Keens Steakhouse: A Mutton Chop Well-Traveled
For this week's review, I ventured to Long Island City's premiere catamaran-building, trout tank-having meatery M. Wells Steakhouse (43-15 Crescent Street, Queens; 718-786-9060) and was charmed by the unconventional practices (by old guard steakhouse standards, anyway) at work. Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis have garnered much acclaim for their oversized ambitions, and rightly so -- that fish tank acts as a watery purgatory from which trout are plucked-to-order, then bludgeoned, gutted, and poached in court bouillon. They arrive a faintly iridescent periwinkle, splayed open with herb-kissed tender flesh under spoonfuls of brown butter tartar sauce; they're served with a quarter head of poached cabbage and fingerling potatoes. They're so fresh they might have had their own mural at dearly departed graffiti playground 5Pointz.
So much of what makes M. Wells Steakhouse intriguing has nothing to do with its beef, and yet the steaks provide their own unique pleasures, smoky and tender as they are. Dufour and Obraitis offer a compelling case for reinventing the wheel -- let it be known, they're cooking some excellent cow -- but they've obfuscated many of the flavors associated with classic steakhouses along with the rest of the restaurant's stylistic alterations.
So what do you do when you want old school meat? Luckily, I didn't have to travel too far from home to find that familiar steakhouse feeling. In fact, the steakhouse came to me.
I should probably punish myself for choosing, against common sense, to miss dinner at Keens Steakhouse (72 West 36th Street, 212-947-3636). The iconic midtown meat temple has set a standard for American chophouses since 1885, and its network of dramatic rooms (featuring a comprehensive collection of long-stemmed churchwarden pipes and one with a working fireplace) feels timeless. It remains one of the finest of its kind; an ageless dinosaur serving Flinstonian cuts of meat, equally essential and quintessential.
Unfortunately, I'm a mope, and so I sat at home, pipeless, in an office chair. My girlfriend's uncle, generous and full of vigor, had other plans, however, and sent his niece home with one of the restaurant's gargantuan mutton chops. In a city with so many choice cuts, the Keens mutton chop is unparalleled among Gotham's lamb dishes (the restaurant's porterhouse for two is no slouch, either). It's a delight and privilege to tackle at the restaurant, but doing the same in the comfort of my own home? It seemed almost perverse. Enjoying a home-cooked steak or roast is one thing, but it's impossible to recreate the flavors imbued by such pedigreed ovens.
Even after resting in a takeout box, the steam having created an unsightly pool of meat water and flabby decorative lettuce, the chop sported an exemplary crust, with edges charred black and kissed with charcoal. Carving into the saddle of lamb, the meat falls off the towering bone in giant, barnyard-y hunks like debris from a meat glacier. Served with a small plastic container of fragrant mint jelly, it's a beguiling dish regardless of the setting.