Saturday, February 21, 2009


4 out of 5 stars

Has Peter Luger grown tired of us, or have some of us simply grown tired of it? This venerated and venerable New York institution opened in 1887, and visits to the steakhouse around its 120th birthday suggested an inconsistency at odds with its legend. When Peter Luger is on its game, the gruffness of its waiters is pitch-perfect — more amiable than obnoxious — and the charred, sizzling, butter-doused porterhouse is a steak more breathtaking than any in the city. But sometimes the service is just plain chilly, and the steak misses its mark, and that's when you notice the flaws in other menu items and wonder why you shouldn't just visit one of Luger's rapidly expanding number of clones, which are less brutally illuminated, more consistently courteous and, unlike Luger, take credit cards.
---Frank Bruni

I begin the review by a passage from Frank Bruni, one of my all-time favorite food critics. Apparently, most of the reviews on it in the NY Times has been written by him, who maintains a love-hate relationship with Luger’s.

And I can understand why. Service can be pretty erratic at times, efficient the next; steak can taste breathtaking at one visit, the meat not so great the next, masked by a truckload of butter for its sauce.

I heard a lot about Luger’s ever since I was a child. Bar none, the steak place of choice would be Luger’s. Sure, we may have up-and-comers Craftsteak and BLT Steak, and even similary old and established places like the Strip House or Keens Steakhouse, but nothing comes close to the porterhouse whose taste has been imitated even by Wolfgang. In own country, the prized steaks of Mamou copy their technique, serving the platter on top of inverted plates, with the steak cut into long strips, drowning in butter.

Upon entering, you’re confronted with a bar up front, the dining rooms dividing into two at the corner of the bar. Lots of traffic up front, waiters talking loudly, moving through crowds impenitently. The place has rich wooden accents, the place brutally lit, the dining rooms even brighter with its light-colored walls.

We reserved a table weeks ahead, but we still weren’t able to get one within 30 minutes. The service is brusque and slightly peevish, to the point that you feel apprehensive on inquiring about the table duly reserved for you.

Regardless, the food is supposed to make you forget everything. But before we get to the steak, maybe it would be best to elaborate on the ritual that is Luger’s. My friend told me in all seriousness not to order from the menu…in fact, not to even ask for the menu. I looked at her in a weird way. No, it’s really like that, she assures. It is standard to get the porterhouse, calling it steak for 2, 3 or 4. That was the only choice that made sense, along with the creamed spinach (of course) and the German potatoes (naturally). If one ordered off the menu, you’d get sneers from the staff and people coughing out “tourist.”

Not wanting to be made fun of, we did exactly as was told. Some of us still took a chance and tried asking the waiter what pair of side dishes would be good with our steak for 4. With a suggestion that sounded more like an order, he barked “German potatoes” and the “creamed spinach.” And yes, we’re back where we started! Adding only a slab of bacon as appetizer, we were set for our dinner. Before the waiter placed our orders, he brought two breadbaskets, containing various white and wheat bread, some with oats, rye or salt. They were huge and hearty, much like how the rest of their food would be, with the only complaint that they weren’t hot and probably have been out of the oven for the past hour.

The slab of Canadian bacon came way before the steak did, and it was literally just a big slab of bacon. More of a fatty teaser, the four of us merrily picked on it while we ate our bread and chit-chatted on their NY moments. And after probably ten minutes, our steak came, along with the spinach and the potatoes.
Canadian Bacon

The waiter put two inverted plates in front of us. Then he set the steak on top of it. It was already sliced, ready for serving,. He then put some of the strips of meat on each of our plate, then scooped up the juice and butter and drizzled it over our steaks.
(after the waiter served out steak)

(our half-eaten steak for 4)

What left us awestruck though was the size of the meat. My picture (with my point and shoot camera) could do it no justice, as it was of more gigantic portions in real life. My closest estimation would probably be thirty inches in diameter. Yes, thirty inches of sizzling meat, charred on the outside, and medium-rare on the inside, with its own cattle flag proudly stuck in front of the meat. It was USDA Prime Beef, family selected and dry aged in their very own aging box.

up close and personal

Porterhouse is similar to the T-bone, both containing two valued portions called the tenderloin and the short loin found on the middle-rear back of the cattle. Between the two, the tenderloin is the better area of beef, which the porterhouse contains compared to its T-bone counterpart. Because of this, an extra muscle is located in its center on the upper side. Needless to say, it is a choice cut of beef.

(picture off of the NY Times)

As much as the presentation was great, beef gigantic and its magnificent appearance, there was something off about it. The meat wasn’t as tender, with a big chewy part due to the muscle in the middle. Perhaps it wasn’t properly aged, and the meat was slightly overdone in the tenderloin area (it cooks faster than the short loin). Our friend apologized for the visit, and said that it wasn’t like the last time she ate here: where the beef was luxuriously rich, crunchy on the edges, but tender near the bone, its intense meaty taste melting in your mouth and giving in to the slightest movement of her knife. Also, I read a later review which said that “If you have more than 2 people in your party, order multiples of steak for 2. If you order the steak for 3 or 4 you won't get the same cut and you'll miss out.” I wished I got to read this before going there and blowing off around a hundred dollars.

