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Keens $45 Mutton Chop Best Eaten With Hands, ’93 Islay Scotch

Main Dining Room
Tobacco pipes are hung from the ceiling in the main dining room at Keens Steakhouse in New York. The restaurant, at 72 West 36th Street, opened in 1885. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

When I’m at a fancy French restaurant like Daniel, I drink red wine with my red meat. When at an American steakhouse like Prime Meats, I opt for a gin martini.

But at a hundred-plus-year-old spot like Keens, I hold the steak in my hands, gnaw it off the bone and pair it with Scotch. No Minetta Tavern Page Six crowds here, so New Yorkers can freely act like unsocialized carnivores.

The strip stands two inches high. Must be a foot long, with a gorgeous char. Costs $43.50. Your Laguiole knife cuts most of the muscle; your molars destroy the rest, the rare morsels near the bone, where the bovine flavor’s doubly concentrated. Take a sip of your 1990 Caol Ila Scotch ($17). The fat coating your tongue tames the smoke and fire just a bit, if at all.

No, it’s not the best pairing. But the odds and environs favor whisky. There are 11 wines by the glass. There are about 270 Scotches by the snifter. Pipes, 90,000 of them, line the ceilings. Patrons used to smoke them after dinner. Among those most prominently displayed, ones signed by John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson and Chuck Norris.

Keens, which opened in 1885, takes its cue from an era when Americans imbibed liquids that were brown or clear, over those that were red or white. It’s the type of place where wine, however affordable, feels effete, and where Scotch, however expensive, feels appropriately working-man hip.

Time Machine

As New Yorkers wean themselves on organic small plates, it’s comforting to settle into a darkly lit booth at Keens to ingest meat that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 19th century. And the beef’s quality ranks with modern venues where diners rattle off the names of celebrity farms and rock-star butchers.

Keens simply tells you it’s USDA Prime.

The aroma in the dining room is paralyzing. It’s not just dry-aging.

“Kidney fat” says the waiter. Gives the porterhouse a certain perfume. An organ meat tang that’s life changing. The prime rib has a cleaner taste and a sinus-clearing horseradish sauce. Pair it with a Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Some people like to dilute it with water, I dilute mine with vodka. That’s called a smoking martini. It’s like getting bonked with one of those Wile E. Coyote Acme anvils.

Keens isn’t old-fashioned; it’s old school. No amuse bouche, just a plate of cold carrots and pickles. No petits fours, just a bowl of mints by the exit. No snobbish chefs, I don’t even know who he is. That’s why the oysters come with cocktail sauce and salt and pepper shakers actually grace the table (all the meats are underseasoned). Mashed potatoes aren’t overwhelmed with butter or truffles. Same goes for the spinach; comes with just a touch of cream.

Mutton for Sutton

Crab cakes are sauteed in butter and tingle from mustard. Tomatoes, typically a summer staple, are crimson red in the dead of March, covered with reassuringly stinky Stilton. Caesar salads are perfect; just a hint of anchovy, loads of buttery croutons.

Seafood can be reliable at steakhouses; not here. Dover sole was fishy. Lobster was overcooked and lacking that saltwater bite of a proper execution by steam.

The mutton chop is musty, not gamy. It’s flanked by heady, crispy fat. The tight angles of the bone mean your knife can only do so much. Pick it up with your hands and scratch the stringy meat off the exterior as your cat would a sofa. Cleanse the palate with a 1993 Lagavulin from Islay. Or the Highlands cocktail, an expert blend of Scotch, absinthe and maraschino that intoxicates the palate. A table of tall, mustachioed, plaid-shirt-tucked-into-jeans type of guys sat behind us. Half of them ordered apple martinis.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rating: **

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? Steaks $43.50 to $49.50 at dinner; cheaper cuts in the pub.

Sound level? As low as 67 decibels when empty, as loud as 80 when full in the bar area.

Date place? What’s sexier than rare flesh?

Inside tip? Ideal lunch is a Scotch, a Keens ale and prime rib hash at the bar.

Special feature? Bananas Foster for dessert.

Will I be back? Yes.

Keens Steakhouse is at 72 W. 36th St. Information: +1-212-947-3636;

What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
No stars     Poor.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: A church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud crowded subway with announcements.

(Ryan Sutton writes about restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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