Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Vatican of Saloons

In the New York years, I drank at P.J. Clarke’s every time I was in the city at the end of the business day. I’d say it was “one and go” but according to my co-worker Erv Hall, that‘s not humanly possible. One evening after work Erv and I went to the bar and I said, “Let’s just have one and go.” He replied with a grin, “Steve, there’s no such thing as one and go.” Those words proved prophetic.

It was at the old saloon on the northeast corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue that I first learned the 80-20 rule. That’s the adage that says 80% of a bar’s business comes from 20% of its customers. The regulars. In my beer o’clock visits I always saw the same half dozen guys at the front end of the bar by the window overlooking Third Avenue. I figured that if they were always there at 5:30pm and I was just an occasional customer, they must be there every single afternoon. Extrapolation is my middle name.

I first visited the joint in 1970 when I was banished to Rego Park, Queens to fix an underperforming restaurant that I had opened a year before. I lived in a basement apartment in Forest Hills Estates where I could walk to work and take the subway to the City for recreational purposes. The floundering restaurant was right across from Lefrak City, a huge apartment complex, and 2-1/2 blocks from the long gone Alexander’s Department Store at Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road. The little pie shop was the first place where a newly fired employee threatened me. “You won’t make it through the week,” he warned. That's 2,486 weeks ago. I'm feeling good about my chances.

How I stumbled on P.J. Clarke’s escapes me, but it became a haunt, the first step on a bar crawl up 1st Avenue to Yorktown and back down 2nd to 57th Street. My guess is that I learned about the bar in a bar, the way I learned everything else I know. My neighborhood bar in Rego Park was in Elmhurst or was it Corona? It’s confusing. Anyway, take a left out of my place, walk to Queens Boulevard, hang a right at Alexander’s, walk another couple of blocks and Walsh’s Pub was across the street.

Among the many things I learned at Vinny Walsh’s establishment was how to process 35mm negatives to get prints that looked like they were made with 4x5 sheet film. I was tipping Half and Halfs next to an older guy who, it turns out, was a local portrait photographer. We began to compare notes. I told him that I wanted to produce prints with as little grain as possible. He turned to me and said, “Go to 47th Street Photo in The City (that's what you call Manhattan if you're in the know). Ask for Seymour. Sy knows everything there is to know about the darkroom. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Sy did. On my nightly, I mean next, sortie into Manhattan I walked into 47th Street Photo and asked for Seymour. I told him some barfly in Elmhurst told me to look him up and that I wanted to know how coax creamy acuity out of a 35mm negative. He told me, “Kid, you gotta use Edwal FG7 developer not that Kodak crap. Use it 15:1 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution. Prints like nothing else, I’m telling you. And here’s the kicker, you can push the film. Take Kodak Plus X film that’s a 125 ASA and push it a 400, 500 ASA. I did it and it did. So, when I got back to my darkroom in South Pasadena a couple of months later I started shooting Plus X at 400 or 500 and getting prints that looked they came from a Hasselblad at 100 ASA. That Edwal FG7-Sodium Sulfite hack is the process I used till my darkroom days ended in the 2002.

I also learned about the Irish bar circuit at Walsh’s which, New York being New York, was epic. My favorite barkeep at Walsh’s, one Jack Kearns, tutored me on the midweek ritual called “busting balls” which isn’t quite what it sounds like. It’s drinking tour of Irish bars. On a barkeep’s night off, say Tuesday, he would hit all the bars on his circuit and “be taken care of.” Meaning he’d be treated like royalty by his brethren of the brew. He’d wouldn’t pay for a single drink. On Jack Kearns’s Irish bar circuit were, Peter’s Back Street in Bayside, Patrick’s Pub in Douglaston and the John Barleycorn in Manhattan. Only the John Barleycorn survives.

Back then it was protocol for your favorite mixologist to “buy” every third drink, and in a clearly understood quid pro quo, you’d tip him the full amount of that beverage. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the proprietor who understood the game. The IRS not so much. If Vinny didn’t tolerate the larceny his star bartender would move down the block dragging his regulars with him.

PJ Clarke’s has been called “the Vatican of Saloons.” PJ was Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish immigrant who tended bar at Duneen’s Saloon which opened its doors in 1887. Ten years later he bought Duneen's and changed the name. The venerable establishment is famous for its longevity, that it hasn’t been replaced by a skyscraper, its celebrity clientele, and for its pews, I mean urinals.

You could park your car in those things. They were chest height with an ice block covering the drain. They say you can tell how busy a shift is by the size of the melting block. Easier than counting the drawer I guess. "O'Shaunessy, go measure the ice."

