Mythical Meat

about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, USA 3 comments:

Grilling raw meat for a few minutes – most of the world would barely consider cooking; America has, however, managed to persuade everyone that it is, in fact, very haute as cuisine goes.

The great American steak is something I am very fond of. When I first moved to New York, Atkins was all the rage and steak was practically health food. In the years that followed Atkins (real and diet both) rested in peace and cholesterol worries became a religion; New York’s steakhouses, however, did not seem to bother too much – the ancient ones still held their own while fancy new ones cropped up with great regularity to take turns at stretching the good old expense account. Steak remains America’s luxury dining of choice, and New York has some of the best.

The most legendary steakhouse in the city is without a doubt Peter Luger. The place celebrates its 125th year by proudly proclaiming to have been #1 for the last 24 years (why it took a hundred years is a mystery). I had heard and read plenty about it while in New York – its legendary steaks, legendary aversion to reservations, legendary refusal of credit cards, legendary…don’t even remember all the legends. For one reason or another I had never made it there when I lived in New York - even though, for a while, my apartment was not much more than walking distance away. I returned to visit New York after quite a gap, and figured that this time I must pay the old man a visit. So much hype, I felt I was missing a life experience here.

And so I found myself outside its doors on one nippy lunch hour.

Peter Luger goes out of its way to be different. Though as tough on your wallet as any Wall Street hangout, it locates itself on the other side of the bridge, in Williamsburg. Now Williamsburg is firmly in the throes of gentrification (artsy lofts and artisanal salads are on the march) but this seems to have left Peter Luger’s corner alone. On a polite day, one might call it “industrial”; graffiti and boarded up shop windows being more common than cool cafes and hipster chicks. Peter Luger itself works hard at preserving the industrial feel, albeit with tailored suits flitting about the polished edges of expensive grunge.

The entrance is a long bar, where people swizzle some very nice red beer while waiting for their turn at the tables, and so did I, ogling at the wall-full of plaques proclaiming culinary greatness. They used to make you wait in line, but it seems they do take reservations now. Judging from the bustle when I walked in on a Friday afternoon, reservations are indeed needed and Peter Luger will be around for a while yet. It was the last seating of the lunch, so I got lucky and it wasn't long before I found myself seated in a relatively empty dining hall. The beer, meanwhile, was only a third empty - a very nice red lager that I would certainly have had more of if I wasn’t keeping myself empty for steak.

Back to the basics. Unlike tony city steakhouses, Luger has maintained a very narrow and focused menu. Steakhouses nowadays do many gourmet things (Old Homestead serves a tuna sashimi, for instance) but Lugers is still firmly and primarily centered around steak, only a single cut (Porterhouse), cooked only a single way (medium rare). Indeed, the only real choice here is steak for one, two, three or four. Ok, they do have a few frills, a prime rib here and a chopped steak there (also a highly rated lunchtime burger) but the whole menu, sides and dessert included, is just a page. Printed on just one side.

Steak for one duly landed up. The waiter tried to get me excited about the sliced tomatoes; I opted for the extra thick bacon instead and loved it (my theory is that you can only digest so much fat in one sitting, the rest passes through). A large boat of sauce landed up, mild, tangy red stuff that fell somewhere between Worcestshire sauce and ketchup; it worked well with the steak. The star of the show was excellent - perfectly done, perfectly charred, dripping perfectly with fat and juices, and thick enough to be a meaty, juicy, satisfying chew. All while the red ale was singing a wonderful side riff. Of course, a “steak for one” here is really a steak for someone just rescued from weeks of famine and about to be sent back there; for people with less ambitious appetites this is really a steak for two (or at the very least one and a half). I’ve been told the single steak is a different cut, that the Porterhouse – what they are really famous for - is apparently two or more (that’s four or more in regular stomach speak). I guess it has to wait for a bigger famine; I did not have room even for dessert.

I walked out nearly seventy dollars lighter (including tip and lager, don’t even try and convert), satisfied at a great steak fix and the warm glow of having participated in a legend not unlike a visit to the original Disneyland. I’ve had many great steaks over the years, but the satisfaction that comes from chewing a hunk of meat while being bumchums with the waiter at a landmark (we did exchange over three words) is hard to replicate. That, after all, is what Peter Luger is – a fantastic product, to be sure, but lifted to the mythical by some very careful story-telling. Many of the other one hundred and forty something steakhouses in New York will serve you great, even extraordinary steak; none does the legend nearly as well. Old Homestead may have started a couple of decades earlier, Sparks may have its mobster stories and Les Halles a celebrity globetrotting chef but if you’re in the mood for a foodworthy tale, Peter Luger really the only choice you have. Luckily the steak is also outstanding.

I highly recommend this place. A true foodie is, after all, a storyteller at heart.

