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Mixed Feelings On My First Dinner at Keens

After reading dozens of rave reviews for legendary chophouse Keens here on Chowhound and just about everywhere else, I decided it was time to set aside a couple of Ben Franks and make a reservation. Table for two, please, six o'clock -- bring on the porterhouse!

But before a single bite of Keens' celebrated (if not sacred) cow found its way to my anxious tastebuds, the restaurant worked upon my other senses; in particular, my sense of hearing, my sense of comfort, and my sense of style.

Not mentioned in any of the aforementioned reviews I've read is the fact that the restaurant is shout-to-your-dinner-guest LOUD. The noise inside the restaurant actually seemed greater in volume than the busy city street just beyond the door. "What's that ya say: they have Baby Ruth tripe..?? Oh, that's Babe Ruth's pipe -- sorry, couldn't hear you!"

Now, I don't always mind a noisy environment when dining: people are enjoying themselves, carrying on conversations with friends and family, perhaps there are celebrations of different sorts going on. I understand. But the crowd at Keens? Packed to the gills with suits, suits, and more suits. All lawyers and businessmen. Lots of bloated, over-fed white guys (with all due respect to bloated, over-fed white guys). The tiny table my guest and I occupied was sandwiched between a pair of sweaty lawyers loudly arguing the merits of a case, and a pair of pudgy business stiffs sucking down a massive tray of oysters while riffing about investments and the next big deal at ample volume.

Maybe it was the hour: a six o'clock reservation is sure to encounter many just-outta-work business types; perhaps any future reservation should be made for a later hour, to see if the crowd dynamic changes at all.

The design and decor of the restaurant, it must be said, is something of a testosterone-drenched curio cabinet: the antique churchwarden pipes, the buxom naked lady hanging over the bar, the vintage Guiness adverts, the stately Bradyesque black and white photographs of staid looking fellows in Gilded Age attire, the dark wood paneling, the hockey game on the telly above the bar -- even the trivia about the Civil War, Batman, and the NY Rangers on the chalkboard behind the bar. If it were a Spanish restaurant, it would be EL Keens. If German, DER Keens. In the words of my dinner guest: "this is definitely a guy's place."

Don't get me wrong: all of these elements come together to offer a warm and inviting interior that's exactly what a good old-fashioned steakhouse should be: a masculine temple of red-blooded red meat eating. In dining here, however, I've come to learn I might prefer something a little more "new-fashioned." But that's just me: I know people adore Keens for its ambiance as much as the meat, and I hope for them it never changes.

On to the dinner!

At the behest of many a Keens' loyalist, my guest and I ordered the famous Porterhouse for Two, medium-rare. For sides we each got a baked potato, and we shared an order of creamed spinach. No appetizer.

Before any of that arrived, however, we were given the customary basket of rolls and a dish of iced carrots and celery with a side of blue cheese dressing. A nice start: the rolls were actually quite excellent, with a great crust and chewey middle, and the crisp carrots and celery were a light and refreshing way to prepare for the gluttonous amount of steak to come.

And then, the steak (and the much anticipated moment of truth, as it were). Arriving just a few degrees shy of being truly medium rare, the grand slab of pink porterhouse made quite an impression. Carved into 10 or so giant medallions, with a towering porterhouse bone looming over them as a decorative piece, my dinner guest and I looked at each other with big silly grins, and dug in with the gusto of kids eating birthday ice cream cake.

True to the legend, the porterhouse was amazing: as succulent as it was tender, as deeply flavored as it was thick, as satisfying as it was expen$ive.

And yet.....

Perhaps I'm just a lousy excuse for a carnivore. The meat was delicious, no question: but so good as to be the very best money can buy (outside of Kobe beef)? I honestly can't say. I've had steaks that were cooked at home that I've enjoyed just as much, and I've had similarly spectacular steaks for far less than half the price (granted, this steak was for two). It could be that the past decade I've largely spent eating ethnic food (Thai, Indian, Korean, etc.) has diminished my appreciation for straight-foward steak. Who knows. It was still wonderful.. just not.. you know: MON DIEU -- KEENS!!!

