Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tales from meatspace

First, let me direct you to that gustatorial wonder The House of Meat.

Mr. Elisson's fine testimonial to the art of proteinaceous eating brings to mind a few of my own true stories at the real-life places where carnivores dine.

This was going to be a simple reminiscence but even now I can see it's getting into crusty detail-laden ancient history so you better pack a lunch before you go much further. I usually tell these stories over drinks -- big drinks, in the double and the multiple -- so that should give you a hint right there. My apologies in advance to those of you who thought you only signed up for the short stroll through My Garden Of Memories who now find yourself on the Bataan Death March. It's a rambling path with lotsa forks in the road, which seems appropriate somehow.

Anyway, a long time ago in a place now far away I used to get to eat a fancy dinner once a year with a table full of musicians and other nefarious types. We would congregate every year at a convention of brass players held at New York's Roosevelt Hotel. This was before the current spiffy state of the Roosevelt -- today it's very fancy and expensive -- back in the day it was still kinda sorta elegant but not quite so upmarket. It was a grand old girl still giving it all she had but like a dowager duchess, she was just a little bit worn at the corners. But you could see the beautiful bones, the fine carriage, how it Used To Be and Maybe Still Was if you squinted just a little. It was the Margaret Dumont of hotels.

I loved that place and hated to see it get renovated. It's gorgeous but all the soul is gone. Like, oh, Times Square. But I digress.

So during the Saturday afternoon break before the big testimonial tribute and concert (being honored at the Brass Conference was essentially proof that your career was more or less over but you weren't dead quite yet), we would put on fancy clothes -- an opera cloak was not out of place, all the men wore tuxedos and sometimes so did I -- and we'd meet at a place around the corner on 45th Street called The Cattleman.

The Cattleman was a figment of an overactive imagination crafted by a P. T. Barnum kind of real estate guy, Larry Ellman. Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan in the Fred F. French Building, 551 5th Avenue -- how that rolls off the tongue, even the address sounds classy, doesn't it? It's a great Art Deco Building, you should go look at it, it's on the National Register of Historic Places, Google it, check it out, go visit.

And on the ground floor it housed The Cattleman, this Wild West Emporium of beefsteak ridiculousness. I vaguely remember the red flocked wallpaper -- it was decorated in Basic Bordello -- and how all the waitresses were in upswept hairdos and bustiers and tight black skirts. I think all the waiters had handlebar mustaches and garters. Oh, and they had a chantoosie -- this woman with a feather boa around her neck and a gown slit to her cervix would slither out and sing old torch songs in front of a piano while you ate your steak. All this was nearly in the dark, with occasional glints of lights as waiters prepared orders of Bananas Foster tableside.

I also remember they would make you a Caesar salad like nobody's business -- I think that was the job of one guy, that's all he did, he would come out with a cart and make it up for you at the table with great pomp and circumstance.

At the end of the meal a woman would come out and offer you coffee and cigars. I don't smoke as a general rule but I always said yes and yes, it seemed like the thing to do.

When we visited it was basically on its uppers too, much like the Roosevelt; in its heyday they used to offer "stagecoach rides" for the kids and other silliness. By the time we sat down to eat it was likewise shabby but every night they lowered the lights and the Cattleman Girl (she had some other more officious title but I forget what it was) would come out and sit on the piano and sing "I Don't Care" and man, you knew she really didn't if you know what I mean. I used to contemplate asking her if she knew "Ten Cents a Dance" but figured that was hitting too close to home. And we would eat steak and drink martinis and gossip about everyone who wasn't at the table and swell around and then run back to the Roosevelt, grab reinforcement from the bar downstairs, and climb up to the mezzanine and the Grand Ballroom for the evening's tribute.

Ask me sometime about the night I went upstairs to see a great famous trombone player get venerated and found myself sitting in the middle of a crowd of old big band guys, alumni from one of the famous bands, guys who really knew Mr. Great Famous Trombone Player, I mean knew him better than his current wife, better than his ex-wives, better than his girlfriends, better than his boss, even (who could have been but was probably not Woody Herman, let me put it that way) . . . and every time someone on stage would say something I'd get commentary/annotation/cries of "bullshit! I wuz there and here's what REALLY went down" from the peanut gallery.

Do remind me, though I should probably wait until more of those people die off before I repeat any of those stories, especially the ones about Mr. Great Famous Trombone Player. But I digress.

So it's another Brass Conference Saturday night and we go to the Cattleman. Which is not the Cattleman any more.

Ever been to Morton's?

They got 'em all over the country -- they're not as ubiquitous as McDonalds but if they were I'm sure there would also be a cardiologist on every block as well so that's not such a bad thing.

There should have been a sign outside that said "The Cathedral of Steak." I did sort of naturally genuflect walking in but that's because I was a little weak in the knees at all the new grandeur, all glitter and dark corners and starched long white tablecloths.

It was all men in European cut dark suits and women in flowing dresses. In our tuxes and tail coats we felt out of place; all of us musicians, usually in joints like that you get directed to come in through the kitchen area double quick. And don't eat anything! The staff was momentarily confused as much as we were because we had no instruments with us. But they recovered quickly and moved us to a big table.

