less intact, Bryan’s encounter with the gas can notwithstanding.

Needless to say, our reunion was filled with stories like our experience with the little farm animal. The guys hadn’t forgotten. I had searched for years for my copy of the Post story and was delighted to hear that Neal, Bryan, Rick, and Steve all still had copies of the newspaper. I had long since lost mine, which was too bad, since I tell the chicken story at all professional gatherings to illustrate how I was good at tactics (getting us in the paper), but not yet so good at strategy (finding a good home for the chicken). It was clearly a formative experience for us all.

When the evening was over, I was really happy that we had finally gotten the band back together, but sorry that it had taken so long. I have had no shortage of opportunities to reunite with the gang, but for some reason I never went to the trouble. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s unimportant now. I came from a funny little village called Queens in which I spent thousands of hours of my very formative years with a bunch of guys with enormous hearts who know more about me (and I about them) than almost anyone else. That shared experience, as I came to realize this weekend, means a lot. The good news is that you can go home again, and then some.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I hereby issue a challenge to the lot of you. Look somebody up whom you’ve been dying to reconnect with. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

Oh please let me eat at your restaurant!

The other day, I was scouring the internets, as I often do, looking for offbeat dining options, and one very tantalizing item caught my eye – a restaurant with no address and no phone number. I love a challenge.

In order to dine here, you have to get the number from someone who has already been there or you have to be invited by the owners to make a reservation after sending a request by email.

This sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Sometimes, Groucho Marx’s old saw about never wanting to be in a club that would have him as a member is exactly wrong. Who’d want to go to some restaurant that makes you jump through that many hoops just for the privilege of shelling out a bunch of money to eat dinner?

Um, me.

Yes, I’m that guy. I’m not ashamed to say that I desperately want to go to the speakeasy restaurant. I want to show up at the unmarked door and tell the guy the secret password or do the special interpretive dance, or whatever else is required to gain entry. Oh please let me into the speakeasy restaurant!

Those of you who have been to Chumley’s, that great former actual speakeasy in Greenwich Village, know what I’m talking about. Chumley’s waited for you behind an unmarked door in a courtyard at the corner of a quiet residential street. When you opened the door you passed from one world to another. True, you didn’t need an invitation to get in or any of that, but you had to know it was there. To sit in a little snug in Chumley’s was to be a member of an exclusive club that anyone could join as long as they knew which unmarked door to push. Mind you, this was before the internet, which has revealed every last secret possible. Sadly, the bar closed suddenly in 2007 when a chimney collapsed. Apparently the owners have spent the past seven years in the permit office and battling lawsuits from the neighbors as they attempt to bring the old place up to code. It conjures up the worst remodeling nightmares I can imagine. Mr. Blandings builds a speakeasy.

As for this mystery restaurant, since I do not have the secret phone number, nor do I have any friends who have the secret phone number, I attempted the digital equivalent of tying a note to a rock and tossing it over the fortress wall. I sent a note to the email address on their very cryptic website. “Please let me come to your restaurant,” I whinged, and hit send, and waited, with pathetic wallflower self-loathing.

My spirits soared the next day when the reply arrived.

“Not yet,” it said, more or less. Before we grant you a reservation, we need to know a little more about you, the note explained.

I was undaunted and unashamed. I can be interesting if I absolutely have to be. My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our house, and we’re on a world tour, I begged. We’re interesting! Then I started worrying that they’d think I was trying too hard. “Oy,” they’d say. “Another world tourer. How gauche.” Or worse. I could almost hear the eyerolling. “Not that cock and bull story again. These people.” I was transported back my early twenties, in which I would try to reconcile my desperation to get a date with a tendency to be a bit forward. I wasn’t Rico Suave lounge lizard forward, mind you. I was just trying a little too hard. I scared more than a few away. Who wants a desperate oversharer for a boyfriend?

Thus I was worried that I’d overdone it with the speakeasy people. On the other hand, my crazy story had the added benefit of truth. I was prepared to provide the closing papers on our home sale if that’s what it took to eat a speakeasy dinner.

I needn’t have worried. The response was swift and positive. We’ve been given the magical top secret number to call for a reservation!

I considered the following reasons why I might have been successful:

  1. They believed my story and felt honored to have such a fascinating guest at their restaurant.
  2. They felt sorry for someone who was so desperate for a reservation that he would make up such a lame story.
  3. It’s all hooey designed to make the place feel exclusive. Anyone who bothers to try to get a reservation gets one anyway.

No matter. We’re in! You might have noticed that I have not mentioned the name of this special place. I’ll withhold that bit of information until we consummate our evening, lest they deny me entry when they find out that their guest is a famous blogger with over fifty readers.

Our dinner is next week. I can’t wait. I’ll let you know how it goes.