On one occasion after half a dozen black and tans I stepped into the men’s room directly behind me. When I opened the door to go back to the bar I walked into Wilt Chamberlain’s ass. I do not exaggerate. The man was so big that at 5’-11” I was eyeballing the big center’s pockets. Unlike most “big men” of the day who were storks, Wilt’s 300 pounds was distributed perfectly on his 7’-2” frame. Imagine Lebron James but half a foot taller. Wilt employed a handler to fend off male patrons. I watched his body man collecting head shots from all the women queuing up to meet the man who scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962 and, according to Chamberlain, 10,000 women. I’m afraid to do that math.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

La La Land and other fables

While I tend to look askance at chain restaurants I'm compelled to award an honorable mention in the best steak sweepstakes to Morton’s Steakhouse. Morton’s is notable because their steak is cooked on a flat top not a wood fired grill, a char-grill or a broiler. A strong case can be made that cooking a steak on a flat top or griddle, called “a la plancha” in the Spanish speaking world, is the superior method. The sizzling surface sears the meat so all the juices and fat are sealed in. And on the plus side Morton’s slathers the steak with butter. It’s affront to your arteries but you’ll die happy.

Morton’s in Boston was the scene of several bacchanalian orgies of steak and wine in the waning days of my restaurant career. One of my partners was an oenophile and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. His best friend was one of Boston’s biggest wine distributors and importers whose company had discovered Guigal wines and had become the importer for the whole country. Bob had his own million-dollar wine cellar at home and, as such, you knew he’d bring one hell of a bottle to the party. You also knew that you didn’t have one as good or that you could afford.

The price of entry to these bleary nights of indulgence was that each participant, of which there were four, had to bring a worthy, read old, bottle. The fraught task brought on the cold sweats. How will my pathetic offering stand up? I didn’t have much of a cellar and the oldest, dubiously drinkable wine I owned was a standard issue, $6.00 when released, 1968 Louis Martini Cabernet. At least it got bonus points for being part of illustrious class of 1968, one in which Napa Valley cabs were deemed the equal of those from Bordeaux. The wine had been stored with no adherence to the strictures of proper wine storage, to wit a humidity controlled 55 degrees. The sad little thing had been kept in a pantry next to the Smucker’s apricot jam.

My erstwhile partner brought one of Guigal’s La Las, La Landonne specifically. Our resident wine maven brought a legendary 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s the famed wine redolent of menthol from the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the vineyard.  And I brought the cowering little Louis Martini. I don’t remember what our fourth member contributed, or care.

As protocol requires, we began with the wine most likely to fail. Namely mine. We opened my thirty-year old relic, a gift from a friend in 1981 when we opened a restaurant on Lombard Street in San Francisco. Thanks Lenny. It poured light, more like pinot noir than cabernet. But, to our amazement, the lyrical little wine filled our stems with floral notes and lithe elegance. The Martha’s Vineyard from the watershed 1968 vintage that had proved that California could make world class cabernet was full bodied and fresh with menthol notes and pure expressive fruit. 1968 was deemed the best year since 1947. 2016 tasting notes that I found online glorify the 1968 Martha’s Vineyard this way, “Definitely the first time I’ve seen this bottle, and probably the last. This was stunning in every sense of the word! With good color, chocolate mint, cherry, tobacco and earthy nose that got you going and kept you going as well. Full bodied, fresh, deep and long, the fruit had beautiful purity.This is definitely one of the best, mature, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon wines I've ever tasted.” Today the regal beauty will set you back $1,294 smackeroos.

What's his name's La Landonne was as advertised, stupendous. The biggest, most tannic of Guigal’s Cote Rotie wines, it showed firm minerality along with blackberry, spice and tobacco. 

You can still pull the cork on a 1968 Heitz cab or a 1982 La Landonne and be left murmuring superlatives to express your awe. The 1968 Louis Martini, alas, has left the building.

At this moment the La Landonne retails for $669 and the Martini is a paltry $170.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

After Bourdain: The Steak Issue

El Churrasco in Cordoba

As I reflect, the appearance of red meat in my food memories is prominent. I am an unabashed carnivore though beef no longer plays a big role at home. But when dining out, especially during travel, the steak looms large. So much so that I’m compelled to list my all-time best steaks and the place and circumstances thereof.
While I was still in college on the vaunted eight-year program there was a cowboy steak emporium called Pinnacle Peak way the hell northeast of Scottsdale. The joint is still there but is very pale iteration of its old self. By the late sixties the steak had become more Sizzler than Pinnacle Peak but, apparently, the cowboy scene keeps it afloat.  Anyway, I had a buddy, Jim Walters, whose wife Sandy was a waitress there. She introduced me to the place. I wound up singing and playing guitar in the “Sweet Tooth”, the adjacent saloon. Pinnacle Peak, a sprawling open-air affair, was renowned for two things:  a 32-ounce porterhouse steak and that they’d cut your tie off and staple it to the rafters if you had the temerity to wear one. As to the mammoth steak cooked over a mesquite fire, I can report that it was big.
We moved to Minneapolis from LA in 1971 when I began operating a small chain of family restaurants called Betty Crocker Pie Shops. Yes, that Betty, the mythic exemplar of 1950’s family life. But, more importantly, there was a steak. And what a steak it was. Lindey’s Steakhouse in Arden Hills northeast of Minneapolis had a simple beef centric menu led by the stellar Lindey’s Special Sirloin. The thick cut steak that had been aged and butchered in house was at that time and maybe still, the best steak ever. I’ll get back to you when I complete my steak research in approximately never. Is never too soon for you?
Lindey's Special Sirloin