They get us all seated. No menus are offered.

They take our drink orders. Still no menus.

They bring us our drinks. I get a martini served in a glass that could have held a dozen long-stemmed roses with room left over for the three ginormous olives displacing the vodka.

Behind the waiter with the drinks comes this tiny woman ponderously pushing a cart heavily laden with unidentifiable objects. She hauls the cart to our table, bows, smiles, takes a big breath.

And commences to recite the entire freakin' menu.

"We have THIS." And she reaches out to the cart and hauls up a slab of plastic-covered porterhouse for our startled eyes to see. She cradled it like a baby as she described everything that had been done to it and what more could be done if that be our wish.

"And we have THIS." She dropped the hunk back on the cart (which rocked it a little) and displayed a polyethylene wrapped filet that could have fed a family of four. "Petit." It was petit like those 400 pound men that get nicknamed "Tiny."

"And we have THIS." And each and every THIS was the biggest damn whatever it was I had ever seen in my life. Scallops like hockey pucks. Jumbo jumbo shrimp. Portabello mushrooms run amok.

She rummaged around in the cart and found a lobster apparently trying to make the Great Escape. She caught it neatly as it attempted a dive off the top of the cart. Holding it at arms length triumphantly she proclaimed, "LIVE MAINE LOBSTER!" She flicked the tail for emphasis and it not only beat its tail ominously in the air but waved claws and tentacles madly, the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and boy was it pissed.

She sprinted to the finish of the presentation as she hefted a baked potato only slightly smaller than Idaho matched with a bouquet of broccoli that must have been grown in the shadow of Three Mile Island.

"Now what would you like?"

"Um . . . I'd like to hear that again."

She was game. She did it all again, dinner and a show, this time with the extra added attraction of the dessert cart bobbing in her wake. It sailed past us with stately grace, a Titanic of Death By Chocolate and Strawberry Cheesecake.

We did get the food sorted out. The guy next to me said, "I want the lobster. THAT lobster, to be exact." We spent some time debating whether we should ransom him and set him free to terrorize the seas once more but ultimately when Roger was assured there was indeed more than enough butter in the kitchen to cover this behemoth his fate was sealed.

The food was as good as it was large. It was one of the most manly meals I've ever had in my life and it was spectacular. I concentrated mostly on the meat of the matter and didn't care about any of the sissy side dishes . . . though a Caesar salad might have been nice.

Coffee was served. A woman approached the table. For a moment I thought I glimpsed a feather boa . . . but she was dressed soberly in black and holding a tray of cigars. The Cohiba was a perfect ending to a wonderful meal. It seemed like the thing to do.

Our host got the check and to his credit he neither fell out in the floor nor ordered us all to start washing dishes. I'm surprised the bill didn't come plastic-wrapped on the cart. You can bet that when your supper is sung to you there's going to be some carrying charges. With a flourish of his opera cloak we were off into the night and on our way back to Brass Conference glories.

All this was a long time ago. The next year the Roosevelt was closed for renovations and the Brass Conference was uptown somewhere else.

We never went back to the Roosevelt.

That was our last dinner as an assortment of friends and colleagues, in fact; after that time, everything changed. People couldn't make it, people retired, people changed jobs, cities. People passed away.

They don't have Brass Conferences any more. I miss that most of all.

A big tip of the hat to the Great and Powerful Og, a man who knows his meat. But I digress.


Blogger Elisson said...

This post made me weep. For joy, that is.

Morton's is, indeed, a fine Steaky Experience. But I doubt I could write about it with such flair. Scallops like hockey pucks, indeed.

"I used to contemplate asking her if she knew "Ten Cents a Dance" but figured that was hitting too close to home." That's gotta be the Quote of the Day.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Jinglebob said...

Og sent me. Great post!

I am a lover of good beef. Seeing as I raise my own, I know what it is. Glad to hear there are places where it is still served.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous OrangeNeckInNY said...

I used to work a few blocks from Morton's steakhouse in NYC. I've never had the chance to go in, but I have been to Smith & Wollensky's and Ruth Chris' Steakhouse a few times. Both EXCELLENT! When they brought out a 5-lb lobster at RC's it was a sight to behold. Ever since then, any lobster less than 2 lbs just doesn't do it for me. Any steak less than 16 oz. and 1" thick gets a pass too. And the steak's gotta be rare.

Bless that Og for sending me here and bringing back such delicious memories...sigh.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Nathan Brindle said...

I own stock in Ruth's Chris, that's how much I like them. Sadly the stock is not performing like their restaurants. Been to both restaurants in Indy, the one in downtown Chicago, and the one in Bethesda, MD -- uniformly excellent. In May I hope to try the one in Naples, FL.

Smith & Wollensky's in Chicago (Marina City) is da bomb.

I was not as impressed with Morton's, but I've only been to one (Bethesda MD). I felt that I'd had better meals across the street at Ruth's Chris. But the boss was paying, so I was eating.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Turk Turon said...

Morton's in Indianapolis is everything you say it is here: delightful.

11:19 PM  

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