As for the baked potatoes and creamed spinach: the potatoes were.. well, baked. Average size, average quality. Nothing marvelous going on here (for the record, they were fine -- I wasn't expecting an extraordinary baked potato). The creamed spinach was special: any redeeming healthful qualities of spinach were lost in a sea of creamy, salty goodness -- just the way it should be.

As for that towering, decorative porterhouse bone: seeing that the thing still had hunks of meat clinging to it, I carved into it and nearly brought the meat I'd just cut for myself to my mouth. I stopped myself when I noticed: the smell. Yowzah! Is "gamey" the right word for it? Could be. But "stinky" is the word that instantly came to mind, if truth be told. The meat on the bone had a whoooole different funk to it; it was a powerful, beastly smell. I opted out of actually ingesting the stinky meat, and instead decided to ask the waitress about it. According to her, the dry-aging process makes the meat directly next to the bone "more flavorful." Perhaps I'd agree with her had I the courage to actually put the stinky meat in my mouth, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Has anyone else experienced stinky dry-aged bone meat? And have you eaten it? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

So would I return to Keens? Would I be willing to spend another $160 on a basic (in its parts, not quality) steakhouse dinner for two? Should I ever have another hankering for chophouse nostalgia, I think Keens would be a good choice. But I might try Luger's first, and I don't see that happening for a long time. Now bring on the pad woon sen!

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  1. Good review...:)

    I agree on most points. It's a decent place but I've never come away thinking WOW/AWESOME/WORLDS BEST DINNER EVER etc etc...I've felt like that with every steakhouse I've been to...I'm like, yeah well, steak...done straight up...no biggie...I've come to avoid paying thru the nose for an experience I can easily recreate at home at a fraction of the cost by going to a decent butcher...

    2 Replies
    1. re: Scotty100

      Yes - excellent review - thank you! It is on my "NY places to try list".

      1. re: Scotty100

        "Gamey" is exactly how I would describe it. We went back in the fall--a much anticipated visit. I left with many of the same thoughts. I liked the atmosphere and knew what to expect...but....that....strange smell and taste...yep....won't forget that!

      2. what a wonderful review. jfood's first visit was a few months ago and he was fortunate to sit against the wall in the back so the noise level was OK for him way back there, something to consider next time.. Oysters were the highlight of the meal since the PH was perfect on filet side and one big piece of fat and grizzle on the strip side. Jfood would have starded gamey for not fully edible.

        Keep those reviews coming.

        1. Don't give up on Luger's based on your visit to Keens. Get the bacon as an appetizer. You'll love the creamed spinich. And the bone is not gamey. But if you want rare (red/dark pink) you better ask for it that way. Don't ask for medium rare which tends to the light pink.

          1. Try Lugers. Unless you hit an off night (which is getting more possible than years ago) you won't be sorry.

            I've been reluctant to splurge on Keens, because neither my arteries nor my wallet allow too many steak-specific outings. There's been a lot of love expressed for Keens on this website, but it seems to be in the "long time fan" mode. Based on this review I'll stick with Lugers, Wolfgangs and (yep) Gotham Bar for steak.

            1 Reply
            1. re: addictedtolunch

              OP: great review :)

              atl, i hear you. but do give crafsteak a try. i like the non-aged steaks better than keens or lugers (i don't generally order aged steaks, so i can't speak to those). as added benefit, the suits are present in fewer numbers -- or are better disguised -- at craftsteak.

            2. That "stink" is from the aging ( usually 21 days). To me the best steaks in NYC should vaguely smell like cheese. The funkiest, in my opinion, are Luger's, Keen's and Smith & Wollensky. The bone does seem to retain the most smell, though I am not sure why. All I know is that I gnaw on it till its bare.

