My recent journey of discovery led me to old New York elegance and sophistication, and the renowned mutton chop at Keens Steakhouse.
Keens Steakhouse is one of the most legendary in NYC, having been a meaty Mecca since as far back as 1885. Whilst the style and sophistication of old New York may be gone, you may still dine in Keens’ former splendour. No restaurant pays the kind of lavish and somewhat kooky homage to the past that Keens does. The steakhouse owns the largest collection of churchwarden pipes in the world. Just looking towards the ceilings of the different dining rooms, which are spread over two floors, and behold row upon row of clay pipes. There are said to be as many as 50 000 of them, the property of Keens customers who, in tobacco-friendlier times, stowed (a 17th century Merrie Old England tradition) and used them in the restaurant. The membership register of the pipe club included over ninety thousand names, including those of Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Keens is a treasure, not only of protein, but also of memorabilia. Its dark-panelled walls display vintage photographs, satirical political cartoons and historical playbills.
We started off our evening with a powerful, direct wine, the Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from Napa Valley. This Bordeaux-style blend has bouquets of clove, cinnamon and dark chocolate and seductive tastes of black cherry, currant and dried cranberry. This winery was established in 1886 and celebrated 125 years in the Napa Valley – a true legend.Legend has it that actress Lillie Langtry made headlines in 1905 when she took Keens to court for denying her entrance to the old school tradition of gentlemen-only premises. She won her case, swept into Keens in her feathered boa and ordered one of their famous mutton chops! Today one of the four banquet rooms is named after her.
We were served a vegetable crudité with olives, celery, carrots, giant pickles and a blue cheese dip – truly remarkable, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. This is the first time I was served raw vegetables as a complimentary starter in a steakhouse – a tad on the peculiar side. Don’t expect to be served an amuse bouche, nope. This place is all about artery-clogging huge portions of meat, not suitable for any vegetarians or vegans.
The most quirky item on the menu is definitely the legendary mutton chop, a serious Flintstone-sized portion of just over 700g. It came with some mint jelly supposed to offset some of the gaminess. Hardly anybody even knows what mutton is anymore. Mutton is the meat of sheep, whilst lamb is its immature form. The flavour of mutton is more powerful, more pungent and more robust than lamb and the Keen’s chop is top class.
This gigantic mutton chop is a magnificent piece of meat, edged on each side by flaps of meat whose shape leaves no doubt where the term “mutton chop” sideburns comes from. Slicing through it, you will find a rich redness bleeding from the middle. Tender and delicious. Perfectly described by James Beard in 1950, “Its essential muttony flavor puts everyday chops momentarily in the pale.”Still on a quest to find the perfect crab cake we opted to try out their crab cakes. Pleasantly surprised with no fuss, no flavour disguise, heavy on crab and light on filler. Maryland style crab cakes are renowned for being the "best" way to prepare crab cakes! More "crab", less "cake"! I was satisfied, unbeatable indeed.
While my partner slaved away on his mutton chop, I opted for a 200g prime fillet mignon with béarnaise sauce and hand-cut fries. The fillet tastes very different to a South Africa cut fillet. That said, it melted in the mouth and was cooked to perfection. The classic French béarnaise sauce was creamy, buttery rich and just as it should be – very indulgent and the perfect complement to any roast meat! With no space for dessert, we left this timeless urban gem that has survived for generations, outliving trends, critics, wars and even prohibition feeling satisfied and somewhat nostalgic. This is as old school as it gets, and that's a good thing.