Man vs. Beast at Keens Chophouse

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Craig calls from work at 7 o’clock on Friday night and asks me what the plan is.

“How do you feel about mutton?” I ask.

There is a pause. “Mutton?” he replies.

“Yes,” I say. “How do you feel about eating mutton?”

Dating me requires patience, skill and tolerance for outlandish eating ideas. It took me a while to convince Craig that this idea wasn’t quite so outlandish. “Frank Bruni just wrote about the mutton at this place Keen’s Steakhouse a few months ago,” I explain.

“Who’s Frank Bruni?” he asks.

Some people can’t be helped. But alas, after much negotiating, I convince Craig to join me for a meaty mutton meal two blocks north of Macy’s: a ten block journey through the rain. This is our story.

Entering Keens at 9 o’clock on a Friday night is like walking into a parallel universe: David Lynch meets the Cohen brothers by way of Teddy Roosevelt. Take a look for yourself:

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Study that picture for a second and you’ll notice something funny on the ceiling. Now Frank Bruni’s review mentioned that the ceiling was filled with pipes but I took that to mean plumbing pipes. So did Craig for that matter (I briefed him before we arrived.)

“I didn’t realize they were smoking pipes you were talking about,” he said.

I shot a picture overhead after the host led us to our table.

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The menu explains the pipe situation on the back. Keens used to be a pipe-smoking club. And speaking of Teddy Roosevelt, he was a member. So were other VIPs of the day. In the early 20th century a woman sued for admission and she won her case. Keens has a long, fascinating history. It also has free carrots, celery and bleu cheese dip. Plus bread.

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“This place is cool,” says Craig.

A waiter approaches and asks us what we want to drink. Here’s where Craig proves his worth.

“I’ll have a Manhattan,” he says. Could there be a more appropriate drink for a place like this? I bow to his ingenious drink ordering.

“I’ll have one too,” I say.

[Incidentally, I got into an argument with Craig’s best friend and writing partner, Mark, over what goes into a Manhattan. Mark insisted that worcestershire sauce was an ingredient; I insisted it wasn’t. We happened to be at a bar during this debate and so we asked our waitress. She said Mark was right. I bow to his knowledge of what goes into a Manhattan.]

Speaking of Manhattans, here’s Craig with his:

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This picture allows you to observe some of the posters that adorn the walls of Keens Steakhouse. Before it was a steakhouse or a pipe club (I’m getting lots of this history wrong) it was also a theater. The posters behind us, actually, were for Minstrel shows. We found that interesting.

[Also note the octopi on Craig’s shirt. Craig likes octopi.]

To begin the meal, I ordered a classic steakhouse salad of tomatoes, onions and bleu cheese.

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The tomatoes weren’t the freshest I’ve ever tasted, but the onion was nicely de-intensified (was it soaked) and the bleu cheese and vinegar on top helped fuse everything together.

Craig had a Caesar salad. He was happy.

And then they came. The two mutton chops we ordered–for that’s what you order at Keens Chophouse: mutton chops. Their website quotes one of my favorite food writers, Jonathan Gold. He says: ““Keens’s gigantic mutton chop is still a magnificent piece of meat…Some culinary relics are worth holding on to.” And Frank Bruni writes in his review: “The mutton chop at Keens, a 26-ounce saddle of lamb, skirted with fat and nearly two inches tall, can wear whatever label it pleases, because it provides about as much pleasure as a carnivore could want.”

Here’s what Craig had to say as the mutton chop approached our table. “Holy shit.”

This is what was placed down before each of us:

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As one of the commenters wrote of this picture on Flickr: “Damn, that much meat at one time can’t possibly be good for you.”

True, but who says the good things in life have to be good for you? Craig and I immediately begin digging in. The curvy piece you see on the right is almost all pure fat: but crispy and studded with meat. It is heavenly.

As we get closer to the middle bone, the meat gets leaner but no less juicy or flavorful.

“Wow,” says Craig. “This is killer.”

“Yes,” I agree, chewing like a carnivorous dinosaur or Tony Soprano.

There is a perfunctory side of hashbrowns sitting in the middle of the table, but they’re like Lindsay Lohan in a movie with Meryl Streep, Kevin Klein and Lily Tomlin. (“A Prairie Home Companion”: coming soon to a theater near you!)

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Craig and I continue to carve, chew, gnaw and ravish the beast that’s been placed before us. Craig is clearly winning the “get the most meat out of it” game. “I’m a really good carver,” he says. “That’s the one thing I’m good at in the kitchen.”

You can see evidence of this by the little meat that remains on his plate:

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“Ok,” you might be thinking. “I thought he was insane for going to eat mutton on a Friday night with his boyfriend, but now that I’ve read all about it, it sounds like a fun experience. I respect this Amateur Gourmet. He ain’t no fool.”

Oh, I beg to differ. For is it not a fool who eats a 26-oz plate of mutton and then insists on dessert? Because I am that fool. It’s partly the waiters fault. He talked up the bread pudding so I ordered it.

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It tasted excellent but after only one bite I felt like death.

“Have some,” I ordered Craig.

“No way,” he replied. “I’m done for.”

He did, though, join in me in ordering decaf to accompany the bread pudding. I mention this because later in the night, at approximately 2 am, we were still wired and fully awake. The moral of that story is we don’t think they gave us decaf.

How doth we conclude this post of Keens Chophouse? Do we recommend it? Of course we do. If you like meat and historical New York dining establishments, you have no reason not to give Keens a try. Well, there might be one reason not to give Keens a try and it kind of took both Craig and I by surprise: money. I knew the mutton chops were $38 each (yes, I know, you can buy quite a lot for $38: but how often do you get to eat world class mutton chops?) What took us by surprise was how much everything else added up to be. But no matter. It was a memorable night for both of us. And everybody needs a few of those now and then, don’t they? Here’s to more mutton.

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