Thursday, May 29, 2008

Peter Lugers and Hill Country

It turns out that my friend Grant who was visiting from England that I took to Coney Island for some Nathan's hot dogs had never tried barbecue. While I had vowed to take him to Luger's I thought that some 'cue was equally important. Well the trip to Luger's went ahead as scheduled and we also went to Hill Country hours before he flew back home. To say that Grant was impressed would be an understatement. There was no doubt in his mind that the Peter Luger porterhouse that we shared was the best steak he had ever eaten. I remember my first Luger experience and I had a similar reaction. He loved the 'cue as well but I'll get to that later.

Peter Luger's

To his absolute credit, and in complete contravention of stereotype my friend eats his steak black and blue, a rare (pardon the pun) thing in England. This allowed us to share the porterhouse rather than ordering individual steaks as I have often been forced to do when dining with those who like their steak more well done. As most any Luger fan will know the porterhouse for two is the best thing on the menu as they take it from the optimal part of the primal cut, where the filet and strip are in perfect proportion. I have eaten a lot of steak and I still find Luger's beef the finest example of USDA Prime porterhouse I have had. The quality of the beef is beyond reproach as is the aging which imparts a pronounced mineral rich tang to the steaks but the preparation and indeed the presentation can often leave something to be desired. Specifically I have never had a true black and blue steak at Luger's, they come out closer to a dark tan and blue. No matter how politely I request "extra char" the request goes unfulfilled. Indeed on my last visit the waiter bristled with indignation when I somewhat pedantically requested my steak "extra black," as if I was insinuating that he did not understand what black and blue was. Despite this the steak showed up under charred. I don't really get upset by this anymore, it is par for the course at Luger's. I am not the biggest fan of the sliced presentation either although I supposed it makes sense when serving two or more people. I also find the butter that drowns the steak to be superfluous. But having said that it is still an amazing steak and while it lacked char it was perfectly cooked inside. It was also beautifully marbled, which is always the case at Luger's anyway but it was especially pronounced this time.

The excellent German potatoes are not available until 3pm and since we ate there at around noon the French fires had to suffice. Which was not a problem since they are superb, among the best in the city in my opinion, being both crispy and tender. Similar in fact, like Nathans fries to good English chips. Grant was not impressed, good chips are readily available in the UK, a steak like Luger's on the other hand is far more elusive.

I have never really liked the creamed spinach at Luger's that much but I thought that Grant should have the proper steakhouse experience making the dish de rigueur. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, the spinach was very fresh and far less stogy than usual

Despite the lack of external char it was still an exceptional. steak. I think Luger's should serve as an entry point in to any exploration of the NYC steakhouse genre. I am sure Grant would agree.

Peter Luger Steakhouse
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY

Hill Country

The next day I met Grant for lunch at Hill Country which despite being chosen out of convenience is as good a place as any for an introduction in to NYC barbecue. While I find the decor tiresome I must contritely admit that I enjoy taking foreigners here precisely because of the theme park nature of the interior design. I had not eaten at Hill Country in a few months and I now find that they have reached a certain equilibrium. It is far more consistent these days than the wild swings in quality that I experienced during their opening months, but it does not quite live up to the heights that it once scaled since the departure of original pit master Robbie Richter and and Big Lou. Having said that it seems that HC is more popular than ever, indeed when Grant and I arrived at lunch time there was a long line and the all the tables on the top floor where occupied.

I think that Hill Country consistently puts out some of the best brisket in NYC and while I may quibble about the amount of fat that is often served on it the meat itself is moist and delicious.