The Special Sirloin came with a forgettable salad but with savory home fries that are worth an article. Lindey’s was the first place where a menu described what properly cooked steak is and the veracity of its descriptions have stayed with me since. It said, and I paraphrase liberally, we don’t do well-done. If you do order that offense to God and womanhood, we’ll drop it in the deep fryer and you can take your hockey puck home for breakfast. As to rare, Lindy’s was equally emphatic. Rare means red and cool in the center. That steak could make a grown man weep. It was brought out on a sizzling iron platter then cut in half and fanned before your eyes, so you could approve of its doneness or, ideally, the lack thereof. That was a steak.
One time we took Harold Bissner, a southern California visitor, to Lindy’s on a forty below night. We drove our brand new yellow Volkswagen Beetle.  It was our first new car and cost a princely $2,600. We expected the restaurant to be quiet since it was a blustery February Tuesday, but being Minnesota, it was as busy as a Saturday in July. Those Minnesotans are hardy folk and they do love their steak. On the flip side, you couldn’t buy a fresh vegetable in the Twin Cities in 1971.

In 1976 I became a vice president of a national fast food chain. I won’t say the name, but its spokesman had white hair, wore a white suit and sounded like he was from Corbin, Kentucky. There are many stories to be told about that heady time in my life. Some of them true. We led an idyllic life in muy rico New Canaan, Connecticut. I had an office in Greenwich, and another at Herald Square in Manhattan. I was king of the world or as close as I would come. 

My boss, Jim Willey, the president of KFC, visited my New York market on occasion and on his second visit he took my fellow vice presidents and me to Peter Luger's in the very sketchy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was a rich blend of Hasidim and hoodlum. Back then you risked losing your car if you parked it in Williamsburg. If you did have the, umm stones, to bring your wheels you had to duke some kid a ten spot to watch it.
The hard drinking, chain smoking Willey had the presence of mind to have an account at Luger’s and it's a good thing since they didn’t accept credit cards. Even now they take just one card, their own.
Peter Luger’s had been there since 1887 and so had some of the waiters. It was last redecorated in 1952. I’ve noticed that in a lot of the classic steakhouses, that the more dated the decor the better the steak. Of course that's just a theory.
Family style at Peter Luger in Brooklyn

Everything was served family style by graying lifers wearing starched white aprons that hung below the knee.  Platters of sliced New Jersey truck farm tomatoes and onions, scrumptious home fries and sliced porterhouse steak made the groaning table sag. It was a quintessential New York dining experience. I remember it so vividly that eating at Peter Luger's again is high on my bucket list.
Lomo de Buey at El Churrasco.

Nearly forty years passed by before another steak joined Lindey’s and Peter Luger’s atop my best steakhouse list and it was in Cordoba, Spain. It was April of 2014 when we chanced upon El Churrasco. We picked the restaurant by its welcoming appearance and because it had, well, steak. On the left in the small lobby were three grills where the steaks were cooked over charcoal. Under the front counter was refrigerated case where the beef was being aged. To the right of the grills enormous slabs of meat leaned against the tile wall. When we took our first tender juicy bite of the “Lomo de Buey” we exclaimed in unison, “This is best steak I ever had.” Loosely translated “Lomo de Buey” means back of the steer or oxen. New York Strip to me. When I spoke to the manager as I was leaving I learned that El Churrasco bought all its beef from a ranch an hour north of Cordoba and had done so for decades, that it was aged for two weeks at the ranch and another two at the restaurant. It was melt in your mouth tender and the fat, of which there was plenty, was sweet and soft as a kiss. I was so in lust that I made another trip to Cordoba just for the steak.
There’s a back story to visiting Spain twice in a year. It has something to do with the computer eating three weeks of images while we were in Madrid. The culprit shall remain nameless. When we were in France in October I convinced myself that I had to retrace my steps through Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Cordoba to replace the irreplaceable photographs, I was, after all, so close. I quickly learned that you can’t replicate 5,000 moments in time. But at least I got another Lomo de Buey.