I liked its steak sauce, though. It was very tangy, with strong hints of tomatoes, onions, horseradish and molasses; slightly sweet, but with a zesty kick at the end. My friends loved the creamed spinach, but detested the Germen potatoes, saying that the latter was overcooked. On the other hand, I preferred the German potatoes to the spinach, because the latter had this aftertaste that didn’t match the flavor of the steak sauce. Besides, I liked crispy potatoes, and even if it was slightly dry, the steak’s sauce compensated for it. Oh well, each had their own preferences, but the consensus was that steak looked better than it tasted.
Steak Sauce

Creamed Spinach

German Potatoes

All in all, Peter Luger’s was an experience that I wouldn’t mind trying again for a better steak experience. It might have been off because there were too many people at that time, with nary a chair empty in both dining halls.

Bring cash and leave your sensitivities at the door. This is an institution that one HAS to go for that great NY steakhouse experience.

ate in:
Brooklyn, NY
Peter Luger, Inc.
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11211
(718) 387-7400

other branch:
Great Neck, LI
Peter Luger of Long Island, Inc.
255 Northern Blvd.
Great Neck, N.Y. 11021
(516) 487-8800

Sunday, February 1, 2009


.5 out of 5 stars (for me)

Heard a lot of buzz about this French bistro. Mostly good, compared to La Regalade, which is why I convinced a couple of my girl friends to accompany me there on a food trip. One of them agreed with much approval, after coming from a dinner with her family giving them the "vip" treatment. She even suggested good picks, such as the uni soup, the pork kurobota, the sea bass and the millionaire's pasta (not on the menu).

The restaurant is housed in Hotel Celeste, and one wouldn't notice that there was a restaurant to its front side. I mean that in a good way, because the restaurant blends effortlessly within the quirky modern-baroque feel of the place. The restaurant, though, contains more classic pieces, muted yellow lights (compared to the bright cheery whites of Celeste) and even wall fabrics.

There is only one page for the menu, and we were quick to order because our friend had already narrowed the choices down for us, picking the "Tomato" under their Hot Appetizers, as well as the "Sea Bass" in the Main Course. The waiter also highly recommended it, claiming it to be their best-seller. We couldn't request for the Millionaire's pasta (pasta with all the expensive trimmings, such as lobsters, foie gras, etc) since they didn't have any pasta to cook with.

It was refreshing (literally and figuratively) that our amuse bouche would turn out to be ice cream. In an "Iron Chef" twist of fate, it turned out to be balsamic ice cream with parmesan shavings in it. There was also a large circular puff pastry on top, just to balance off the tartness. I got bowled over with my first spoonful, the flavors were very intense...and tart! Actually, it's very good, but I'm not a fan of things tart and acidic in general. I was hoping to get to the middle of the scoop, thinking the vinegar flavor was stronger outside since I saw dark balsamic swirls ringing the sorbet glass, but when I dug deeper, it had the same tart concentration.

The Tomato (250 PhP) looked like a pizza of some sort, only that the crust was a puff pastry. Its "sauce" was eggplant caviar, which actually lacked taste. The mozarella and olives only brought color while adding nothing to the eggplant. Perhaps the only ingredient which brought it to life were the sun-dried tomatoes circling the pastry. As well as the parmesan shavings, though I didn't taste much of that, either. My friend and i had to add much salt for good measure. It was alright, but nothing to rave about just yet.
Tomato (250 PhP)

So their best-selling Sea Bass (680 PhP) arrived with much expectation. I was thinking that it must be good since the fish wasn't exactly that big. I was even able to take a picture of the entire plate without anything else just to make the fish look a little bigger! As I was eating it, I was relishing the sauce...truffle oil just makes everything taste good, especially if it's loaded with cream! I just slathered the sauce over the mashed potatoes and the fish, eating the leeks sparingly because it was a little tough.
Sea Bass (680 PhP)

I had a great time talking with my girl friends, and i really didn't have much to say anymore about the dish I was eating until...the sauce ran out! I guess that wasn't much of a problem, I mean, the fish must be good anyway, right? But I remember this incident distinctly, because my friend Julia was talking about Boracay when I chewed into something FISHY. Sea bass isn't supposed to taste like this! Wait a minute....I skimmed my fork over and through the was flaky....and brown! I've been so used to meaty, succulent, white sea bass without any fishy aftertaste whatsoever. As far as I was concerned, was it even sea bass to begin with? I stopped eating, and handed my plate over to Julia, asking her if I was just imagining that fishy taste. Her eyes start to widen in recognition, as my other friend Myta also grabs a forkful.