Unfortunately the beef rib lover is the victim of HC's success, they simply can not seem to get the same quality rib that they used to get. The ribs are still excellent but they are not as meaty as before requiring that you order more and because they are leaner they can get quite jerky like. Thankfully the ribs we ate were quite meaty with a dark, oaky flavor. We also had the excellent Jalepeno Cheddar sausage that has rarely failed to please. It was particularly succulent on my most recent visit with a crunchy, snappy casing. We also ordered the coleslaw which has thankfully shed the raisins that once disgraced the dish and some blackeyed peas that Grant ordered out of sheer curiosity. Grant and I wisely concentrated on the meat and within minutes there was nothing left on the wax paper than a pile of bones and a pool of grease, the sides went largely untouched. So to the Lone Star beer, while American beef mightily impresses Brits the same cannot be said for American beer. Grant had to leave for the airport soon after lunch so we didn't make it to Shake Shack for desert but he will be back soon enough I am sure. Eating at Nathan's, Peter Luger's and Hill Country for the first time in the same week should be enough to get any self respecting carnivore back to the Big Apple ASAP.

Hill Country
30 West 26 St Street
NY, NY 10010

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs

I had a friend visiting from England this week and while he has been over on this side of the pond on several occasions he admitted that he had never tried a hot dog. This was a culinary omission that I felt needed immediate rectification. But were to go? I was not going to feed him a dirty water dog so that left but a few alternatives. Katz Deli and Gray's Papaya were the logical choices given their hot dog pedigree and proximity to Beef Aficionado world headquarters in Gramercy Park but I thought why not travel out to Coney Island and sample the prototypical New York hot dog at Nathans Famous?

When it turned out my mate is a huge fan of Walter Hill's seminal 1979 film The Warriors which climaxes on the Coney Island beach, well that sealed the deal. I cannot think of a more appropriate starting point for an exploration of the New York hot dog than Nathan's.

Nathan's is open year round but the rest of Coney Island waits until the Memorial Day weekend as the official start to the summer season.

Despite only firing on a couple of cylinders, a fraction of the multiple registers and grill tops were open when I visited, Nathan's still moves a prodigious number of hot dogs during the off season. The grill was restocked on a couple of occasions in the short time it took me to devour a couple of dogs and some fries. The amount of pups they go through during the summer peak must be staggeringly high.

Nathan's smokes their 100% beef hot dogs and then re-heats them on griddle tops. It is an impressive feat to witness the grill worker move and flip an entire row of hot dogs with long custom made tongs. The sausages are moved from left to right on the griddle top. When they have reached the end of the line a bun is placed on top of it and left to heat for a minute or two. One of the advantages of going during the off season is that the buns get a little toastier than during the height of the summer when there is simply no time to cook them much.

Some people find it odd but I am happy to eat my hot dogs completely naked, at least when it is as succulent as Nathan's juicy frankfurters.

Of course mustard and sour kraut make a delicious compliment to the smoky frank. Biting in to a Nathans frank is a wonderful experience. The soft compliance of the bun soon gives way to a crackling snap as you bite through the taught skin, a burst of juice and flavor follow. The beef has a a strong garlicky flavor and a robust and hearty texture. The dogs also tasted smokier than I remember them. This is a great hot dog.

While Nathan's offer burgers and chicken and even seafood I don't hold much other than the hot dogs in very high regard but the fries are worth mentioning. They are large, chunky crinkle cut and extremely crispy potatoes, similar in fact to good old English chips.

I may prefer certain other dogs, such as Rutt's Hut in New Jersey and Walter's in Mamaroneck but it is hard to argue that the frank at Nathan's is not the quintessential American hot dog. Nathan's is now a national chain with numerous outposts. I have not eaten at any of them in recent memory and while I am sure that they are a reasonably close facsimile of the original I am also sure that they won't taste quite as good, lacking the tinge of nostalgia and authenticity that the original imbues. My friend by the way absolutely loved the dogs. I am taking him to Peter Luger's next. I envy him, experiencing Nathan's and Luger's for the first time in the same week might just be a religious experience.

Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs
1310 Surf Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 946 2202

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008


If there is one thing that I have learned in the last year of writing Beef Aficionado it is that there is always an exception that proves the rule. Craft breaks several rules at once, turning steak convention on its head yet still delivers a masterful hunk of beef. Steak aficionado's have long know that the only way to properly cook a steak is either over an open flame or a high powered industrial broiler. They also known that fine dining restaurants can never turn out steak that is truly the equal of what a top chophouse offers. Craft is of course the flagship of Tom Collichios rapidly expanding empire that includes restaurants in several US cities. Although there are steak restaurants in the Craft empire called, you guessed it, Craftsteak with locations in Las Vegas and NYC, the steak offerings at Craft itself are bountiful. Paradoxically in my experience the domestic steak at Craft is superior to the domestic steak at Craftsteak NYC, which I visited on two occasions last year in July and in August. I refer to the domestic steer because the superb Japanese Wagyu that is on offer at Craftsteak is not featured on the regular menu at Craft, although on my last visit it was featured as one of the courses on the tasting menu. What the two restaurants have in common are the method of preparation as well as an obsessive chronicling of the provenance and aging of the steak. Both restaurants roast their steaks in the oven after an initial searing on a griddle as opposed to the aforementioned methods of preparation traditionally favored by chophouses. Both restaurants also offer effusive service that is quite unlike the gruff service one expects and receives at a traditional steakhouse. But what really sets them apart is that the rest of the cuisine on offer is leagues above what you will get at a steakhouse. This is fine dining yet the steak is also almost perfectly prepared, a rare combination and one that defies conventional wisdom.

A quail with the 50 year Balsamic reduction was perfectly cooked with a crisp skin and a rare center although it lacked much of a pronounced flavor from the vinegar itself.

While Craft does not offer Wagyu steaks it does feature the Wagyu carpaccio that is found at Crafsteak. It was a delicious dish when I tried it at Craftsteak and I was equally as enthused by the iteration of it here. I would love to see what Craft might do with a Wagyu tartar, the beef is truly delectable.

The 28 day dry aged strip came out perfectly black and blue. I was surprised at how favorably it compared to the best NYC steakhouse iterations of the cut. While it may have fallen slightly behind my personal favorite bone in strips at Primehouse and Smith & Wollensky in terms of overall flavor it was pretty close. The latter two steaks have more pronounced marbling and a more apparent dry age flavor but that is not to say that the Craft incarnation necessarily lacked these desirable traits, it did not.

The cote de boeuf from Four Story Hill Farms was utterly exquisite. While it is admittedly pricey at $125 it is intended for sharing, although those who have no trouble polishing off a Peter Luger steak for two might need one for themselves. It comes with two generous marrow bones that aside from adding value to the dish also compliment it both texturally a from a flavor perspective, the gelatinous marrow positively oozes with an earthy richness. The beef itself was the pinnacle of tenderness and flavor. The crust was perfectly charred and the cool interior had the perfect red hue. The irresistible tang of dry aging was evident through out the cut making the pan drippings and forest of herbs that are served with the steak largely superfluous. Most steakhouses can't deliver a black and blue steak to this degree of perfection and I have never had a steak in a fine dining restaurant that comes close to this.


Beyond the steak there is some very serious cooking going on here. A roasted black cod was flaky and tender with a deep sea flavor. Similarly the buttery Triggerfish struck the perfect textural balance between succulence and firmness. The sides are also universally delicious. The Hen of the woods mushrooms had a creamy earthiness, sugar snap peas more than lived up to their name a being wonderfully sweet with a pleasing crunch. The puree potatoes had the perfect mix of starch and richness with out devolving in to pure butter and cream as can so often be the case. The deserts are also exquisite. A toffee pudding, sadly absent from the menu on my last visit, perfectly capped the meal but rest.

While the cuisine at Craft is serious the general atmosphere is quite casual. The service strikes a good balance between effusiveness and familiarity and the room is warm and inviting, the brown and bronze hues giving it a welcoming feel. Craft might be the exception that proves the rule for it is undeniably one of NYC's finer restaurants yet they offer a steak that competes quite favorably with the city's top steakhouses and indeed surpasses many of them.

43 E. 19th St.
(bet. B'way & Park Ave. S.)
Manhattan, NY

Friday, May 9, 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Rutt's Hut

I had the pleasure of visiting Rutt's Hut in exotic Clifton, NJ not too long ago to once more experience their famed hot dogs.

