The Old Homestead at twilight — the heifer on the outside offers tacky reassurance that steak is still the focus of the menu. Dorothy, are we back in Kansas?
There’s no doubt that Peter Luger is the city’s greatest steakhouse, maybe the world’s. But getting in requires a strategy: You have to make a reservation weeks in advance, go late for lunch on weekdays (maybe missing the burger special), or wait until near midnight to crash the premises. Is there an alternative?
The “Gotham Rib Steak on the Bone.”
While Peter Luger was founded in 1887, and Keane’s in 1885, Old Homestead dates to 1868, making it the city’s oldest steakhouse. For decades it sat forlorn on the edge of the Meatpacking District, a nearly ramshackle frame structure that bent around a corner at the confluence of Ninth Avenue and Hudson Street. Now it has been almost overwhelmed by the city’s hottest night district, clogged with cabs and drunken louts late into the evening.
But how does the food — especially the meat — compare with its more famous competitor in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge?
To cut right to the chase, the beef at Old Homestead is splendid — prime steak, well-marbled with fat, charred on the outside, bloody pink in the middle, bulbous with juices that ooze out as the meat is cut and puddle at the bottom of the bone-white plate. But while Luger offers only a single steak, a massive porterhouse (Oh, OK, two — sometimes there’s a rib eye instead), OH lists 12 choices, and sometimes some ridiculous specials involving such mundane exotica as kobe beef. Which to pick?
The Caesar salad makes a splendid shared starter.
Eliminating the multiple filet mignons and sirloins (plebeian cuts, the former for tender-meat freaks, the latter for tourists and supermarket meat enthusiasts), the list whittles down to a couple of choices. Your best bet is the splendid “Gotham Rib Steak on the Bone,” the only steak good enough to be named after the city. This cut is comparable in every way to what you get at Luger.
OH’s menu is way more complicated than Luger’s, with all sorts of raw bar stuff, salads, potato preparations, and other forgettable fodder. Stick with the steakhouse standards — creamed spinach and hash browns — or the slightly unexpected Italian flourishes, a result of the restaurant’s own heritage and the heritage of the neighborhood.
In this vein, the Caesar salad is as good as it gets, a pristine heap of crunchy romaine with an assertively tart dressing that whispers anchovy. The stuffed and baked clams oreganata would have been good, except that they had been burned on top during reheating. The hash browns were served in a deep-fried puck ramified with cream, a little low on salt, and not measuring up to the wonderful German-style fried potatoes at Peter Luger.
There were other flaws in our revisit meal, too. Without a reservation (there was plenty of room in the hulking, two-story space), we were ushered upstairs with a rather cold welcome, and seated in the pariah section near an extensively tattooed couple dressed in black. In this precinct, the waiters rarely visit.
One more problem: I ordered a glass of Trimbach riesling ($12), a varietal and brand I’m completely familiar with. Instead, the waiter substituted what tasted like a pinot grigio of inferior quality. I might have objected, except he also gave me a gigundo pour. The steakhouse clearly believes that those seated in the punk section will be unfamiliar with good wine.
Still, the food was mainly excellent, and the steak perfectly cooked by the broiling method that’s the steakhouse favorite. My date and I left with a doggie bag feeling entirely satiated; in other words, we didn’t finish out our meal with the Old Homestead’s notorious cheesecake.
The hash browns, however, proved disappointing.