High noon, Brooklyn. Williamsburg Bridge. South side. Broadway. The streets are quiet. An empty plastic bag rustles by. The breeze brings with it that unmistakably delectable waft of...sizzling beef fat. I imagine this must always be the case on this street. Whether it means to or not, Broadway is Brooklyn's Beef Block, a divine bovine response to Manhattan's Museum Mile.
On one corner, weighing in at “family members have been personally choosing its USDA Prime porterhouses each day since 1887...and they take only cash or their in-house credit card” was Peter Luger – the only beef joint I could get anyone to talk about for the last 3 years, be they New Yorkers, Londoners or Singaporeans.
On the other corner, weighing in at “they take whole carcasses – a Volkswagon's worth of organic grass-fed beef – and each week divvy all of it up between their 3 restaurants and butcher store... and make up the menu daily depending on what's in season at local organic producers” were (relative) newcomers Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow, who owned Diner, Marlow & Sons, and Marlow & Daughters, all on the same street.
Perhaps it was time for a high-steaks duel.
The Peter Luger dining room had the air of a training gym when Babs and I went last week. Next to our table, a Chinese family, a Filipino family and 2 tough looking Russians in track suits and sneakers all had brows furrowed with quiet concentration. A few were showing a shimmery hint of sweat. Their common sport: chewing.
We had picked a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge as our appetizer / warm up, so swung straight for the porterhouse for 2, with creamed spinach and fries on the side.
I was revving up my skepticism. “USDA Prime” is apparently largely based on the quality of fat marbling on the steer, rather than what it's fed or how it's raised. The US industry standard these days, apparently, is to house cows jammed shoulder to shoulder, knee deep in their own poo, chewing and on too much corn and soybeans and developing nasty stomachaches, since it's unnatural food for them, but is apparently great for building up restaurant-friendly marbling quickly. Cue routine doses of anti-biotics and medication as a result. If Peter Luger was using a less industrially-raised type of beef, they sure weren't telling anyone about it on their website.
The dilemma was, this is the crème de la crème of the kind of beef my generation grew up on. So it took just one bite to hit all the neural transmitters. The juicy pink chunk tasted as creamy as its hue looked, with good resistance as well as yield to the tooth. We were sitting down but I still felt my knees buckle.
I was looking forward to seeing what kind of fight young turk chef Sean Rembold across the street would put up.
After an afternoon expedition to Coney Island as a palate cleanser, Babs and I rocked up to Diner just as the dinner shift started. The bartender was still furiously scribbling the specials of the day. A crazy-haired lady dining alone in a booth behind us was poring over a book on chicken pot pies, and the 1961 edition of the The New York Times Cook Book. Good omens.
I opened with the in-season rhubarb-based cocktail, and followed with the slow cooked beef shank with grits, broth, and scallions. It came with a knife, a fork, and a spoon. I ended up not even needing the first 2. The shank simply fell away into meat tendrils at a touch. The rich broth infused the humble grits with a personality trust fund.
This was a new bench mark in comfort food – almost convalescent. Then the peppery green scallions, slicing through the natural grease of the meat, would snap one out of one's gently descending stupor. I sighed with contentment as I pushed back the empty plate, still warm.
My brother was already texting from Boston, demanding to know who was the Baron 'o' Beef on Broadway. I was delighted to tell him to try both on his next trip to New York. And don't forget to suck down some local oysters at Marlow & Sons.
Cop out, he replied.
Possibly. But why force a choice? Is there really a good answer to "which is the Ace of Art", between the Met and the Guggenheim? The beauty of New York was that this town -- even when it's the same street -- is big enough for both.