Monday, March 5, 2012

Drinking and dining and drinking in NYC

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Keens Steakhouse: Olde. School.
  • keens.com
  • Keens Steakhouse: Olde. School.
This past weekend, on a jaunt to Manhattan to celebrate the wife's latest round-numbered birthday, we sampled a bit of the new and the old — mostly the old — and found nearly everything more agreeable than we'd expected.

I don't eat steak all that often, but I've got a thing about old-school steakhouses. It's really more about enjoying the atmosphere and the memorabilia on display. If the food is decent, then all the better. And in New York, you don't get much more old-school than Keens Steakhouse, opened in 1885 just north of Herald Square. I've wanted to eat at Keens since first seeing a photo of the dining room, with walls covered with old photos and handbills, and thousands of ancient clay pipes hanging from the ceiling. But, after checking out the very New Yorkish prices, I became concerned about the prospect of paying a small fortune for mediocre food.

We arrive customarily early and wedge ourselves into the crowded bar, which — first good sign — boasts an impressive display of dozens of bottles of obscure Scotches and other spirits. Spotting a brand of rye I'd not seen before, one WhistlePig from Vermont, I asked the bartender how much it was. He couldn't recall but offered to look it up.

"Don't go to that much trouble," I said. "I'll take it in a Manhattan — unless it's, like, $40 a shot."

Famous last words.

The Manhattan was tasty and robust. So was my wife's Old Fashioned, made with her standard Maker's Mark. When I settled up before heading into the dining room, I found out I'd quaffed a $24 cocktail — a dubious high-water mark for me, so to speak.

I'm not a proper food critic, so I won't into great detail about the meal. Actually, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say I found no weak spots. Crab cakes were seared crunchy on the outside, but otherwise melt-in-your-mouth. Our filets were cooked exactly as we'd ordered them. The creamed spinach was fresh. The cheesecake was flavorful and much lighter than expected.

In short, the meal — followed by a snifter of Tamnavulin, just to put our third sheet firmly into the wind — justified its price tag and bolstered my adage: If it was good enough for Teddy Roosevelt, it's good enough for me.

The following night, we taxi'd down to the East Village to try a gastropub recommended by two separate Atlanta cocktail enthusiasts we know. Named for Charles Darwin's ship, The Beagle opened only this past May and is quite small, but apparently has already earned a sizable reputation.

One reason could be its celebrated pairing boards. The woman got the Pork Belly and Rye, a bite each of fatty pork and cornbread, accompanied by a Perfect Manhattan served in an adorably tiny glass. I ordered some kind of tasty croquette (I can't remember the name and it's no longer on the menu) paired with a house-made ale, which I handed over to the wife. She also got the Frito pie — a chewy, crunchy mess of tangy goodness in a bowl — and the Lamby Onion Soup, a take on the French variety, topped with Gruyere and flavored with young mutton. I had the light, citrus-y Peekytoe Crab salad with radicchio and hazelnuts, followed by braised pork with applesauce.

All quite nice, but the real news here are the drinks. Here, The Beagle seems to be on the leading edge of the mixology trend for using wine and beer as cocktail ingredients. Granted, this practice dates back to Champagne cocktails, but the more progressive bars have lately been finding new ways of integrating grapes and hops into booze.

That said, I'm not a huge fan of wine or beer flavors, so the most adventurous I got was ordering the Pompador, a blend of Rhum Agricole from Martinique; Pineau des Charentes, an almost-brandy made from cognac eau-de-vie; and lemon juice. I recall it being perhaps a tad too rummy. Next was an Aircraft Carrier, a variation on the classic Aviation using with a "Navy-strength" gin The Beagle orders from a Brooklyn distiller.

The restaurant itself was cozy and charming, laid out like a small Parisian bistro, with 19th century-style typeface and graphics, and cute waitresses dressed all funky-nerd hipster. The bar was backed with gleaming white subway tile and on the top shelf sat a couple of bottles you don't usually see: Havana Club, a popular brand of Cuban rum not available in the U.S.; and Brennivin, aka "Black Death," a caraway-flavored akvavit I've never seen outside Reykjavik. The barmaid told me those beverages were there for the owner's exclusive use and are not for sale at any price (possibly because doing so might be illegal).

The Beagle was fairly pricey, but quite pleasant and in-crowd-y, making us both smugly scenester-ish. That feeling wore off, however, when we were turned away in quick succession from both PDT, the famed speakeasy entered through an unassuming wiener joint, and Death & Co., another pre-prohibition-style hootch palace. Oh, well.

Other places visited during our brief weekend getaway: The Campbell Apartment, perhaps the most magnificent drinking space in these United States, tucked into a corner of Grand Central Station; McSorley's Old Ale House, a Gangs of New York-era pub with some odd beer-ordering rules; and Cafe Sabarsky, a lunchroom in the Neue Galerie designed to look like a Secession-era Viennese coffeehouse that is my wife's favorite place in New York.

In conclusion, I should point out that I wore a blazer and tie on the dinner outings, partly so there would be no chance of running afoul a dress policy, but mainly because when one dines at a nice restaurant, one should dress appropriately to get into the spirit of things and to show respect for the establishment and one's fellow diners. For our other stops, I wore a sweater under a Chesterfield coat and a tasteful pair of dungarees so I wouldn't be out of place in a Tribeca boutique. Things worked out, mostly.

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