For the uninitiated Rutt's Hut serves a hot dog called the "ripper" which is a Thurman's hot dog deep fried to the point were the skin literally rips open revealing the tender, succulent flesh inside. The dog itself is comprised of a 60% beef, 35% pork and 5% cereal mix which makes for a perfect sausage in my opinion. The relative sweetness of the pork lightens the palate compared to a pure beef frank. While I enjoy the latter grilled and boiled I think that for deep fat frying beef is too dark in character and would produce a rather bitter product.

Rutt's Hut has two dining areas, a bar room and a family friendly dining room with a walk up counter which is standing room only. An extensive menu features a plethora of comfort foods such as hamburgers, "barbecued" beef sandwich, fries and of course hot dogs. Be sure to try Rutt's secret mustard relish on the latter, it is simply delicious although I find that the dogs make for good eating naked, the grease from the cooking moistening the simple white bun.

The "barbecue" beef sandwich, presumably named for the cooking method, not the sour gravy that accompanies it, is best avoided. Aside from the slightly stale bun the gravy just did not seem right. The beef itself was also cooked a bit too much for my taste. There is a real timeless element to Rutt's Hut, the decor does not look like it has been changed in several decades and the menu makes zero concessions to any health fad or evidence of the implications of consuming trans fats and cholesterol laden food. This is pure unabashed comfort food.

The decor and the menu are not the only thing that hearken back to a by gone era, the price for a Miller High Life in a very frosted mug is only a $1.40! The tax alone would be more in NYC. Now I am an admitted snob when it comes to beer, having grown up in England but I have to concede that this Miller was so cold and refreshing that its relative lack of flavor and body was not an issue.

Rutts Hut is well worth the visit, it really is a piece of timeless Americana that you won't find replicated in a food court at a shopping mall.

Rutt's Hut
417 River Road, Clifton NJ
(973) 779-8615

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Southern Hospitality

I can understand Ray Lampe's frustration. Around the barbecue circuit he is known simply as Dr. BBQ with a trunk full of trophies, stacks of awards, TV appearances too numerous to mention and no less than four cookbooks to his credit; he has certainly made an impact on the smoke scene. Yet despite all this success and all the accolades his latest venture, taking over the helm of Southern Hospitality, must seem like the barbecue equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield for SH really gets "no respect." Never mind the Dr. BBQ has probably beaten most any celebrated NYC pitmaster that you can name in competition. A Slew of less than favorable reviews, all preceding Dr BBQ's arrival late last year, followed the opening of SH, a restaurant that had it not been co-owned by pop idol Justin Timberlake would have received virtually no recognition at all for, aside from the 'Cue, it is essentially another generic Upper East Side bar. Indeed the flat screens TV's playing a dizzying menagerie of sporting events, the blaring music, the neon beer signs that line the walls and a boisterous bar crowd all make the place seem like a sports bar more than some genteel Southern smoke joint. Southern hospitality? hardly, the distracted hostess barely said anything as she shunted us to our table, past the frat boys and the stream of bus boys who scurry back and forth with heaping plates of food and who barely get out of your way. I am not expecting the doting I receive at a four star restaurant but the name Southern Hospitality will unavoidably raise expectations. To be fair our waitress was more bubbly than the hostess but hardly fawning. And the room just doesn't feel that Southern to me, despite the Elvis mural on the back wall. As I said if it was not for the barbecue this could really be another sports bar. I was also disappointed that despite the Abita signs on the bathroom wall the beer selection is far more pedestrian. The waitress looked at me in a perplexed manner when I asked for a Turbo Dog, apparently the sign is just a prop.

