A few somewhat tipsy thoughts on Peter Luger’s Steakhouse, from which I have just returned.

On the whole, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so intimidated by a famous restaurant as this one. Sure, Nobu promised to be full of a million ingredients that I had never met before, Veritas had a winelist that could take a week to read, and Morimotos was run by a damn Iron Chef, but Luger’s is a beast onto itself: by reputation at least, even asking for a menu is enough to invite an entire evening full of abuse from the waitstaff, the reviews of it seem exactly split between those who felt it was the greatest steak they’d ever had and those who felt entirely ripped off, and it’s been in business for almost a hundred and fifty years now. Oh, and it’s cash-only. In Williamsburg.

That I was even going there in the first place was something of a happy accident. I don’t eat steak very often myself, and Miranda doesn’t care for it at all. It had therefore lain dormant on my to-do list for well over five years. But about two months back at work, I found myself trapped in the office for 24 very harrowing hours, because a certain vendor’s product, for which we had paid an obscene amount of money not six months ago, had decided to die in pretty much precisely the fashion their product literature assured us would be impossible, nay inconceivable for it to die. One very long night later, my boss and I found ourselves in possession of one of the more valuable favor chits one can receive in this business: the promise of a free meal. Anywhere. On their tab. Lugers it was.

Mindful of its fearsome rep, I girded myself for battle. I read the CitySearch comments. I searched the eGullet forums for advice. I buttonholed my friends who’d been there. I picked an outfit (new black jeans, shaded burgandy Perry Ellis shirt open over a grey tshirt, black loafers) that was substantially better than my normal disheveled appearance but still casual enough to not look overdone. And through careful study of prior patrons’ reports, even in the absence of a menu on the website, I was able to memorize the whole table’s order in advance: eight strips smoked bacon, one large shrimp cocktail, one tomato and onion salad, steak for four — rare, side of spinach, side of hashbrowns. I was ready to throw down with the testosterone. Rawr!

…most of which turned out to be entirely unnecessary. Don’t know whether it’s because we looked like newbies, or because it was a Wednesday night, or we just got lucky, but we were handed menus the moment we sat down. Well, offered menus anyway: it was certainly made clear that this was an optional frill. I looked at mine for a second and decided that the general consensus was right, and my companions let me order for the table. The waiter, a dapper older gentleman with a somewhat unidentifiable slavic or german accent named Harry, took my performance in good humor and even reminded me that I’d forgotten the shrimp. The table was evenly divided between people who wanted rare and medium, and he promised us a medium rare. (Lugers’ steak, no matter how many at the table, comes served on a single platter, all cooked at once.) For all of the complaints on citysearch about the service, Harry was attentive, good-humored and efficient. He was quick-spoken and slightly brusque, but not obnoxiously so, and seemed happy to answer all of our questions.

The decor is pretty much like having dinner in your german grandparents’ dining room: functional tables and chairs, low ceilings, dark wood panelling. There’s no dress code, and the atmosphere is pretty astoundingly relaxed for what is technically the most famous steakhouse in the country: plenty of people were there in jeans and t-shirts, and there seemed to be family dinners happening at various tables. Very expensive family dinners, but there you go. Even on a Wednesday night with an 8:30 reservation, the place was still pretty much full, with people waiting at the bar for their tables. I can’t imagine it on a Saturday night, and would probably not be willing to go.

The appetizers arrived in a perfect sequence: first the salad and shrimp, then the bacon. The shrimp and the tomato/onion salad were both good, but not memorably so. The bacon, in my opinion, deserves just as much notice as the steak: long, thick strips of hand-smoked bacon, which in terms of fat/meat content more resembled Canadian than American-style. If you crossbred bacon with really good nova lox and then grilled it, this is what you would get. I’d go back just for it. I wish they sold it in their store.

