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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.