Keens Steakhouse: Dead Presidents and Burlap Britches
This week, we are taking a class trip to Colonial Restaurantburg, and Frank is going to be our informative yet distractingly-attired docent.
Frank: And so Eli Whitney’s cotton gin revolutionized industry as we know it. Any questions?
Small child: Sir?…this is just really inappropriate…
“There’s a secret to the surprising mellowness of the "legendary mutton chop" at Keens Steakhouse, a restaurant long synonymous with that gargantuan slab of meat. (The menu announces it with a verbal trumpet blast.)”
Artist’s rendition...OK, Idiot's rendition.
But the following paragraph needs no artistry. It is the equivalent of a man getting hit in the face by his own boomerang or a bride catching on fire in America’s Funniest Home Videos: it's pretty hilaire, au natural.
“Nix the trumpet and commence a drum roll: it is lamb. The mutton lore is a mutton lie. For at least two decades and perhaps many more, the legendary mutton chop has indeed been a matter of legend. The following sentence is inevitable, as is the one on its tail. Diners have had the wool pulled over their eyes...”
Wait for it...wait for it...
“But they haven't been fleeced.”
At this point, dexterous reader, you will dislodge yourself from the noose that you, albeit resourcefully, fashioned out of your flannel pajamas. Yes, it was a little painful, but talk about historic: you just witnessed the officially most pun-intensive, word-play-laden Brunism of all time. That puts you in the pantheon of people that heard Pavarotti at La Scala in 1972, sat behind the goal when the Rangers took the Stanley Cup in 1994, or watched David Lee Roth get his “fruit cup” stuck between his guitar strings during the filming of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” video. And it just gets wackier.
1980’s, man, not a comfortable time for balls.
“No restaurant in New York City pays the kind of lavish, often kooky, sometimes even touching tribute to the past that Keens does.”
Lavish, kooky and touching? Soooo…a gilt-copper statue of Carrot Top in an Oscar de la Renta wedding gown pulling a copy of Schindler’s List out of his prop bag?
“Keens had what it called a pipe club, with members including Babe Ruth and Theodore Roosevelt. Even after smoking in restaurants went the way of absinthe, Keens inducted honorary members into the club, famous customers as diverse as Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Renee Richards, Liza Minnelli and Stephen King.”
Q: Hey, what do you get when you put Dr. Ruth, Liza Minelli and Stephen King in a pipe room?
A: Something terrifying and perverted.
“There are pipes bearing their signatures in a glass case beside the main entrance.”
This one’s handy ‘cause you can also barf Rum into it.
Keens turns out to be a little like TGI Friday’s, stuffed to the gills with “flare” that is somewhat more significant than your average anonymous sports pennant or fake antique doll:
“On a poignant note, in a room often used for private dining, Keen has what it identifies as the theatrical program that Abraham Lincoln was holding when he was shot.”
You can enjoy this Bloody Pequot while admiring a pewter urn full of Aaron Burr’s diahhrea on the mantle!
But wait! It gets even funnier!
“On a humorous note, in the main vestibule, it has what it identifies as "dinosaur sirloin," supposedly a fossil from the Red Rocks area of Utah. It looks like reddish-brown marble, and a sign with it says that in the opinion of Keens, it has not yet been aged long enough to be cooked.”
Then the restaurant pulls a quarter out from behind your ears, tells you about walking to school in 1937 and makes a doodie all with a fork Fixadented to the side of its face.
“It proved itself to be not only one of the city's most charming and diverting theaters for testosterone cuisine but also one of its most reliable.”
You know, reliability really is key in a testosterone theater. My personal fave, the Ram-Rod Shak just outside Newark, is really a coin-toss most nights.
Neeeeeever know when you're gonna get the experimental BELGIAN guy.
“Keens is mischievous like that. Cue the mutton.”
And now Docent Frank really whips out the history lesson:
“Keens began with real mutton, which is often defined in this country as sheep of about a year or more in age. In 1935, the restaurant reached and publicly celebrated a milestone: one million mutton chops served. Apparently, Keens was an early, upscale McDonald's of mutton.”
Anybody who counts stuff and publicizes it is a McDonalds. That’s why China is the McDonald’s of Female Babies.
“9 Billion Served to the Silent Tide of the Yangtze!” j.k., guys, don’t come after me.
“World War II came. Deprived Americans ate more mutton than they wanted, and as it later fell farther and farther out of fashion, getting fresh mutton of reliable quality became iffy. At some point Keens had to turn to lamb, choosing a cut with a winged shape that mimicked the mutton chop of yore.”
YAMMA YAMMA BLAH BLAH BLAH through the 1980’s and to the present. See, here’s where, like a middle-school dork, I desperately feign making fun of Teacher, yet I actually enjoy his mutton lesson. To question whether it belongs in a Times review is to rearrange deck chairs in the Hindenburg viewing basket.
“Um, that's my seat, I believe I said ‘fives’”
Nevertheless, being cool is more important than genuinely engaging your interests. So I feel I should defensively deride him while hiding my true love for non-fiction culinary history. (read this next part with a “headgear lisp”) WHAT’S NEXT, FRANK?? A HISTORY OF LETTUCE STARTING AT THE FIRST NUCLEAR SUPERNOVA??? HAHAHAHA OR LIKE, A HISTORY OF VOUVRAY STARTING AT THE PLEISTOCENE ERA?? WHATEVER.
Frank lands his Hindenburg where he left off originally, with mutton, safely bypassing many other things about the restaurant's food. “That doesn't make it mutton, but it does seem to give it a more robust taste, like lamb with an exponent, lamb on steroids. Call it near-mutton. Call it extreme lamb. Go ahead and call it legendary. In more ways than one, it warrants that tag."
I have to say, it makes me want to run to Keens and try this thing. Two stars, what many people call Frank's default, is no paltry rating. So be it by exponents or by steroids...
The East German Swim Sheep
...Keens should be happy.
Now let's go buy some souvenir soap made of beef fat hand-shaped by a William and Mary sophomore, visit the silversmithy, and head home.
I mean, again...just awkward.