Steak for four comes on an enormous platter that appears to contain two whole porterhouses plus about half of another, pre-sliced, sizzling, and swimming in melted butter and its own jus. The waiter will serve each person at the table a two or three slice portion, drizzle some jus over them, and then you’re on your own. A word about portion size here: several people both on citysearch and egullet recommended ordering steak for the number of parties at the table plus one. I’m not going to go so far as to call this insane, but I’m going to gently suggest that if you’re the sort of person who does not eat red meat on a twice-daily basis, steak for N-plus-1 is overdoing it. A lot. Steak for N-minus-one might well be more than enough. Even with four healthy-sized males in our dinner party, we weren’t quite able to finish it, especially with the side dishes. And it was not for lack of trying.

So how was it? Was it a religious experience? Was it the best steak of my life? Would I try to drag Miranda there?

Well, for comparison purposes, the only two “high end” steakhouses I’ve been to previously in my life were both chains: Mortons (in Boston, for ‘s 30th birthday) and Ruths Chris (once in New York and once in San Juan). I’d feel silly even comparing Mortons to Lugers: the meat at Mortons was obviously not on even the same plane, and while the service at Mortons was more classically professional, the atmosphere (full entirely of 50-year-old executives and their 25-year-old trophy wives) was poisonous even before you noticed the cloud of cigar smoke. Ruths Chris is…worth the comparison, but so different it’s hard to know how to weigh them against each other. The two filets at Ruths I’ve had were more tender than the porterhouse at Lugers, but Ruths Chris…how to put this? Ruths Chris almost seems to make a fetish out of tenderness, and use so much butter in the cooking to ensure it that butter sometimes becomes the primary flavor. The steak at Peter Lugers, in contrast, felt more like pure, unadulterated steak: slightly crisp on the outside, pink-verging-on-red on the inside (they seemed to split the difference between rare and medium rare perfectly), and both the crisp and the tender parts were entirely qualities of the meat, its aging and the speed of its cooking. The best summary I can do in my current slightly sozzled state is to say that for a steak novice like myself, Ruths Chris is more instantly impressive, but Peter Luger has more depth and a promise of more reward for continued interest. The best steak of my life? Possibly. Very possibly. To be sure, I’d want to go back with a dinner group more foodie than techie, and play with the ratio of steak to sides a bit.

(One note I have to make in Ruths Chris’ favor: the service I got at their Manhattan restaurant was, not even considering the fact that my hair was bright green and my companions a little more than agreeably disheveled, the single best of any restaurant I’ve been to in my life. I wish I remembered our server’s name, because there’s a place for him in waiter heaven.)

The side-dishes merit a small mention: the hash browns were perfectly done, and the creamed spinach? Well, I hate creamed spinach. I got the creamed spinach only because it’s one of their signature dishes and I figured I should try it. I expected to hate this as well. I didn’t. I even sneaked a second portion. The secret, astoundingly for a heavily German-influenced kitchen, appears to be a noticable lack of cream. Go figure.

After this amazing cholesterol extravaganza, we ordered two desserts and coffee for the table, and that was at least one dessert too many. We got a hot fudge sundae and a slice of pecan pie, both of which were topped with “schlag” — incredibly dense Austrian-style whipped cream. (I suspect the presence of egg whites, or at least 3X as much sugar as most people put into whipped cream: this stuff was neutron-star dense.) The pecan pie was nothing to write home about; the sundae was good but holy god enough milkfat already. My boss pointed out that “schlag” is actually short for “schlagobers”, which literally means “beaten cream.” Schlag itself is just the verb “to beat”, so when ordering “mit schlag”, you are literally asking for your pie with a beating. There’s a joke in there about topping your coffee, but I am far too full to make it. (I say again: for a group of four, consider “steak for three”, or perhaps only one appetizer for the table.) True to their bare-bones form, there was no espresso or capuccino, just COFFEE, optionally with alcohol in it.

All in all, an excellent use of someone else’s money, and I’ll certainly go back on my own dime at least once.

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