Following your nose leads to unexpected pleasures.

Sometimes you just have to go where your nose leads you. A few weeks ago, Janine and I were wandering down a side street in Bushwick, hoping to check out some new beer bar. Janine asked me where it was and I pointed unconfidently down the block, whereupon a woman in her early twenties asked me, “Are you looking for the grbledey climilly gorblor?” or at least that’s what is sounded like. I was faced with two options. I could say, “huh?” and ruin the moment, or I could go with it. I went with it.

“Sure!” I replied, confidently.

She beckoned for us to follow her down the street, passing the beer bar and any other bits of civilization as we went. While we were being led down a semi lit street late at night in Brooklyn, this was nothing like the time in 1994 when Janine and I hitchhiked down a mountain in Japan, having miscalculated what it would cost to take the bus to the train to our apartment in that great metropolis, Utsunomiya, Japan, where we were living at the time. Someday you should ask me what I think of the Japanese practice of closing the ATMs for the weekend. That time, we were picked up by a slightly odd fellow who seemed very eager to engage us in conversation, which was made rather difficult by the fact that at that time Janine and I spoke about eleven words of Japanese between us and he had no English at all. As we sat in this fellow’s car Janine was convinced that we had been abducted and that we were about to star in the Japanese version of Dawn, Portrait of a Teenage Hitchhiker. As it turns out, the kindly gent wanted nothing more than to show us the highlights of his little mountain town. Four hours later, after visits to two museums, he deposited us at the train station.

Needless to say, this encounter with the friendly young lady was nothing like that.

The young woman led us through a doorway to a warehouse which opened to reveal a frenzied hub of hopeful young people. They were making posters, paper mache puppets, and other agitprop protest matériel associated with the climate march that was to occur that weekend. It was a beehive of hope. Janine and I took in the scene and recalled the various marches that we attended and political campaigns we worked on over the years. The young woman, named Sarah, works for a local environmental organization. It was a nice reminder that there is still no shortage of earnest energy focused on solving a problem that some people think is a lost cause.

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I am somewhat abashed to say that on the Sunday of the march we were enticed away from flexing our protest muscles by a somewhat more prosaic but no less colorful event – the Broadway Flea Market!

Every year, they block off 44th street between Broadway and 8th to hold a sale of Broadway-related flotsam and jetsam to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which provides grants to help people with AIDS. There are playbills, posters, costumes, and all manner of other Broadway-ilia. There was a rack of pants from Phantom of the Opera – Phantom pants, if you will – there was a bin full of shoes, none of which were apparently warn by the beloved ingénue Sutton Foster.

There were flocks of what were clearly theatre students, all jazz hands and fabulous, projecting their voices impressively and occasionally breaking into song. And as I mentioned, there were piles and piles of Broadway stuff.

Well-worn wigs.

Well-worn wigs.

I was pawing through a pile of Playbills and there was a program from an early cast of A Chorus Line with two people I knew from my theatre days. What were the chances? A quick scan of playbills set off a rant (by me) about how they changed the names of half of Broadway’s theaters when I wasn’t looking. What was that all about?

As we were getting ready to leave, Janine was thumbing absent mindedly at a batch of theatre posters – the 14 x 22 cardboard cards that sit in shop windows throughout the Broadway district – and imagine her surprise when she found herself staring at a picture of me!

Yep, that's me!

Yep, that’s me!

Yep, there I was. Back in 1980 I played the lead in a goddawful off-Broadway play called Richie, which ran all of eight performances at the Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. Who’d have thunk? Janine probably nabbed the next-to-last copy of the poster in existence (my mother has one hanging proudly in her garage).

I was thrilled. How much did I pay for this extraordinary piece of off-Broadway history? Er, a buck. I paid the fellow my dollar and couldn’t keep my important news to my self. “That’s me!” I gushed? The guy looked at the poster and then looked at me. “Really?” he asked, unimpressed. “Yes!” I replied. “Oh,” he said. Tough crowd.

I was unfazed.

The moral of the story? Poke through the bins. Also, use discretion, but be adventurous.

The Speakeasy Restaurant Revealed – plus, extra speakeasies!

Little peephole in the door, is there one great New York speakeasy…or more?

The trouble with chronicling experiences is that first you have to experience them and then you have to chronicle them, and all that experiencing takes time and energy. As a result, the chronicles have become backlogged like planes stacked up at Kennedy. We are now happily ensconced in a secluded cabin that I found on Craigslist for $75 a night nestled next to Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The lake jiggles outside my window, there’s a fire in the fireplace, there’s a glass of perky, snappy Finger Lakes Riesling close by, and I will now attempt to land some planes.

Our sweet little cabin next to Seneca Lake.

Our sweet little cabin next to Seneca Lake.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with speakeasies.

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I sent a begging note to the highly exclusive restaurant in the East Village that doesn’t post its phone number or address, and for whom a reservation is only available by invitation. I was able to score an invitation by rolling over like a submissive puppy and begging the nice people to take us in. I will now reveal the restaurant in question – it’s called the Bohemian.

Janine and I were joined by our daughter Maggie, now a seasoned college student of five weeks. Bless her sweet little heart, our child is among the world’s most adventurous eaters. The Bohemian is, of all things, a Japanese speakeasy. You enter through an unmarked door that takes you down a hallway that leads to another door at which point you ring a bell, offer your name, and gain admittance.

