Cigars and steak make good neighbors in Brooklyn.
Heading over the East River under the towering framework of the Williamsburg Bridge, I felt as if I were back in kindergarten and heading to Disney World. But my Magic Kingdom was in Brooklyn -- a cigar bar and shop, called the Velvet Cigar Lounge, has opened next to the famed Peter Luger Steak House, offering the one-two punch in close proximity that many New Yorkers now believe exists only in Neverland.
Everybody knows Peter Luger. (If you do not, then you may be on the wrong web site) Here is a briefing for the slow kids in the class: Around since 1887, the landmark Mecca for meat mavens from around the globe has been voted best steak house so many times by so many people that the stark walls of its dining room could be wallpapered with reviews and press clips. Of course, Luger takes pride in an understated style, which helps you focus on the steak, and steak alone. The canvas on which the charred beast is laid is not white tablecloth but weathered wood table situated on an even more rustic wooden floor. If you can take your eyes from the sublime piece of sizzling prime steak placed in front of you, you feel as if you've gone back to the nineteenth century, which could be the last time the restaurant considered redecorating. But it's all part of the charm.
I went with two buddies who would appreciate the thrill of ruby red flesh as much as myself. Bellying up to the bar, we wouldn't think of ordering anything but Scotch or your basic beer. (If you want to get an Anchor Steam or Magic Hat, jump right back into a cab and over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan.) We ordered up two Becks served in frosted steins. We leaned on the bar (no stools there) and admired the ambience and the gallery of Zagat ratings framed on the opposite wall. Other patrons milled about waiting to feast and discussing what they thought the score of the Yankee game may be. There are no televisions here either -- as Luger purports, this is a true gentlemen's establishment.
When it was time to sit down, we clomped across the wood, following the host to the dining room. The ordering happens fast. We were happy to stick with suds as the beverage of choice. The white-jacketed waiter came over and asked if we wanted menus. We didn't. This is appropriate here. We ordered the Peter Luger Traditional dinner with some sides, which is a beefsteak tomato and onion platter, bread and butter, followed by a plate of thick, juicy strips of smoked bacon -- one strip apiece, each of which equals four stacked strips of the store-bought variety -- and a dry-aged Porterhouse big enough for three. There may be some other stuff available here, but I could see someone getting booted out to the sidewalk for inquiring after the chicken. For us, it didn't matter anyway.
Our wooden-handled knives worked quickly, and we carved up the feast in record time. We were sure to load up the plates to keep the meat from cooking anymore on the sizzling serving dish on which it was presented. There was enough juice for dipping and, of course, copious amounts of venerable Peter Luger steak sauce. The combination of the two would probably make a 20-ounce cut of the floor taste good. The fried potatoes and creamed spinach are part and parcel of the entrée and in line with the fine quality of food in the pursuit of gluttony. We were soon pushing away from the table and twiddling our fingers, which felt empty in anticipation of the trip next door. We skipped desert, paid the cash-only bill and traveled a few feet down the block to have a smoke while the taste of the steak was still on our palates.
The Velvet Lounge literally shares a wall with Luger. It has a modern-looking glass facade, contrasting with the Old World brick face of Luger. Upon entering, you have left the nineteenth century and walked back into New York City of the present era. The low-lit bar is tiled and trimmed in leather. A velvet couch sits by the front window complemented by flowing velvet curtains against exposed-brick walls. A flat-screen television is propped up in the corner so you can catch up on the game you've been missing at dinner and a custom-built glass humidor backs the bar where in a normal establishment a menagerie of bottles would be. Housed in the humidor are Velvet's own brand of cigars in bundles. Cigars are also arranged in front of you in clear desktop humidors in accordance with their body. You go from left to right: mild, medium and full body. I had a medium Bocado with a Brazilian wrapper. The unbanded cigar is made in the Dominican Republic at Velvet's own factory under the label Reserva Dominicana. These are the only cigars the club offers, although you can bring in your own if you don't mind paying a $10 cutting fee. This is the normal price of smoking inside in NYC these days.
There are limited but well-chosen beverage options, which are not for the weak of palate. The bar features a nice selection of Port from Late Bottled Vintage to 40-year-old tawny, as well as rare bottles such as a Graham's Vintage Port from 1970 for $450 -- bottle service only. There is also a wide choice of hard-to-find, potent beers such as the Thomas Hardy's Ale from England and the Belgian Chimay Grande Reserve. Owner Jason Alvator, who is behind the bar on certain evenings, enjoys serving these up and will tell you about each one. You can still get more mainstream stuff like that Magic Hat you didn't order at Luger, but trying the strong rarities is half the fun, and the texture and body of the brews complement a cigar very well. A short wine lists has some crowd-pleasers from various countries and regions, and a gourmet coffee selection goes from Ristretto Classic Espresso to Manhattan Original Espresso Coffee soda. The bar does not have a license for whiskey and other assorted spirits.
The pretty bartender named Rebecca, dressed elegantly in a pearled necklace and a black dress, served me a Taylor Flagate 20-year-old and Alvator poured a sample of the Thomas Hardy's Ale that could have passed for a brandy if I didn't know better. I sipped and smoked, mixing the flavors with the steak in my belly, a nice throwback to the not so distant past that made me savor the moment all the more.
Peter Luger Steak House
(Also a location in Great Neck, Long Island)
Velvet Cigar Lounge
(Also a location in Manhattan at 80 East 7th Street)
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