I only ordered it because I thought it was Steak Au Poivre. I was at a hole in the wall French restaurant on Avenue A, literally called Flea Market. This was back at the turn of the century, when you could still go out to eat and even have some wine for under thirty bucks in the East Village. But tonight I didn’t really have to worry about that. An older gentleman was taking me out. He was definitely in his thirties. I was twenty-two.
It wasn’t a date. Not really. He was seeing a friend of mine, who lived in LA. And even though weeks ago, he had made it clear he would happily trade her for me, I had politely and strenuously declined. And yet he and I had got into the habit of having dinner, now that the terms of the arrangement were clear. It was funny. I didn’t even like him that much as a person but he was sort of fun, and kind of glamorous, a producer at a cool film company. The first time I met him for drinks, he introduced me to a famous producer, and another time, a relatively well known actor. He always knew where the party was and seemed sophisticated enough, and had an interesting job, and in my early 20s, that was enough to make friends.
Anyway. Here we were, far from his turf of SoHo. He was amused to be in the East Village. In 1999-2000, the East Village was still not integrated into the rest of downtown the way it is now. East of First Avenue, it was ratty, it was far away for everything else, and its own thing. There was nothing better than seeing aging punks with kids on their shoulders at brunch at Leshko on Sunday mornings. And there were just so many wonderful holes in the wall. There was a Belgian place on Avenue C, where ten bucks got you a lamb burger, fries and a beer during the week, and on the weekends you could dance on the tables until dawn and get a pretty good vol au vent au champignons too. There was sushi for cheap, sliced with a flourish by winking Japanese chefs, burrito joints that were crappy but good late at night, amazing Lebanese food, decent bagels made by Africans piled high with crazy kinds of cream cheese and salads, and for some reason several good to very good French bistros, where you could eat well and drink cheaply, and linger forever over cigarettes and Lillet. Flea Market was one. Casimir too which is still very good.
I didn’t grow up eating much steak. We were a chicken and salmon household; my parents rarely touched red meat until they were in their 50s and it turned out it wasn’t really going to kill you. I ate some in college- you can’t help it in Madison, WI, as big a cow town as there is, but that was mostly in the form of burgers. It never occurred to me to order a whole steak. But a few weeks before this particular evening, I had tasted Steak Au Poivre some place else, maybe uptown at a work dinner, and it was magical. And voila! Here it was again, at my favorite neighborhood bistro!
“The Steak Tartare!” I ordered with gusto.
“You are sure, mademoiselle?” the waiter asked, skeptically. But then again, all questions put to a person with a French accent sound skeptical, no?
“Oh! But I adore it!” I said, drawing an exclamation point in the air with my cigarette for emphasis.
My friend raised an eyebrow and looked around. “You’re a brave girl, honey.” He said, in his high-pitched nasal voice. He poured me another glass of wine.
We shared some escargots, and I listened closely as he told me of some of his work gossip, involving the ill manners of a well known director. I was a sponge for that sort of thing. Soon our entrees arrive.
Duck Confit for him.
Steak Tartare for me.
I must have startled slightly, when the waiter place the disk of raw meat, unappetizingly pale, with a tiny raw quail egg perched on top, in front of me, surrounded by a pile of perfect french fries and a small tin ramekin of mayonnaise.
“You ‘ad le tartare, oui?” He said.
“Yes, of course.” I gently tucked the raw egg to the side of my dish and picked up my fork. I tried not to stop and think, I just had to eat, otherwise, what would I do? I would not puke in front of these two. I would get through this. Then I could go home and languish. But not before rinsing out my insides with a lot more Cote du Rhone.
I pause with the fork for just a second, eying my friend’s lovely duck, which he was sawing at with vigor. The skin crunched with an inviting crackle, revealing burnished meat underneath. Wincing, I gathered up my dog food. He stopped to watch me place the fork full of tartar in to my mouth. I prayed I wouldn’t die.
And then what? Oh! Oh! It was wonderful! Rich, and sweet and creamy, with hits of cornichon and caper and onion and ketchup and spicy mustard. There were toast points in a basket, but who the hell cared. I suddenly understood. Steak au Poivre was the gateway drug to this; raw fucking meat. It was like the platonic ideal of every lovely delicious thing from onion to pickle, all mushed up in what amounted to a raw hamburger. It was the savory version of chocolate cake, crazy and flavorful and indulgent, and unlike chocolate cake… possibly dangerous. It was grown up.
I fell in love. Of course I did.
“How is it?” the guy asked, smirking. But he had to ask again. I wasn’t listening anymore. He had become unnecessary at the table. There was only me and the raw meat, now slowly diminishing in front of me. Finally I heard him.
“Soooo good. Do you want some?” I prayed not.
He took my question for what it was- a dare. He stuck his fork in, and hesitantly guided it to his mouth.
“Not bad… a little raw for me.” He said.
“Pussy,” I said. (and thought.)
I ate ravenously, but also delicately. There’s something about steak tartare that prevents the stuffing of the face the way a regular steak does. It’s so much of everything, every savory flavor all in one bite, that you have to eat it with a little grace.
Since then, I’ve eaten it everywhere I can. I’ve had it on potato chips at Blue Ribbon Bakery, and I should have died from it at the grossest restaurant in the Marais, where I may truly have been served the dog’s dinner. It was nice at late, lamented Les Halles, where they made it order and I’d have it with extra Worcester sauce. The best is at Balthazar, where I go with one of my dearest friends in the world when he’s in New York, and we sit, and eat it, and drink martinis and gossip and laugh until we fall over, very drunk. I still love it as much as I did that day, maybe more. That man, on the other hand, has faded out of my life completely.
STEAK TARTARE RECIPE
My advice is never to make this. This is the kind of meal going to restaurants was invented for. Who really wants to see the wizard? Go to Balthazar with a friend that is easy and fun, (not the sort that changes plans ten times or is always on a different diet. The one that loves to eat and talk like you do.) Sit at the bar, order some oysters, a dry martini, and some steak tartar. You’ll be happy and young, no matter what.