I make no secret my love for Pitt Cue, the grilled meat restaurant just off Liverpool Street. Steaks, chops and barbecued ribs are all served on large cast-iron plates and doused in the same dripping-based sauce. It is a restaurant where the vegetarian cannot find solace in the salads and mashed potatoes. Alas, I no longer live in London and standing on the Brooklyn Bridge looking wistfully at the Atlantic Ocean does nothing to satiate my hunger for a good slab of meat. Now it seems I am setting myself up for a fictitious challenge; I am after all in New York City, in America, the country that invented the steakhouse. How hard can it be to find a good one? Besides, how hard can it be to cook a piece of meat?
Hear me out. A steakhouse that presents good value is rare, if you pardon the pun. Since competition is stiff, most posh restaurants cannot survive by serving high quality ingredients, expertly cooked. Restaurants attract customers with extravagant offerings (think gold foil ice cream) or Instagram-worthy brunch menus. In order to survive in the New York City restaurant scene, steakhouses have had to brand themselves as exclusive dining rooms, where the businessman brings his partners, and the well-heeled come for special occasions. The prices are all similar too; Drop into Peter Luger, Wolfgang’s or Smith and Wollensky, you will find that a glass of house wine is $10 and a steak around $60. From these myriad options, I chose Keens.
Keens is an institution. Established in the 1880s, one could think of it as the Rules of New York. It grew out of an English gentleman’s club and it retains that kind of atmosphere. The walls are lined with the portraits of the rich and famous of times gone by, and the ceiling of the main dining room is covered in clay pipes, presumably dating back to when fire safety rules were lax, and smoking was allowed in restaurants. There was a bit of confusion regarding my reservation, but we were seated on time, in the upstairs dining room. The room was dimly lit but still bright enough to see the groups of businessmen in gingham-checked shirts and chinos surrounding our table. While we pondered over the menu, the waiter brought us some celery, carrots and olives and a blue cheese dip. I wasn’t sure if that was the snack or just a poorly placed table decoration, as the carrots and celery were raw, and absent-mindedly tossed into a dish with cold water. Perhaps they do this to add to the rustic, faux-Victorian feel. While I awkwardly munched on a carrot, the waiter returned with warm bread rolls and butter, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
Not ten minutes after our order was taken, the first dish arrived, and my companion and I both chose a steakhouse classic. The rich lobster bisque was properly seasoned and came with real chunks of lobster, and thankfully enough, creamy enough to cover up the taste of blue cheese and celery. The pacing of the meal was well thought-through as well, as the main courses came half an hour after the starters were cleared. I went for Keens’ signature mutton chop, which was actually an 800-gram saddle of lamb with sautéed greens, piled up on a large plate and plonked in front of me with a tub of mint jelly. The beautiful thing about the lamb was the textures of the meat changed as I worked my way through the saddle. On the outside was the belly, with a consistency similar to bacon, broiled to crispy perfection. The sirloin just beneath the belly was medium rare, having been protected from the searing heat of the oven. It was firm and chock full of flavour. Finally, as I reached the backbone I could taste the tender, succulent fillet.
My companion chose a T-bone, which came in the shape (and size) of the state of Texas, with a beautiful brown sear on the outside, perfectly medium rare all the way through. While the beef was dry-aged for a month, the flavour was nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, USDA Prime beef is let down by their feed; grain-fed beef is bland and tasteless, and no amount of aging can concentrate the flavours that are conspicuously absent. One thing of note was that our waiter thought we might be sharing our mains, and proactively offered to have them pre-sliced. As we impressed him by polishing off all the meat, he again offered to have our Key Lime pie split two ways. This was no Emirates Airlines over-the-top service, but the staff kept their distance till they were needed, then somehow appeared whenever we needed something.
I did not manage to fall in love with Keens the same way I did with Pitt Cue. Yes, the steak and chop were better than Goodman’s in Canary Wharf, at roughly the same price. The soup and cake were delicious in their own right rather than an afterthought. The lamb was a revelation. And yet I struggled to feel satisfied. I certainly recommend it, if you’re in New York for business, but I don’t recommend coming back every month.
72 West 36th Street
New York 10018
by J Khou