In a 2,000-square-foot industrial walk-in cooler, famed porterhouses have been dry-aged to perfection for more than 100 years.
By ALAN FEUER
NY TimesPublished: December 22, 2008
The New York porterhouse — that cut of meat found between the prime ribs and the sirloin of a cow — is a specialty dish as local and distinctive as the London broil, the Viennese schnitzel or the Parisian steak frites. It is thicker and more marbled than a T-bone, infinitely more tender than sirloin and, according to the greatest chefs, likely to be even more flavorful than the best filet mignon.
It is also — and consensus is fairly widespread on the point — New York City’s signature cut of beef. While the provenance of its name is steeped in doubt (some say it derives from Martin Morrison’s 19th-century porter house, or travelers’ inn, on Pearl Street), there is no mistaking that the dish has always found its truest home and fullest flower of expression in the enormous — and enormously crowded — meat box at Peter Luger Steak House, that Brooklyn gastro-institution, at 178 Broadway in Williamsburg, where porterhouses have been dry-aged to perfection for more than 100 years.
A 2,000-square-foot industrial walk-in cooler, the meat box is larger than many city domiciles, and is equally congested, packed from floor to ceiling at any given time with 30,000 pounds of raw, aging meat. Its smells are earthy and specific, a mineral combination of hazelnuts and sea salt, and the fatty pink short loins resting on the clean steel racks like the promise of abundance give the impression of a gluttony so bountiful and imminent that one can feel its reverberations coming through the floor, a full flight up, in the front of the house.
“It’s our sacred place,” said Jody Storch, the meat buyer and a granddaughter of Sol Forman, the Brooklyn manufacturer of metalwares who bought the restaurant from the Luger family for “a whimsically low bid” nearly 60 years ago. “It’s the heart and soul of our business. It’s almost like our vault.”
Buried under Peter Luger’s kitchen, the meat box does possess a stony vaultlike coolness, mechanically enhanced these days by oscillating fans and a softly humming Bohn refrigeration unit, which keeps the air chilled between 32 and 36 degrees. Dry-aging is essentially a process of controlled rot: at near-freezing temperatures, the natural enzymes in the meat deteriorate the muscle, inflicting it with tenderness and leaving behind not only that enriched nutty flavor, but also a delicate brownish crust.
With its old-world furnishings, its blunt, gruff-mannered staff of servers and a starkly (almost unattractive) industrial locale, Peter Luger, which opened in 1887, has always had a traditional appeal. It is at once a memory and an incarnation of everything old and steadfast in New York, on a par in its augustness with antiquities like the Oak Room, the waterfront, La Cosa Nostra and the corner Irish bar.
But perhaps foremost it is a present-day reminder of an era when the city actually worked: when tin and sugar were produced in its factories, when garments were assembled in its textile lofts, when cargo freighters full of sofas and bananas were unloaded at its docks. If that’s the case, then one is tempted to consider Luger’s meat box — despite its practicality — as an atavistic symbol. For down there in the basement, 15 tons of beef are literally working on themselves: They are growing richer, inching ever closer toward their day upon the table in the silent, patient labor of their toil.