The outside of our latter-day speakeasy.

The outside of our latter-day speakeasy.

Inside is a restaurant of seven or eight low slung mid-century modern tables and chairs that resembles not so much a restaurant but the living room set of the Dick Van Dyke show.

You half expect Rob Petry to trip over a couch.

You half expect Rob Petry to trip over a couch.

The Bohemian offers a tasting menu that qualifies as a deep bargain in New York. For $55, you get at least five courses (a few might have escaped my memory) of clever, delicious food made from pristine ingredients. We had rice croquettes topped with the smoothest, sweetest uni I’ve ever tasted. There was a glorious wagyu sashimi, a roasted branzino served on a bed of fall vegetables, a choice of a wagyu slider or a sashimi donburi, and a yuzu panna cotta for dessert. Sane people would have been content with that, but we gilded the lily by adding mac and cheese and foie gras soba from the ala carte menu. I have to say the foie gras soba made me weep.

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Now for the big admission. Any idiot who has rudimentary facility with this fantastic new search engine called Google could figure out the phone number and address of Bohemian. But I didn’t care. I enjoyed the game of it, and you will too.

Speakeasies became something of a theme for us during our visit.

Our friend (and shmabulous playright) Marty Casella recommended that we check out Dollhouse Speakeasy, an immersive theatre-ish experience that is put on in a real former speakeasy (so they say) on the Lower East Side.

Whereas Sleep No More is the immersive theatre experience with a pedigree and huge production values, Dollhouse Speakeasy has the scent of a handmade, roll-your-own enterprise. Think one of those murder mystery evenings that they put on at Kiwanis clubs and Elks lodges everywhere, except this one takes place in what appears to be an actual speakeasy in New York City (on most nights, it’s called The Back Room, and you should go). To get in, you whisper the password (“icepick”) to a cop in twenties dress who leads you down an alley through a half-sized door into a bar where cocktails are served in teacups. There’s a jazz band with a banjo, a bass, a clarinet, a drummer, and a lady singer. There’s a bit of burlesque, a bit of shouting, people get killed, actors emote, and you do a fair amount of drinking. You got something better to do than this?

This appears to be a labor of love, which is code for nobody gets paid. The performers come from hither and yon. The actor playing Dutch Schultz told me afterward that for the past four years he’s been driving down from New Hampshire, where he runs a radio station. One of the performers was a longtime fan pressed into service that night to play a character on trial for manslaughter. But no matter. It is all extremely good fun, and very speakeasy-ish, complete with wide pinstripes and chewy Bronx accents. Just go.

The third leg of the speakeasy stool was the one that turned us away. (Can one be turned away by a leg of a stool? Um, I guess so, because we were.) It’s called PDT (for Please Don’t Tell), and you gain access by passing through a phone booth located in a hot dog joint called Crif Dogs on St. Marks Place.

Our friend John in the portal to PDT in Crif Dog on St. Marks Place. Got all that?

Our friend John in the portal to PDT in Crif Dog on St. Marks Place. Got all that?

Sadly, we did not have a reservation and although our deeply charming friend John did his best to cajole the bar’s sour sentry, the magical door would not open. We were forced to decamp to our plan B, a cocktail emporium called Death & Co., which served $14 elixirs that made you forget the price, and everything else. I think I had a rye and smoked geranium highball, or was it a bourbon with nutmeg extract and an edelweiss garnish in a tulip glass? Who cares? We made it past the doorman and into our cozy little booth, and all was right with the world.

Finally, a bit about the un-speakeasy, the Gramercy Tavern. This restaurant is run by one of New York’s great restauranteurs, Danny Meyer.

You don’t need to call first to dine in the front room, and we waltzed in last Tuesday night without a reservation, or an invitation, or the secret password, and we were led to a lovely table in the middle of a bustling room and served a crazy good meal with the kind of service that any place in the city would be lucky to pull off. Return from the restroom and your napkin has been lovingly refolded and placed in front of you. You will never suffer from dehydration, or for that matter, hunger. The waiter was more than happy to synchronize Janine’s ala carte selections with my journey through the tasting menu. I had mentioned in passing to the hostess that we were celebrating our anniversary and that we had been to the Gramercy on our honeymoon 24 years before, and sure enough, an anniversary dessert shows up on our table to cap a lovely meal. There was also my now-favorite cocktail – a gin and IPA concoction which solved the very real problem of whether to have a beer or a martini. We also had roasted fish, seared duck breast, a shaved zucchini salad, and other stuff I can’t remember, but I remember it was good.

A classy touch from the un-speakeasy, the Gramercy Tavern.

A classy touch from the un-speakeasy, the Gramercy Tavern.

I suspect the hipsters are repelled by such earnest good manners and loving service, but Danny Meyer will get no complaint from me for making sure that kindness prevails in his hospitality empire. Even the service at Shake Shack, his fast food burger joint, is good.

Don’t make me pick which moment I loved the most, although on my deathbed, as I slip into the next world, the words “foie gras soba” may issue from my dying lips. Unless it’s “icepick”.

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.

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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.