I never knew there was such a thing as a “New York Steakhouse” until the late seventies, when one of my New York clients took me to THE PALM. Subsequent visits to Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky and Spark’s (notwithstanding the shooting of mobster Paul Castellano at their front door) and KEEN’S CHOPHOUSE caused me to realize that Minneapolis NEEDED a New York-style steakhouse…..thus MANNY’S.
All were good. All had similar menus, with great dry-aged steaks. All had a decidedly masculine vibe.
But one had an edge that was unique. That was KEEN’S CHOP HOUSE on 36th Street near 6th Avenue.
Founded by Albert Keen in 1885, Keen’s features all of the steakhouse clichés, starting with the nude painting over the bar…continuing with the clubby, masculine atmosphere of the dining rooms…reinforced by their PIPE CLUB…and – adorning the ceilings throughout the restaurant – a collection of 50,000 clay pipes belonging to celebrities like Babe Ruth, Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur and Buffalo Bill. The menu also touches the necessary bases of a New York steakhouse. To top it off, Keen’s has a ZAGAT rating of 4.5.
As New York magazine put it, “Keen’s is a bastion of urban carnivores fueled by single malts and expense account blowouts.” Expect steakhouse prices.
Meals begin with a retro touch: a supper club relish tray. We’ve followed with steakhouse favorites, including crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, clams & oysters, as well as a really good twice-baked Vermont blue cheese pastry puff ($15).
Salads are out of central casting with all of the usual suspects…all good.
Mains include a porterhouse steak for two, t-bones and filets, all with a puzzling red pepper garnish (why?). Keen’s also offers a great prime-rib hash crowned with a fried egg, a delicious buttermilk-brined chicken, lobster, and Dover sole.
Hot fudge sundaes, Bananas Foster and Key Lime pie form the core of the dessert menu.
But now things get interesting.
Keen’s is known worldwide for its MUTTON CHOPS………NOT lamb chops.
But first a little primer on mutton.
Definitions vary – even among experts – but it’s generally defined as the meat of a full-grown sheep that’s over one-year old. In this country, we prefer lamb. Mutton fell completely out of favor after World War II when our troops were fed canned mutton – and nowadays most people don’t even know what it is. Among those who do have an opinion, they think of mutton as tough old meat from old fat sheep: horrible smell, strong gamy flavor, and that lingering, wretched tallow-y aftertaste in your mouth. And they’re not entirely wrong about the gaminess. In fact, as early as 1918, Fanny Farmer wrote in her iconic cookbook, “Many object to the strong flavor of mutton.”
In other countries, mutton is used in spicy stews and curries or anything else that serves to mask the flavor. As the French say, “With the right sauce, you can eat your father.”
Yet against such a negative backdrop, Keen’s not only offers mutton, it sells the hell out of it. In fact, Keen’s Mutton Chops – tender, delicious, utterly unlike the mutton of yore – are its signature dish.
WTF? Well, first of all, modern lamb, like chicken and beef, grows much faster and larger today than at any time in history. In the United States, sheep between 12 and 16 months are known as “yearling mutton.” I understand that Keen’s buys right on the cusp, sourcing 1-year-old sheep whose chops retain the wonderful flavor of lamb but are about two inches thick and weigh in at about 2 pounds. I’m also told that the meat is dry-aged to improve the flavor and enhance tenderness. Apparently, it’s also seared in a 1000-degree broiler before it is finished in a 500-degree oven. This is a perfect cooking technique.
Next time you’re in New York, you need to go to Keen’s and order the mutton. You might just fall in love with it. You certainly WON’T BE THE FIRST to do so.