"I know! It tastes like Bangus! It probably is bangus!" exclaims Julia.
Myta interposes, "yeah, sea bass never looked this brown. It wasn't like that the other time." The other time being when she ate here with her family.
"I know, right?" I agreed.
Julia goes on to say that her mom eats that for breakfast with tomatoes and onions, making calls to her aunts and uncles about how weird this sea bass tasted.
I ask Myta to call one of our chef friends to ask if sea bass really look and tasted like this.
In the meantime, I was debating on whether to ask for the chef or not. I was never a confrontational customer, but I was really upset with the fish. The least I wanted was an explanation if I were to pay that much for something I disliked.
Myta just came from talking with our chef friend, and he ended up saying that we were being fooled if what we described to him was sea bass. Sea bass usually didn't flake, nor was it brown with such a fishy taste. That bolstered our courage to ask for the chef and ask him about it.

So I called the waiter, explained to him our situation, and asked him to call the chef. There we were, leisurely chatting and eating, waiting for the chef to come out. Lo and behold, rather than the chef coming out to answer our queries, another waiter comes out with a BOWL OF RAW FISH ON ICE. He then goes to say that the chef was showing us the fish he prepared our sea bass with, and that it was called "Apahap," a "local" sea bass. All of us were bring the customers a bowl of raw fish???!?!! What were we going to do with it???! We just nodded and the waiter left us.

At this point, my friends and I were furious with the treatment we were getting. Julia all the more called relatives and friends, telling others about that incident. All of us were in agreement when it came to still wanting an explanation from the chef. So one of us calls the waiter to ask for him AGAIN, and the waiter just nodded his head and disappears through the kitchen doors. They most likely called the pair (the chef and his wife), but I think the latter didn't even feel the need to talk to their customers? I don't know... but suffice to say, we ended up waiting for idle time.

Julia adamantly insisted not paying for the fish should the bill arrive. As much as I wanted to, I knew that I'd pay for it in case the restaurant asks, just so that they wouldn't think I'm mooching off a meal. Worse part is, I was too full to eat another bite in a different restaurant, even if I wanted to just to make up for that awful fish. Our patience was wearing thin, and we finally called for a waiter one last time. I think the chef arrived only because we were teetering to the edge of losing our tempers. What fanned the flames was when we saw Chef Cyrille and his wife dilly-dallying around the place schmoozing and talking with their friends, both knowing that we wanted to call either of them, but none of them responding to our requests.

When he came, he shook our hands and asked what the problem was. So we repeated our "fishy" story, and how we never came across that kind of sea bass, let alone "Apahap." He goes on to explain that it's a local fish, that even other countries like Singapore call it "Asian Sea Bass." Fine. Okay. But then I went on to explain that the fish had a fishy taste, and that I was surprised that sea bass would taste like that. He just let that statement go with a, "Sorry you didn't like my recipe," without looking the least apologetic or concerned. I added that we were a bit offended because we tried calling them several times, but he was quick to reply that he was busy preparing the food in the kitchen. He said this with such ease, knowing that Julia saw him just around the corner entertaining his friends.

Not feeling mollified one bit, we just asked for the check. The waiter comes in with a plate of some pastries. When we said that we didn't want it, he replied, "Hindi, talagang binibigyan namin yan." At this point, we all just wanted to go since we were so angry, adding insult to injury in that the dessert given wasn't even one to make up for the unsatisfactory service.

We left in a hurry, Julia giving added info that all the more compelled us never to go back (I'm telling this story with her permission). Her Tito, who's a doctor in Makati Med, mentioned to the wife of Chef Cyrille one time that he's good friends with the owners of Celeste. He was planning on bringing the Board of Directors to have dinner there, and was half-joking when he asked for a discount. Much to his shock, she said, "You should have told me ahead of time. We could have planned a budget menu."

In so many words, it is apparent that my companions nor I have any intention of returning to this restaurant. Even assuming that the fish was indeed apaap, or a kind of sea bass, or even if we were wrong, there may have been ways which could have salvaged our disastrous trip:
  1. They could have offered to replaced the dish with another one to our liking.
  2. They may have offered to waive the expense of that dish, which we would have refused to do, but at least there was an act of good faith.
  3. A simple and sincere apology would have even been acceptable (without any qualifications) because, as this phrase has always been used, "The customer is always right."

Restaurant Cicou
, Hotel Celeste
San Lorenzo Drive cor. A. Arnaiz Ave., San Lorenzo Village
Makati City, Metro Manila
(02) 887-8080 loc. 242
M, T, W, Th, F, Sa: 6:00 am - 10:00 am
M, T, W, Th, F, Sa: 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
M, T, W, Th, F, Sa: 6:00 pm - 10:00 pm

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