But what of the barbecue? Well I only sampled the two main beef dishes on offer, the brisket and a massive order of beef ribs. The brisket was beautifully trimmed, a real contrast to the sloppy, fat ridden variety served at Hill Country. While almost all of the smoke ring had been trimmed away I have to say that this brisket has the most distinctive and pronounced smoke flavor of any brisket I have had in NYC. Unfortunately it was far too dry and to add insult to injury was also a little tough as well. I also think that it is a bit expensive at just under $17. Granted you get a side of beans and coleslaw along with Texas toast and corn bread but frankly you can get a lot more 'cue for your buck elsewhere. The coleslaw was rather limp and bland but the beans, despite being a bit soupy had a hearty flavor. I don't know why you would need corn bread and toast but I suppose its cheaper than laying out more meat while still leaving your guests feeling satiated. I saw potential in the brisket but it was ultimately disappointing tonight.

On the other hand the massive, two to an order, beef rib was absolutely phenomenal and in comparison to the paltry serving of brisket a veritable bargain at $25, This is enough food for two or maybe even three people. It too comes with the same sides as the brisket which is a bit disappointing, most restaurants allow you to choose the sides and it would have been nice to add some variety since I shared both plates.

I would have to say that the beef rib is as good as I have had. Some of the finest dry rub I have tasted gave way to an ethereally succulent and tender inner flesh. Just as with the brisket it had a more distinct smoky flavor than other short ribs I have tried recently, such as those at Fette Sau, The Smoke Joint and the fledgling Wildwood. The latter impressed me particularly but I might have to give SH's incarnation a slight edge. While it lacked the thick bark and intense smoke ring it had more depth of flavor and was more meaty as well. It was also a beautifully marbled piece of beef that reminded me of prime rib. It may not be quite as tender as the one at Daisy May's but it was as good, which means that it borders on perfection. I should give special mention to the barbecue sauce which ranks as my favorite in NYC, it has the perfect mix of fire and sweetness although I could see that those with an aversion to spiciness might find it a tad picante. While the short rib really did not need it as it was flavor packed on its own it was equally good with it. On the other hand it did add need moisture to the brisket, redeeming it somewhat.

The real problem as I see it with SH is that it will be difficult to overcome the celebrity hype that surrounds it, and the negative reviews it received close to its opening. No matter how good the pit master might be, and it would be hard to find a more accomplished one that Dr BBQ, the hurdles may be insurmountable in establishing SH's culinary bone fides, being permanently dismissed as a celebrity restaurant. And that is too bad because there is clearly genius at work in the smoker. Personally I did not find dining at SH a salubrious experience. The room is not intimate in the least, even Hill Country with its communal tables offer more seclusion. The low ceiling does no favors to the sound levels and an adjacent private party room, which was packed when I ate there, tends to spill out in to the dining area. It is pretty annoying to be eating while people are literally standing over you having a loud conversation. And I think that the atmosphere more than anything is what will keep me from going back anytime soon. Certainly if I lived close by I would avail myself of their delivery and pick up options but I live in Gramercy Park, quite a distance. NYC is under going a barbecue rroaissance and there are so many options available that SH's failure to live up to its name, not form a culinary stand point, but from the other aspects that restaurant dining entails, make it difficult to recommend over its rivals. I would love to try Dr BBQ's offering under more agreeable circumstances, unfettered from the crux of celebrity and location. Until then I will be sneaking his sauce in to barbecues restaurants closer to home.

Southern Hospitality
1460 Second Ave.
(bet. 76th & 77th Sts.)
Manhattan, NY

Beef Aficionado's First Anniversary!

It is hard for me to believe, but Beef Aficionado is one year old today. In the course of that year I have published 130 posts and have had over 47,000 visitors to my humble little blog. I have eaten some of the finest meals of my life in LA, London, and, of course, NYC. I won't be replicating my feat of eating and blogging a burger a day in the month of May (May being National Hamburger Month) as I did last year since I will turn 40 this year and am battling the inevitable middle aged spread. However, I have been enlisted by Adam of A Hamburger Today to cover the NYC burger beat, and from now on you will find most of my burger musings over at AHT. I will be providing direct links from here to my burger posts, the first of which can be found here. Rest assured, Beef Aficionado will continue to cover all the beef that is fit to review, there is after all a lot more than just chuck on a steer. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers, especially those who have left comments which are always appreciated.