When you don’t frequent Steakhouse and don’t eat steak in general because you find it rather boring and monotonous it makes it rather difficult to judge a Steakhouse – even if it is nearly 125 years old and perhaps the most famous Steakhouse in the world. Sure I cannot say that Peter Luger would have been my first choice for lunch during any trip to New York City, but on this particular visit a confluence of factors not only made it very convenient, but the fact that my friend Matt had always wanted to eat there but never had the chance also made it a great opportunity to have a Michelin Starred meal with a friend who generally shies away from the world of fine dining.
With a legend over a century old I must admit that my visit to Luger’s was something I actually looked forward to if not for the steak then simply for the experience. How, I wondered, could a Brooklyn Steakhouse hold a 25+ year reign as “Best Steak in New York” when the city’s dining climate has always been so transient? How could a cash only $60+ per person place with rumored surly service and warnings to take a cab rather than risk a walk from the subway require advanced reservations even at lunch? Was it really that good – and if it was, could it be the place to change my mind about Steakhouses and beef in general?
With reservations made months in advance and Matt driving in from New Hyde Park (and ironically forgetting his wallet) my first challenge to the rumors I’d heard was the J-Train and a nice trip across the Williamsburg Bridge followed by a quarter mile walk through a rough yet well-kept neighborhood to the front door of the famous restaurant; not only did I not get mugged or harassed but the people I crossed paths with en route were rather pleasant. Making my way past the parking lot up to the front door I was next greeted by a man in a brown Peter Luger coat who held the door as I made my way in to the bar where my friend was waiting.
With greetings exchanged and Matt informing me of his forgotten wallet I quickly realized that I likely did not have enough cash for the both of us but informed by the somewhat gruff bartender that the restaurant does indeed take debit I was relieved and handing the bartender $3 for the 8oz Diet Coke Matt had been enjoying we made our way through the bar to past a number of suited men to one of the three heavily wooded main dining rooms where we were greeted by our server, a pleasant older fellow named Bernard who told us he’d been working at Peter Luger since “before you was born,” who filled our waters and handed us our menus.
With Matt waxing between the Rib Steak and the Luger Burger and myself having already decided before we arrived on the Lamb Chops it wouldn’t take long before orders were placed and with service professional and even occasionally chatty throughout the meal a warm basket of bread appeared within moments along with thick cubes of butter, Peter Luger Steak sauce, and another $3 Diet Coke for Matt. With the room approximately half full and seemingly unchanged since inception in its decoration Matt and I both dug into the bread basket and to my surprise the offerings were actually quite diverse and tasty with white bread, Garlic Onion rolls, and warm Parker House rolls all golden and warm. With the butter largely forgettable it should also be mentioned that it really doesn’t matter largely because this gives you an excuse at this point to try the sauce – somewhere between barbeque and cocktail and Worcestershire – and to keep trying it until the plates arrive.
With the main courses being cooked “however the Chef prefers” on my request, the next item to arrive at the table was Luger’s Sizzling Bacon “Extra Thick by the Slice.” With a single order delivering two charred slices of crispy pig to our table my first thoughts on arrival were “when they say thick they mean thick” and on taking my first bite those thoughts quickly changed to “damn, this is the best bacon I’ve ever had” as the tender interior edge juxtaposed with the smoky crisp edges to form a taste quite unlike traditional pan fried bacon, but more like pork belly with a bit more texture.
With the bacon devoured and its drippings sopped up with the start of a second basket of bread our main courses would arrive perhaps 35 minutes after seating and with mine plated tableside with sizzling butter from the pan spooned over the first of two butterflied chops (I only ordered the single) it was with little hesitation that I cut into the rosy flesh and took a bite instantly realizing the Luger sauce would be unnecessary as the medium cooked protein had plenty of flavor to go around. With a nearly caramelized exterior and supple core what surprised me most about the dish was how the butter actually managed to enhance some of the animal’s grassy tones while the exterior char was simple, savory, and delicious.
With the lamb consuming my attention I suddenly remembered I was eating with someone and looked up to find Matt essentially eating with his eyes closed and smiling – while the burger may have been good I’m rather certain he didn’t regret his choice. Generally one not to eat beef I decided “when in Rome” in this case and to be completely honest the beef was an eye opener – served on the bone, a medium pink center, and the perfect balance of protein vs. fat marbling to render the meat juicy without being fatty. My first experience in nearly 3 years with dry aged beef it would interestingly not be my last of the day and while Chef Mirarchi’s 80 day dry aged Wagyu at Roberta’s that evening would entirely reinvent the cow to my palate, I can honestly say that if I were to return to Luger’s I would definitely consider ordering a steak next time.
With scalding hot (and really Folger-esque) coffee served and knowing that I was in for a big meal that evening and while Matt had ordered a substantial steak plus crispy onion straws it was with some debate that we contemplated desserts when Bernard returned to the table, but after agreeing to at least look at the options we decided to go for it and with a “that’s the spirit” from our server we sat back and chatted as we waited.
Told that the desserts were all “made that morning in house” it would not be long before they would arrive – large and bold as expected – along with a bowl of “Schlag” – essentially hand whipped heavy cream with light sweetness and vanilla tones that you could easily stand a spoon up in.
Beginning first with Matt’s selection, the Apple Strudel I’d have ordered if he had not, I have to say that along with the coffee this was Peter Luger’s only failure of the afternoon because while the apples and cinnamon were good, the limp and chilly pastry dough simply showed the pre-made nature of the dish. Knowing full well that such comparisons are unfair I simply could not help but judge this Strudel against the textbook version served at The Modern just two days prior and – well – lets just say the creamy schlag balanced against the sweet apples was the
Moving on to smaller but better, my choice of “traditional” Southern Pecan Pie turned out to be everything I’d hoped as the crisp golden crust supported the buttery brown sugar filling with ease while the sugar roasted Pecans were supple and plump with a great nutty flavor that mellowed the filling without muting it – of course a little schlag didn’t hurt here, either.
With plates cleared save for some of the strudel pastry and half the schlag Bernard returned again and asking us if there was anything else we’d like presented the bill and a pile of chocolate gold coins – a formidable $115 after tax and invited us to either pay him or pay at the booth on the way out. Electing for the booth as I had to pay with debit I’ll say here that while Bernard was pleasant the woman at the booth most certainly was not and without mustering a smile she thanked us for coming in and we were on our way – Matt happy to have finally eaten at the fabled Steakhouse and myself glad to have been there with him because whether a steak fan or not Peter Luger truly is the sort of place you need to experience for yourself; and all the better if you want a nice slab of beef.