Sated on Satay

about Kuala Lumpur 4 comments:

A few Sundays ago, a rather ancient plane served me decent satay and plunked me into a country where three civilizations have been trying to teach the others to cook for generations. And they usually get it right; Malaysia is a great place for foodies, and I had hardly had my fill on the plane.

The aircraft finally diisgorged us bang on the evening of rhe IPL final and with Kuala Lumpur strangely disinterested in cricket, even with all that fixing, we were stuck hotel room watching it on Youtube. Luckily the room service menu had Malay food; a very nice nasi lemak duly landed up on a pretty little tray, but the other item was a nicer surprise. mee mamak - official name mee goreng mamak-style – the Mamaks, it seems were Tamil Muslims who came to Malaysia centuries so this was basically Indian Chinese Malay-ishtyle.

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Day Two, however, started badly. Having neglected to reset my watch for time zones, I woke up for early lunch instead of late breakfast. A short walk down the promisingly named Asian Heritage Row got me to corner bistro serving biryani to a fair crowd of lunch seekers, and who can ignore the promise of a biryani. Disappointment followed; both the mutton biryani and the accompanying lamb shank had been crushed under the weight of a heavy, heavy hand with the spices (none of that beautiful delicacy of a top-flight biryani here). It came with a “korma” a bowl of unimpressive gravy and a rather nice sweet-n-sour plum chutney that tasted very Parsi. A rojak at a mall some time later was equally lame; only a chicken claypot mildly redeemed the morning.

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The night, of course, meant night market in Chinatown (or Petaling Street), and things started looking up again, foodwise. Satay still on our mind, we headed to the biggest satay stall in sight. Now we do kathi kababs in India, but here they will put anything moving on a stick – and plenty that does not move too. The spread is pretty typical for chinese street food anywhere, but the local twist came from the sauces – the expected peanut sauce, the regulation soya sauce and a rather nice chilli sauce. We ordered a bunch of grills; my favourites were the baby squid, the duck and some kind of mushroom. A grilling station caught our attention next; they called it portuguese baked fish. It turned out to be a sting ray wrapped in foil with bhindi, chillies and some kind of gravy. Unfortunately, it was less interesting what we thought, but next door was a chicken claypot rice that blew the socks off anything we had in the morning.


The formal dinner at the hotel the next night was all Malay – roti canai, murtabak, a much nicer biriyani and loads of satay prominently advertised as “Satay Kajang”. Now Satay is one of those universally popular ambassadors of all that is Malay, and it seems Kajang, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur about an hour from the city centre, is the best satay there is. By this they probably mean the classical Malay variety – marinated strips of chicken, lamb or beef on a skewer, slathered with peanut sauce. The real test of the Malay variant is really in the perfect peanut sauce – something that must be left to simmer for hours before it really packs a punch. The hotel’s version was quite good, but so was the versions in the airport, the lounge and the flight on the way back the next day. I must have had at least twenty helpings of satay in the few days I was in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s hard to stay sated with satay. Maybe I’ll make it to Kajang the next time.

A Kerala Shaadi

about Thrissur, Kerala, India 5 comments:

Its always a good idea to cultivate marriageable Mallu friends, or at least friends willing to be married to Mallus. The last time this yielded dividends was at Anjali’s wedding – Chennai, but a wonderful, payasam-loaded affair – and it took half a decade to find another candidate.

And so I landed in Thrissur, home to temple, elephants, tons of big fat jewelers and the ridiculously named Lulu Garden Hotel (35 rooms and a helipad) working off my work obligations before jumping into the revelry. I checked in late, only a dull ‘working’ lunch in my belly, but with sleep deprivation and little appetite for adventure decided to eat in (hotel kitchens are usually dull, I thought, but rarely fatal). Two hours later, I was weeping and sniffling like a baby. The food was, much to my surprise, excellent. It was also blazingly, killingly, blazingly (have I already said that?) spicy - even the raita given to cool things off had pieces of chilly. The mutton olathiyathu sang with flavour, the prawn biriyani danced with aromas and the karimeen was worth every bit of its pollichathu - it was, in other words, a thoroughly satisfactory meal for all the fire and brimstone you waded through.


The shaadi was all about mundus and veg food. While my friends tried to figure out how to climb steps with their fancy dresses, I investigated the food options. The cornerstone, of course, was avial – but there was a whole array of rapidly served veggies that I no longer remember the names of. Pumpkin was involved, as was raw mango, pineaple. banana stem and a procession of other unknown vegetables in liquid, paste and dry forms. Rasam, sambar, rice, achaar, all danced about on the banana leaf glammed up with coconut and loads of spices. The two payasams that followed somehow forced their way down overstuffed gullets.

Kerala is one of the great cuisines of the world. Distinctive, delicious and with unending variety; its going to take a lot more than two weddings to get to any level of familiarity here. Unfortunately, its not a food well represented in Mumbai (though there are exceptions to this rule). There’s a huddle of them in the fort area, and a smaller cluster in Mahim. Maybe my next food route will be about those joints.


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