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Assessing a New York Steakhouse Without Its Steaks
Thursday, July 19, 2018 -- What happens when three New Yorkers go to a Manhattan steakhouse for lunch, forgo the beef and order the famed venue's legendary mutton chop and two seafood dishes?

They pretty much get what they deserve: a mixed bag.

Although our overall experience at the venerable Keens Steakhouse was favorable, one would have hoped for dishes that generated a more enthusiastic response. And given a price of $335 for three--appetizers and entrees, a single shared dessert and just one Cosmo--maybe we should have gone for those dry-aged steaks.

If you're wondering why even the biggest carnivore in our group didn't order steak, blame it on the lure of the mutton, although he swore that the next time he visits he will order steak or prime rib--or even the lamb chops.

Our lunch started with the arrival of exceptionally tasty rolls. As an appetizer, I ordered lobster bisque ($10), a special that was not overly creamy, but filled with large chunks of fresh lobster. It was a bargain, of which there are few on the Keens menu. A companion enjoyed the iced shrimp cocktail ($24) and his wife had a half-dozen oysters ($23). After sampling them, I can say that they are among the best oysters I've ever eaten. Just perfect.

The Keens appetizers, which range from $12.50 to $56, include traditional favorites such as Little Neck clams on the half shell; Maryland lump crab cakes; Caesar salad; Iceberg lettuce wedges with blue cheese; and lump-crab cocktail. That $56 menu item--a chilled seafood tray with oysters, clams, lobster and shrimp--is a good choice for a group of diners.

Now onto that supposed "mutton" chop. Keens has sold more than a million since as far back as 1935 and has become, as The New York Times noted, "the upscale McDonald's of mutton." But these days, it's more marketing than mutton. The Keens "mutton" chop is actually lamb because the restaurant switched years ago when quality sheep meat became less readily available.

Beguiled by the allure of the restaurant's signature dish, one of our party ordered the $60-a-portion entree. He found it to be too fatty for his taste and he wasn't thrilled by the texture, either. He also complained that the portion was frugal, if not miserly, given the eye-watering price. I tasted a piece and agreed that it was fatty and grisly.

I'd been salivating for the Keens pan-seared arctic char--at $31, the least expensive fish entrée--but I was less than thrilled with the actual dish. In case you're unfamiliar with arctic char, it somewhat resembles salmon in color and texture with a taste that's somewhere between salmon and trout.

My friend's wife selected the Dover sole, the most expensive ($53) fish on the menu. She judged it "amazing," though it, too, was deemed a frugal portion. I sampled the sole and it was good--but I've certainly had better in London restaurants that I've frequented during my business travels.

The dry-aged, Prime-only steaks for which Keens is known are priced from $27 to $154 (for two or three diners sharing). The selection includes the expected: porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin, chateaubriand, filet mignon and prime rib. If you favor lobster, pick from a selection of live, two- to six-pounders from the Keens fish tank. Prices vary by market conditions.

Sides include a variety of vegetables. We enjoyed roasted broccoli and cauliflower ($13); spinach (creamed or sautéed), $13; and sautéed field mushrooms ($14). They were excellent, cooked perfectly and we considered them a good value. Potatoes, classic steakhouse sides, are priced at $9.50 to $11.

Keens desserts ($9 to $16) also are decidedly classic: New York cheesecake; Key Lime pie; crème brulee; chocolate mousse; bananas foster; sundaes, ice cream and sorbets. We sampled a piece of the $12 Family Carrot Cake, which was delicious and lived up to the waiter's recommendation.

Unsurprisingly for a restaurant that traces its history to 1885, the Keens menu skews to the traditional. As with the mutton chop, more than a few items have been on offer for decades. Knowing what you'll get is part of the appeal. There is also an ambitious wine list, notable for its variety as well as the prices, and a selection of cognacs. The Keens bar serves a highly regarded range of single-malt scotch.

The wait staff is friendly and well-informed. Service didn't suffer even with a crowd and was always at hand as needed. The service team includes men and women, laudable because the overtly masculine, clubby atmosphere is one where tradition dictated male-only waiters. The multiple dining rooms have low ceilings adorned with a famous collection of churchwarden pipes. Walls are paneled with dark woods, the lighting is low and the feeling is characteristic of many old-line steakhouses.

Reservations are suggested for the dining room, but there is a separate pub with its own menu and first-come, first-served seating.

Located on West 36th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Keens advertises itself as "the only survivor of the Herald Square Theatre District." These days, the neighborhood is part of the rapidly gentrifying Midtown West district between Pennsylvania Station and Times Square. West 36th Street has become its own little hotel ghetto. On the corner of Fifth Avenue is the deluxe Langham Hotel and its acclaimed restaurant Ai Fiori. Lining the street heading toward Sixth are a Hyatt Place, a Holiday Inn Express, a Best Western Premier and an independent called Le Soleil.

By the way, if you're in Manhattan in the next month, New York's Restaurant Week begins on July 23 and runs through August 17. Hundreds of the city's best--and priciest--dining rooms offer a two-course lunch for $26 and a three-course dinner for $42. Unfortunately, Keens isn't participating.

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.