              1. the 6pm timeslot definitely brings out the suits and business people. i sort of avoid keens at those times. i usually go on the weekends when its much quieter.

                i order a glass of lagavulin 25yr distiller's edition, steak tartare from the bar menu, porterhouse for two, and a creme brulee and espresso and im in heaven...gluttonous heaven.

                meat-wise...only luger's has a better steak in my opinion.

                3 Replies
                1. re: sam1

                  We're planning to have dinner at Keens next Saturday night and hope to eat in the pub- the restaurant is booked. and the pub prices are quite reasonable. Any tips as to the best time to arrive to snag a couple of seats at the bar, or even better a table or a booth for 2? What do you think of the prime rib?

                  1. re: ginnyhw

                    Generally you can get a seat in the pub before seven PM. The Bar is usually really crowded by 5:30, though Saturday is probably different. Also, I am not sure, but I think they take reservations in the Pub Room on Friday and Saturday, so I would call and make sure they have space.

                    The prime rib is very good, though it does not stand out from others in the city. If you want to have their signature dish, have the Mutton Chop (its really a double cut lamb porter-house). It is served in a nice jus, w/ excellent braised escarole.

                    1. re: tbear

                      Thanks for the advise. We did call and were put on a list for 6:45 Sat eve so went around 6 and bar wasn't crowded plus they were expecting us. It was the highlight of the weekend. Their whiskey list is excellent - we had a high end Jamison and Old Grandad, which i never see any more in Boston. The pub menu was perfect and the beef was superb. There may be equivalent prime rib in the city but I was very pleased with Keen's. Plus the pub portions and prices were perfect for us.

                2. You want my honest opinion, based on your review, perhaps you just aren't a steakhouse person. Nothing wrong with that, but some people dont understand the fuss surrounding a dry aged prime steak just like some people can't tell the difference between haru and Sushi Yasuda.

                  And I'm no longer convinced Luger's is the best steak in NY. The last two times i was there it was merely good certainly not ridiculous outstanding as it has been in my past.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ESNY

                    I appreciate your honest opinion, ESNY, and you know, I think you're right: I love a good steak, but "the great steakhouse experience" may be a bit lost on me -- I'm much more at home in an ethnic hole-in-the-wall.

                    But I AM interested in understanding the "fuss surrounding a dry aged prime steak" -- so long as the strange funk (on the meat directly next to the bone) doesn't always accompany it. I don't know that I'll ever acquire a taste for that.

                  2. The bone from Keens is amazing! You really missed out. As a steak afficionado I can openly admit that I have gnawed on many steak bones. To me the meat is always to best right off the bone. Luger's [porterhouse and Keens porterhouse are both great bones to suck the meat off of!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ahhhh im hungry

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: steakrules85

                      Really? But what about that deep animal funk..?? You really enjoy that? Well, to each their own: I don't mean to suggest you're wrong or weird for liking it -- it was just so unappetizing to me, I have a hard time understanding how it could be perceived as "amazing." Is the bone at Luger's like that, too? Or on any dry-aged steak? Having grown up on regular ol' supermarket steak, the really good dry-aged stuff may take a while to fully appreciate. A mission I'm happy to undertake, of course..

                      1. re: sanangel

                        Like steakrules85, I really love the meat at the bone, esp. the dry aged steak. It has a nuanced flavor, a dimenion that you can get with steaks that aren't dry-aged. I think that's what you referred as the awful taste, but to me, it is great.

                        I don't think there is anything wrong about not liking the taste. Using the sushi analogy by ESNY, I have seen plenty of people who just can't accept the taste of uni or ikura, no matter how fresh they are. To me, uni and ikura are must have in a sushi place. So it is simply personal preference. You just happen to not like dry-aged steaks.

                        That said, it is not Keen's problem that you don't like the steak. So I won't blame the restaurant for that.

                    2. The one time I went to Keens, we ate upstairs, which was quiet compared to what you described. Something to consider for others who have trepidation re: the noise.