The king is dead. Long live the king: Peter Luger is no longer the best steakhouse in Brooklyn.
That stunning piece of news was ushered into 2009 on a gorgeously charred, deliciously marbled, gloriously juicy bone-in rib-eye steak served to me at the new Morton’s the Steakhouse, which opened last month on Adams Street in Downtown.
Though Peter Luger has been a steak-lover’s paradise for more than 100 years — and has remained Mr. Zagat’s favorite steakhouse in the city for most of the thin red duke’s history — it needs to be said, and said loudly: Peter Luger is an over-rated, obnoxious, pompous, unsatisfying, overpriced and underwhelming restaurant that serves a single, well-prepared dish.
By comparison, Morton’s is a full-service restaurant. Yes, Peter Luger is the true steakhouse. But I do not spend $100 to eat. I spend it to be treated well in a restaurant.
The central conceit of this story was a meat-lover’s dream: to eat consecutive steak dinners at Peter Luger and Morton’s and write to tell about it. My meal at Morton’s made the job of eating enjoyable. My experience at Peter Luger made the job of writing easy.
Despite a reservation, I arrived to find the dining room closed and was offered no explanation for the 20-minute delay. Expecting customer service at Peter Luger is like expecting beef curry at an Indian restaurant. Menu offerings are discussed joylessly. Food is slapped down, diner-style.
And then it dawns on you: Being a customer at Peter Luger is like being an extra on a Hollywood movie set. Your presence is necessary, of course, but it entirely incidental to the main action.
Indeed, the primary customer at Peter Luger is the painstaking cultivation of the steakhouse’s decades-old mystique, the notion of the steakhouse as an unbending taskmaster, a place where any smiles, common courtesies, any chit-chat or, indeed, any other palatable menu offerings besides porterhouse steak would reveal that the restaurant is, in fact, not the carnivorous caretaker it purports to be.
In other words, pay no attention to that porterhouse behind the curtain. It’s the best you’ve ever had. So shut up and pay — oh, and it’s cash only, if you please.
And then there is the steak itself.
The amount of obsequious ink that has been spilled over Peter Luger’s mouth-watering porterhouse could fill the Library of Congress, some of it dripping from my very own pen in year’s past.
Yes, the porterhouse ($85, serves two) remains a thing of beauty. It arrives on a still-sizzling platter, its outer crust charred just enough to give a salty contrast to the juiciness inside.
But the softness of the meat reveals Peter Luger’s essential failure: the meat is missing an essential beefiness. Each bite releases a pleasing mouthful of rich juice, but only the faintest taste of steak.
A Peter Luger porterhouse is a meat pillow, the equivalent of the softest down comforter in the ritziest hotel in a city of which you have grown exceedingly bored.
Yes, the dining room at Morton’s does resemble the generic restaurant you’d find in that same dull city, but on every other standard that matters — smoothness of service, breadth of menu, quality of food, size of portions, enthusiasm of staff, beefiness of the beef — Morton’s is clearly the better restaurant.
I started my meal with something that would be unthinkable at Peter Luger: appetizers. At Morton’s, there are close to a dozen first courses: the delightful oysters Rockefeller, with the briny mollusk covered in buttery spinach; chunky crab cakes; the so-called “colossal shrimp Alexander,” which lives up to its name (and would be even more accurately dubbed “delicious, juicy, tender colossal shrimp Alexander”); and bacon-wrapped scallops, which tasted a bit too much of bacon and a bit too little of scallop, but were enjoyable nonetheless.
I took a brief sojourn through Saladland not just because I could — unlike Peter Luger, Morton’s offers actual fresh, crisp greens — but because the Caesar-styled “Morton salad” offered a nice palate-cleanser for the lipo-fest to come.
And what a fest it was.
The porterhouse is by no means a featherbed of meat, but it is beefy and chewy like a great steak should be. Better still was the restaurant’s signature cut, a bone-in, Chicago-style rib-eye. Thicker and richer than the porterhouse, this Flintstone-sized chop is the gift that keeps on giving. Bite after bite, it barely seems to get smaller.
Best of all, unlike at Peter Luger, every bite of the Morton’s steaks remind you that you are eating a steak, which should be the least thing to expect when you’re shelling out so much money for a meal.
Even the side dishes — including a better version of Peter Luger’s one nod to vegetables, creamed spinach — show care that is absent at the Williamsburg steakhouse. And the desserts are far superior, too.
At meal’s end, my conclusion wrote itself: Morton’s is the better restaurant. Yet I remain unsatisfied with the realization that no amount of negative reviews will destroy the Luger hegemony. It will, no doubt, continue for decades, fueled mostly by hype and history — two things that a chain restaurant, no matter how great, can’t overpower in just a month.
339 Adams St., between Willoughby and Tillary streets in Downtown, (718) 596-2700.
Lunch: Mon–Fri, 11:30 am–2:30 pm
Dinner: Mon–Sat, 5–11 pm.
Recommended appetizers: Colossal shrimp Alexander ($19), Oysters Rockefeller ($16), Morton’s salad ($10.50).
Recommended entrees: Rib-eye steak ($51.50), porterhouse ($53.50).
Recommended desserts: Legendary hot chocolate cake, carrot cake.
Specials: “Power Hours” at Bar 12-21 with happy hour drinks and mini burgers and steak sandwiches, Mon–Fri, 5–6:30 pm and 9:30–11 pm.
Credit cards: Amex, Discover, MC, VISA and Diners Club.