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Keen’s Steakhouse May Serve The Best Steak In New York City

February 20, 2011

The stately front of Keen's steakhouse. I prefer to enter through the bar.

It is hard not to love Keen’s. I am not sure that this wonderful New York institution is appreciated enough by the steak aficionados though. I suppose I could understand why – assuming they don’t know what to order. But Keen’s harbors a secret: they might have the best steak in town. I didn’t write “one of the best” there. I wrote “the best.” Allow me to explain.

The bar at Keen's. They understand martinis.

When you step in to the bar at Keen’s, you’re instantly transported to a totally different era. The restaurant was established in 1885. It retains its turn-of-the-century feel, in all the right ways. Lots of wood paneling, hard-boiled eggs served at the bar, rows of Laphroig and Macallan scotch whiskey (along with numerous other varieties) await your taste buds. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the vaguely provocative painting of “Miss Keen’s,” which dominates the space behind the bar. It is a huge painting of a very sultry nude from a different era. She’s sexy. It is hard to imagine that this image (quite staid by today’s standards) wouldn’t have been more than a bit over-the-line when it was first put up. Or at least, so I like to think.

Wood paneling and a clubby feel.

Keen’s itself is a rambling space. There’s the bar, a sort-of lounge area, a proper dining room, and then a second floor with three (or four?) different rooms on it, stairways to go up and down, etc. The sense of travel available to you adds to the charm. Most contemporary restaurants don’t have so many nooks and crannies for patrons to look into. Some of the rooms seem well suited to private parties. All have a similar, wood-paneled look and clubby feel to them, as you can see in the picture above. There’s lots of paintings a newspaper clippings from a bygone era adorning the walls. You feel the history of the place, although sometimes it can be surprisingly disconcerting.

A Currier & Ives Darktown print. A bit disconcerting, really.

I was surprised to see that among the images on the wall are several from the Currier & Ives Darktown series. These are pretty much plainly racist images that were apparently wildly popular back when. They were shocking. That said, I have since come to understand that they’ve taken on a good deal of significance among collectors, and can fetch a significant price at auction. You can read more about them here. Frankly, I found them offensive and wouldn’t hang them up. But they do speak to history.I should add that the prints I saw are among hundreds of images & prints and so on that adorn the place. I think you’d have to look pretty hard to find them. I do not want to give the impression that Keen’s puts up nothing but this sort of thing. But they did catch my eye.

But I didn’t come to scrutinize the decor, I came to eat. And the food is sensational, so let’s get back to it.

What they use to start you off. The blue cheese is very thick.

When you first sit down, the present you this wonderful little bowl of thick, fresh celery & carrots, some olives and a pickle. Crushed ice sits atop it, keeping it crisp. There’s a hefty dollop of blue cheese dressing in a cup as well. Watch out: you can fill up a bit on it. The size of the pieces, and their ability to deliver the blue cheese, can make them a force to be reckoned with. Be careful.

We immediately ordered the usual: shrimp cocktail and bacon.

Shrimp cocktail. Win.

Who doesn’t love a good shrimp cocktail? Look at the size of those mothers. And they were beautifully prepared, fresh and succulent. They just pop when you bite into them, aren’t mushy or rubbery. Wonderful. Two or three bites to a shrimp, marvelous.

The new-style bacon from Keen's.

I do not understand why Keen’s has changed up its bacon. For years, when going to Keen’s, they would serve you a very thin (but very long) strip of Neuske bacon that was folded into a kind of ribbon shape. It was served with a salad and tomato and drizzled in an oil & vinegar dressing. In other words, it was utterly unique among steakhouses. Lately, they’ve switched it up for the preparation you see above. Three strips, thick cut, but still with the side salad. By switching it up, they are competing more directly with Peter Luger, which serves the best damn bacon I’ve ever had. Why chase that dragon? Why not stick with your own stuff, plant your own flag, and wave it proudly? I was told (off the record) it was because the ribbon preparation was coming out unevenly – in a sense had become too complicated – hence the change.

Apologies for the blur, but I wanted to give you an idea of the thickness of the bacon.

So how is it? Well, look, it’s thick-cut bacon and therefore delicious. It has a density to it, and a wonderful smoke. That said, it’s a touch more mealy compared to Luger’s. Hell I’ll just say it: they should go back to doing it the old way.

But now let me show you why Keen’s is so terrific.

The chateau briand from Keen's. Just look at it.

The chateau briand. I swear this is about the best steak I’ve had in New York. I know, I know – I can hear all the Luger’s loyalists shouting “WHAT??” at the top of their lungs, and I do not blame them, because Peter Luger is excellent in every way and is basically peerless in town. But to them I say: go to Keen’s, and try the chateau. Bonus: Keen’s is a heck of a lot easier to get to than Luger’s.

I’m not sure how we stumbled upon the chateau. I’ve had quite a few different cuts at Keen’s, including their signature mutton. Everything else is fine, a suitable steak, but not (in my opinion) soaring to the levels of Luger’s. The chateau, however, is something different. It is insanely delicious. Let’s take a (slightly) closer look.

Admit it: it's sexy.

Ok, so what you have there is a medium-rare chateau briand from Keen’s. It is prepared for two, although three people can comfortably dine on it. It is cut thick into about five or six slices. Five or six gorgeous slices of awesome. There’s a beautiful, crispy charred bark around parts of the steak. And yet the center is wonderfully pink. Notice all the juices pooling beneath it. Observe the salt rubbed into it.

Look at that color.

It is just beautiful. The salt note doesn’t overwhelm the tender, melt-in-your mouth beef. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say: if you like steak, you will love this.

The flight of sauces that come with your steak.

For some reason I can’t define, Keen’s serves their steak with a trio of sauces. There’s a red wine sauce, an onion sauce and a bearnaise. I know some are very fond of the buttery bearnaise, which adds yet another fat to the flavor, but to me all of these sauces get in the way of the simple, not-too-salty, tender, rich, full, juicy and delicious flavor of the meat.

And ye shall know me by the trail of the dead... .

It is about impossible for two people to finish the chateau. Look at that board… .

We got a side dish of their rich potato home fries. It is served in a kind of disc-like preparation, with a good crispy exterior. It’s very filling. Tradition says get the spinach as well, but we skipped it this time, instead indulging in a far healthier addition: cheesecake.

Cheesecake. Simple, classic, delicious.

It was just right. First of all, it was served at the correct temperature (i.e. not cold). The result is that was soft to cut through but heavy in its flavor. There’s a strong lemon/citrus zest that punches it up. It sits atop a graham cracker crust.

Now, we had all of that food, and two bottles of Willamette pinot noir besides. Some wine snobs insist the Willamette pinots are the best around: ours cost $36 a bottle, which for a steakhouse in NYC is next to nothing. The total meal (including a coffee) rang up at $252.05 – so about $300 after tip.

Like most steakhouses in New York, then, it is not for the faint of wallet. But what a spectacular meal. The chateau is truly something special. If you can find a definitively better steak in town, I want to know about it.

Keen’s Steakhouse

72 West 36th Street
New York, NY 10018
212.947.3636
www.keens.com
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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    February 12, 2014 4:54 am

    Tried the Chateau at Keens on a visit to NYC. a few years ago & still dream of it. Living in Australia, I often eat very good steaks out or get them from my local butcher who knows me like a brother. Needless to say, he gets me some bloody good steaks, especially his sirloins & scotch fillets! But nothing, and I mean NOTHING, comes close to the Chateau at Keens. When I can get back to NYC, it’ll be one of my first meals.

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