Hillary Dixler Canavan is a food writer and restaurant editor for Eater. She grew up in New Jersey and maintains close ties to the East Coast, even though she moved to L.A. last summer. She’s the fifth in a special Father’s Day series of people talking about a dish that brings as many memories of Dad as it does flavor.
In my Jersey family, celebrations and special occasions happened at classic steakhouses, which often meant driving into Brooklyn and going to Peter Luger, Keens or even Ruth’s Chris for a smaller occasion closer to home. My dad loved steak, sure, but it was the historic settings that he really cared about. At Keens, for instance, you see those old clay pipes on the ceiling. He loves that kind of ephemera, and he’s also a history nerd, so he’s always had an attraction to places that reward a close eye for detail and beautiful old things.
His order was definitely the porterhouse, which is a big T-bone steak with the filet on one side and the New York strip on the other. One thing that my dad really drilled into us from a young age was the meaning of the different ways you can order a steak. It wasn’t just “rare” and “medium-rare,” but special things like “Pittsburgh rare,” where it’s charred on the outside but deep red on the inside. My dad was a rare steak guy, but he wasn’t afraid to mix it up either. The sides, meanwhile, were essential to making a complete experience. There had to be creamed spinach and some form of potato. And, of course, at Peter Luger, we always got the iconic tomato-and-onion salad, even though it’s not that great. In that case, it was more about consistency to the tradition.
If I remember correctly, my first order was lamb chops. As a little kid, I couldn’t get enough of lamb chops — I loved gnawing on the bones. My dad, though, really doesn’t like lamb, so we never had it at home. He always said that he couldn’t stand the smell of it. That’s probably why I asked him if I was allowed to get lamb — I wasn’t sure, because it’s not steak. He looked at me and said, “Steakhouses are a great place to get lamb chops. That’s a stellar order.” He was so enthusiastic about it. It was such a proud moment when I was young.
After lamb chops, I probably started with something like a small filet mignon, something soft and lean without much funk to it. As I got older, I started to understand why he was so drawn to a porterhouse. I still remember the excitement of seeing that big porterhouse for three people at Peter Luger. We’d get it for the table, so everyone could have a piece of both the strip and the filet.
My dad is retired today, but he had a long career as a tax attorney, working long hours. Despite those long hours, though, he was very big on getting us all together for a family dinner when I was growing up. We all ate together pretty much every night — my dad, my mom, my brother and me. I mostly remember that my dad was always very practical. He wasn’t one for frivolity. So I remember him eating very simply at home. He liked routines — doing the same thing, over and over, without getting tired of it. I think that’s why steakhouses are such a great fit for him, because you know exactly what you’re getting, and the sameness of each visit is part of the pleasure.
Plus, a great steakhouse is never just about the food. Being in the room and having a properly made martini, stirred by somebody who’s been stirring martinis for decades, is what makes it so special.
When my dad visited me in L.A. in April, we went to Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, the oldest restaurant there. It was my first time, but it was awesome for the same reasons why going to an East Coast steakhouse with him as a child was awesome: Other than the location, it was the same as it always was — he had a porterhouse, and I had the lamb.
* * * * *
Steakhouse Lamb Chops
4 double-cut lamb chops
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon neutral oil (veg, canola, etc.)
Cast iron pan (or other heavy metal pan)
1 pound frozen spinach
1 garlic clove
1 strip of bacon
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 pinch nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat a cast iron pan over high heat. As it’s heating, take your lamb chops and gently score the fat side using a sharp knife, making sure to leave only shallow cuts. Rub the lamb chops with some oil, then season generously with salt. When the pan is smoking hot, place the chops fat-side down into the pan. Turn the chops every minute or so, making sure that each side is getting evenly browned. Cook for about 4 minutes a side for medium-rare double-cut chops, and use an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness if necessary. In the final minute of cooking, add the butter into the pan and baste the chops using a spoon. Once they’re done, rest the chops for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, defrost the spinach, then drain it thoroughly by squeezing it between paper towels. Chop the spinach into a fine pile and set aside in a bowl. Chop the 1/2 onion into a small dice, and mince the garlic clove as finely as you can. Chop the bacon into fine bits. Place a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat, then toss in the bacon. When the fat starts to render and sizzle, add the onion and minced garlic and stir, cooking until the onion turns translucent and begins to brown. Add the spinach, stir to cook through, sprinkle in the nutmeg and turn the heat off.
Place a small saucepot over medium-high heat, then add the butter. When it’s melted and foaming, add the flour and stir to create a thick roux. Cook this paste until it’s starting to turn brown and smells nutty, like baked pie crust. Now add in cold milk and whisk rapidly to combine: the result is a bechamel sauce. Once it’s back up to a boil and whisked smooth, combine it with the spinach mixture. Heat up and serve.