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.

IMG_1883

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.

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.

Eat, Bicker, Love – Now with eating!

I know, I know. The blog is called Eat, Bicker, Love and I haven’t really talked about any of those things. I’m not sure I’m planning to chronicle the differences of opinion that my loving wife and I have, at least not in any particular detail. I have often said that we always agree on the destination and we never agree on the route. On the other hand, if you can find someone who will join you in quitting your job, selling your house, and traipsing around the world for the better part of a year, you should be willing to permit your lovely spouse to offer the occasional helpful suggestion. My wonderful wife is a very, very helpful woman, always eager to provide her guidance and wisdom about how a process might be improved.

We are now back in Brooklyn after our lovely weekend in (or on) Nantucket. Gone are the topsiders, the tomato pants, the yachts, the whale-themed everything, and the clams. (Actually, we still have clams. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was, but we carried the clams in a little cooler on the plane back to New York. I would think that carrying clams on a plane so close to 9/11 would have troubled the authorities, but apparently there have been no clam-based acts of terrorism to date, and we always seem to be fighting the last war.)

We have swapped the gentle tradewinds of Nantucket for the gritty clamor of Brooklyn, a borough that has seen its good times and its not so good times. When I was a kid, I was never very fond of Brooklyn, which I saw as a little full of itself. Between Welcome Back, Kotter and Moonstruck, Brooklyn struck me as a bit precious about its Brooklyn-ness. Living in Queens, (now THERE’S an unpretentious borough!) there were many years that I stayed out of Brooklyn on principle. What I knew about Brooklyn you could put on the head of a pin. I didn’t know Bay Ridge from bay rum. And yet times change and people grow. Now, I am not just a Brooklynite, I’m a Bushwicker. We’re staying in Bushwick with our dear friend John. This isn’t Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or some other hoity toity part of Brooklyn, its Bushwick, where people sit on the stoop, without really moving, for weeks at a time. Seriously, there are these two guys on our block who just sit there all day long and, well, I don’t actually know what they do. They have big, bushy, un-ironic mustaches and everything. Bushwick is still a solidly working class neighborhood, although it is now seeing its share of tattooed, ironically mustashioed, multiply-pierced pioneers who have been priced out of Williamsburg.

The upside is that you can get beer brewed by blind albino monks and bacon that was cured with nun’s tears from pigs that were sung to sleep each night by Audra McDonald. Life is actually pretty good in Brooklyn. I’m beginning to get into the rhythms of Brooklyn, which are just a little slower and a little more sane than the throbbing scrum that is Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, I love Manhattan, but like a big boy, I’m learning to appreciate other stuff.

Speaking of food, I thought I would use this time to finally get to the “Eat” part of this blog’s title.

We have done our share of eating, and I figured I’d give a rundown of the culinary highlights to date.

First off, let me extoll the wonders of Raffetto’s, this ancient little pasta shop on Houston Street in Greenwich Village. They sell fresh pasta by the pound. When you order it, they take out the dough and cut in on a machine that is over a hundred years old. I’d pay just to watch them cut the pasta.

It’s also really, really good stuff.

A few words about Wylie Dufresne’s two restaurants. I had been dying to try WD-50, Dufresne’s place on the Lower East Side. He’s one of the country’s better-known purveyors of what has come to be known as “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist cuisine.” Rather than try to define it, a good example of this sometimes whimsical approach to cooking was the hangar steak tartare, which actually wasn’t raw at all. It was cooked sous vide (basically boiled in a bag at a temperature that keeps the steak really rare), then chopped fine like steak tartare and served with a bearnaise ice cream. Bearnaise ice cream, for heaven’s sake! You don’t eat that every day. That was by far the most inventive of the dishes we tried. Dufresne is closing his restaurant rather than give in to a rent increase, and I was expecting him to pull out all the mad scientist stops, but I found the menu surprisingly restrained. Everything was terrific, but it wasn’t all cooked steak tartare with bearnaise ice cream either.

We then went to his other, somewhat less expensive place, Alder which turned out to be more inventive than WD-50. We had a lamb shepherd’s pie tartare that was indeed raw lamb served with the other components of shepherd’s pie. My favorite dish was  rye pasta with pastrami shavings on top. Get it? Pastrami on rye! How about that! There was also a really out there dish of pickled beets with coconut ricotta and thai basil. The basil had been turned into dehydrated crunchy balls of some kind. Really kooky and delicious.

Now, a word about service. I’m no snob, but hoo boy do these kids need to learn a thing or two about how to wait a table. Janine and I both waited our fair share of tables once, so it’s not like the profession is beneath us. Damn, it’s hard to find a decent waitperson these days. If you are shelling out a couple hundred bucks for dinner, at the very least you want the person bringing the food not to act like they hate you. My pet peeve? Your waiter drops the check and you say “Thank you!” in your chipper-est, happiest voice and they say “No problem” in that disaffected, eye-rolling way, like the world’s crankiest teenager. Really? No problem? Why would taking my money be a problem? I would settle for a simple “you’re welcome.” We don’t have to become besties, I just want a little human kindness. Is that so hard, youth of today, or is it a problem?

Okay, just a few more and I’ll take up more restaurant reviews later.

Russ and Daughters Café. Russ and Daughters delicatessen is a smoked fish emporium on Houston Street that has been there since 1914. No fish cured in nun’s tears for Russ and his daughters. Well, certainly no nuns. When I was a kid in Queens, the local supermarket also sold smoked fish. I remember piles of these brown, desiccated things called chubs that looked absolutely inedible. Well, it turns out they’re edible. And Russ and his Daughters finally got smart, just this year opening up a café on Orchard Street to so people can sit down and eat their shmabulous smoked fish and other delicacies. And they know what they’re doing, too. Your bubbe and Uncle Morty are not coming to the café to eat a hundred bucks worth of caviar. Who’s going to do that? All together now…hipsters. Yes, there are cocktails and seats and lots of subway tile at the café, but who are they hurting? Hipsters have to eat too. We went for breakfast and I had kasha varnishkes, which is bow tie pasta with salty, chicken-y buckwheat groats topped with an egg.

Kasha Varniskas

This is just the world’s best damn breakfast ever.

And oh my sweet jesus was it delicious. I could eat that every morning of my life and be very happy. Everything else is good, too. We watched the counterman slice the lox so thin you could read the newspaper through it. This guy clearly moonlights as a mohel (although one is happy that he practices first on the fish). Oh, and our waiter, Larry, was a saint (well, in the Jewish deli sense). He was a lovely little man in one of those elegant white coats who looked like Bob Balaban only happier and who not only seemed thrilled to see us, but he seemed happy for us that we were eating such delicious food. “That’s going to make a wonderful snack later!” he said with barely contained delight when we asked for a little to-go container. I wanted to take him home with us just to have him around to make us feel good about our decisions in life. “Excellent choice of bathroom tissue!” I’m sure he’d exclaim to us at the supermarket. “Nice job brushing your teeth!” “Where DID you learn to tie your shoes so well?”

I miss Larry. That kid at Alder should go to Russ and Daughters, order the kasha varnishkes, and watch Larry do the job the right way. Punk kid. Get off my lawn.

I think that should do for now. While I’ve got you, my friends, do you have any recommendations for restaurants we should try in New York? I’m getting hungry.