Dining out with Moira Hodgson

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Sometimes a Steak House Is

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A Steak House Is a Steak House

Everyone seems to know about Peter Luger. For 17 years in a row, Zagat has rated this steakhouse the best in New York, breathily citing its “died and went to heaven” porterhouse, and folksily calling the place as “‘unbeatable’ as the Yankees in their ‘prime'” All this even though Peter Luger is in an out-of-the-way part of Brooklyn, its comforts Spartan, its service brusque, its vegetables pathetic, its wine list an embarrassment and its lighting straight out of an operating theater. Moreover, the restaurant accepts cash or personal checks only (or a “Peter Luger” credit card), though the bill for two will easily top $200 with a couple of drinks apiece. Its most remarkable achievement is to have convinced customers that all this adds up to an authentic-not to mention stellar-New York experience.

Getting a reservation is tough. Only when a friend of mine who loves steak suggested an early dinner before an opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music did I think of trying to book a table. No luck, not even for 5:30 p.m. on Monday the following week. He pulled strings and got us in at 4:45 p.m.

Of course, even the best-laid plans go awry. He promised to pick me up on his way back from the country and drive us to Williamsburg. But traffic on the F.D.R. was at a standstill. By the time we got onto the Williamsburg Bridge-half of which was closed-we were so late that I called the restaurant to cancel. But the man who answered the telephone could not have been nicer. “Just get here when you can,” he said.

So just after 5:30, having nearly missed the exit, we parked the car in the lot across the street and walked, puffing and frazzled, into a low, red 19th-century building on the corner. Inside is a long mahogany bar facing a wall filled with glowing reviews and articles from food and travel magazines.

There are three separate dining rooms, and all three make a fetish of their unadorned simplicity. The décor is studiedly masculine, with plain wood floorboards, bare wood tables and dark wainscoting punctuated by giant, ornate beer steins. Mullioned windows with frosted glass give onto the street. Wasn’t there once sawdust on the floor? Not any more. The lighting from the metal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling make Wonton Garden look like La Grenouille.

The waiters (as far as I could make out) are all male. And they’re real waiters, not moonlighting actors: middle-aged men in long white aprons, gruffly pleasant and professional. The restaurant was half empty when we sat down, and they were clustered near the kitchen. One of them was talking about making $100,000 a year. I’m not surprised. Our waiter set down a basket of fresh caraway and salt bread sticks, rolls and squares of sweet-tasting butter. We ordered a couple of drinks. They were good and strong, better than the wine by the glass we had later with our steak.

Peter Luger’s menu is bare-bones, dead simple-and, as a concept, there’s nothing wrong with that. We started with the shrimp cocktail for $21.95. Six large shrimp arrived lying on lettuce leaves like white slugs that had keeled over and expired after their midday feast. What do people see in shrimp cocktail? The shrimp were tough and watery. A jolt of a sweet, spicy “cocktail” sauce helped, but we couldn’t finish them.

An enormous tomato ($8.95), one of Peter Luger’s signature “sides,” was served in thick naked slices, accompanied by a white china sauce boat labeled “Our own Peter Luger sauce.” The latter is a cloying, sweet brown steak sauce, and the restaurant does a successful mail-order business with it. The tomatoes were mediocre; the sauce on them was vile. A plate of sliced raw white onion added a kick.

Since I didn’t like the sauce on the tomatoes, I asked the waiter for oil and vinegar instead. The olive oil was ordinary (no “hand-picked in the groves of Tuscany” aroma about this one), and the balsamic vinegar came in a bottle with one of those little plastic holes in the top. First it didn’t come out at all, then it came out in a rush, so I had tomatoes drenched in vinegar. There’s also a pepper mill, if you ask for it. A sprinkling of fleur de sel would have done wonders for that tomato.

The waiter reappeared and quite suddenly slid a saucer upside-down across our table, like a puck in a shuffleboard game. Before we had time to slide it playfully back at him, he was gone. He returned a couple of minutes later with two platters balanced atop each other on his arm. Creamed spinach sat directly on Peter Luger’s “special German home-fried potatoes.” Better this way around than the other, I suppose. He set down the plates, disappeared, and came back with a porterhouse for two ($66), which he put down on the saucer. “Hot plate,” he said. The steak was already cut in chunks, not super-thick, as they are in some restaurants, and mildly charred.

“Would you like some of the ‘au jus’?” asked the waiter. The “au jus” was less “jus” than “gras”-a good half-inch of melted butter and fat with a trickle of blood lurking at the bottom. He spooned the fat generously over the slices of steak. Dr. Atkins would have swooned.

Peter Luger’s steaks are justly famous, made from prime meat dry-aged in a cellar under the restaurant. Our porterhouse, a tad overcooked, was indeed excellent. But no better than I’ve had at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, or at the Strip House in the East Village. (And why would you want to mess up perfectly good meat with that bottled sauce?) The double-thick lamb chops-which I tried another day-are also first-rate, and I’ve heard good things about the salmon, which is the fish alternative on the menu. But the special “German” potatoes, cubed and fried with onion, tasted as though they’d been sitting around on the back of the stove since mid-morning. So did the spinach, which was slimy and metallic.

Meanwhile, we’d been in the dining room for about an hour, and it was still half empty. So what was all the fuss about? Where was everybody?

Desserts are basic. The key lime pie was worthy of your local deli. Pecan pie was not what one felt like on a hot night, so I asked about the “fresh fruit tart of the day,” “We could not get any fresh fruit today,” answered the waiter. I found the cheesecake gummy, but my companion liked it. “You don’t appreciate its rich viscosity,” he said. “I find it mousse-like and better than Junior’s.” The desserts were served with a generous bowl of whipped cream to drive the cholesterol point home.

On our way out, shortly before 7, the dining room was still half empty. My friend stopped at the desk and asked the maître d’ if he could give him directions to B.A.M. “I’ve no idea,” he replied curtly. “I don’t live in Brooklyn.”

Thanks, pal. We don’t, either-and when we come back, it certainly won’t be to Peter Luger.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson