The massive mutton chop, seen in the glow of Keens’ flattering lighting. The long tail that wraps around the chop is the best part.
Fork in the Road continues with our slow quest to find a restaurant to substitute for the splendid Peter Luger, which is difficult to get into without the sort of premeditation we’re rarely capable of. The last place we tested was Old Homestead, which we found at least marginally acceptable as a substitute. Today we turn our gaze upon Keens Steakhouse (72 West 36th Street, 212-947-3636).
The awning still bears the old name, Keens Chophouse.
Leaf through the Zagat section called “Historic Places,” and you’ll find that Keens was founded in 1885, two years before Luger, accounting for the similarities in ambience. In fact, by most standards, Keens is cozier: Located in what seems like a house on the fringes of the Garment Center, the premises consists of two stories. On the ground floor is a greeting area with a very comfy couch. A door to the right leads to a barroom, where you can often get a table even when no reservations are available; to the left is a coat check, a waiting area, and stairs to the second floor; straight ahead is the main dining room, which is clad in very dark woods, with brass fixtures here and there, and framed playbills, newspaper reviews, and other such ephemera from the days when this area was the Theater District. There are a couple of fireplaces, too.
Oh, yeah, and there are blackened clay pipes hanging from the ceiling everywhere, from the days, supposedly, when being stylish involved imitating the Dutch, who used such pipes in New Amsterdam two centuries previously. Upstairs are meeting rooms with names commemorating politicians and thespians of long ago. The rooms look so cozy, you might wish you’d gotten a group together and thrown a party.
Of course, Luger is attractive, too, in a more no-nonsense way. While Luger has its one steak — a humongous porterhouse, sliced and brought to you bathed in rich juices — Keens has its famous mutton chop. Indeed, the name of the place used to be Keens Chophouse, which is a more colorful and interesting name than Keens Steakhouse, and recalls a bygone era when the mere mention of chops was enough to get people salivating.
Dutch tobacco pipes decorate the ceiling.
The main dining room on the street level has a clubby feel, with an unusually high percentage of local (as opposed to tourist) patrons.
Unfortunately, for those who crave the gamier taste of old sheep, the Keens mutton chop is really a lamb chop (taken from an animal less than a year old), but memorably great nonetheless. The kitchen likes to cook the chop medium, and I have to agree it’s the best way — eating lamb rare is better when you have a thinner piece of meat. The chop is the size of an ocean liner, with a big bone sticking up in the middle, flanked by a couple of blade flanges that turn out to be much smaller than you fear — most of what you see is meat.
It arrived slightly pink in the middle, toasty and crusty on the outside, flanked by a spartan salad of Bibb lettuce leaves, more garnish than salad. It usually remains on the plate after the chop has been demolished.
My date and I, like idiot foodies, elected to cut the chop ourselves, rather than let the kitchen cut it. Which might have been a good idea if Keens provided its customers with adequate cutlery. As it was, we only had a small serrated knife, such as you might get in a diner. Dissecting the chop took a lot of elbow grease, but every bite was heavenly.
The waiter split our Caesar salad into two servings for easy sharing.
The lobster bisque contains slivers of lobster, and is very rich.
The rest of the meal mainly provided additional ballast for the chop. With a choice of a single West Coast and single East Coast variety, the oyster service was fine, with bivalves of unquestionable freshness. The lobster bisque was a highlight; even though one didn’t expect it from a bisque, there were good-size slivers of lobster present. The rolls were small, light, and warm, the hash browns puck-like and not very interesting, especially when compared with the potatoes at Luger, which are chunky, seared to a deep brown color, and greasy as hell.
Steakhouse-standard Caesar salad has a dressing that actually contains anchovies at Keens, and there are some decent wines in the $30-to-$40 range, from which we selected a pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The best part of Keens, besides the chop, is the noise level. You can actually carry on a conversation as you eat your way across the menu. As at Luger, the waiters are of the professional and slightly gruff sort, and they never try to upsell you anything. Bless ’em!
The Verdict: The place is about 85 percent as pleasurable as Luger, all aspects considered.
Dinner for two, with a modest bottle of wine, with tax and tip: $170. The chop is $45.
The hash browns provoked a big yawn — like fried mashed potatoes.