Last week, I revisited Ernesto’s, the very popular “Basque taverna” in Two Bridges, specifically hoping to have some very bad steak. Actually, this isn’t totally true, and I want to be clear that I’ve mostly enjoyed my meals at Ernesto’s, but all spring, I’ve been stalking the restaurant’s Instagram, waiting for their steak special to return to the menu.
This all started after a lively Monday night in March — stop No. 111 on the YIANY map for anyone keeping track — when I’d had a great time at the restaurant, munching on canapés and soupy rice while chatting at the bar with a couple who was visiting from Mexico City. Then, the next day, before I’d even had a chance to tell anyone I’d gone, a co-worker sent me a restaurant tip on Slack. Apparently, this co-worker said, Ernesto’s was serving the “worst steak in NYC.” While the co-worker himself had not had it, he’d heard reliable complaints, and the rumor was at least one famous chef had stopped going to the restaurant completely after eating the meat in question.
How could a steak possibly be so bad? I tried to find more information: It was being sold as an Iberian delicacy, vaca vieja, with some yarn about the lifetime of the geriatric cow that’s used woven into the waiter’s preamble. Intrigued, I decided to go try it myself, but one night I couldn’t get a seat, and when I checked in again, the steak had disappeared from the menu completely.
The stars finally aligned last week, when the steak returned and I was able to secure a spot for myself. Part of me wanted it to be good, of course, but another part of me hoped it would live up to its notorious reputation. The other selling points of this $65 steak, I learned, were that “it’s more sustainable” and “more like what you would get in Spain but very different from what we’re used to,” which is what my waitress told me as I ordered. “It’s an older cow,” she continued, “so the meat’s going to have more of a chew to it.” Then she offered some actionable advice — “I always tell people if you eat smaller bites, it’s great!” — adding ominously, “I just like to warn people so they know what to expect!”
It was the first time I’d ever been warned quite so seriously about the steak I had just ordered. Despite this, I still didn’t think it would be awful. I’ve eaten stranger things than “dry-aged” beef from “an older cow” that happens to be “chewy.” This will be fine, I thought, as I took a sip from my martini, which was garnished with a spear of olives, rolled anchovies, and pickled peppers.
My txuleta de vaca vieja came out rare, sliced, and arranged with its bone. I could see the admiration of the guy at the other end of the bar, and a passing waiter gave me an approving nod. Neither of them knew I ordered this only because I’d heard it was awful.
I took a bite of the red flesh and noticed how much more flavorful it was than the corn-fed stuff you might get somewhere else. I started to think this was going to be a pretty good steak after all. But a couple of pieces into my meal, I caught myself chewing to the tune of “Bicycle Race,” by Queen, which was playing over the speakers. Much as I tried, I could not get the meat to break down, eventually giving up and choking down a wad of gristle with a gulp of Rioja.
I moved on to the narrower end of the steak, where a band of caramelized yellow fat beckoned, but the situation did not get easier. My Ernesto’s-issued steak knife struggled to slice through the squeaky knots. At one point, I even checked the blade under my thumb to see if it was actually sharp.
The meat tasted great, but I just couldn’t eat it at the rate it was taking to cut it into small pieces and chew as diligently as I had been instructed. I imagined eating a steak like this under the shade of a trellis in the countryside and realized that if you hit something indigestible, you could just spit it out into the field behind you and let the dogs find it. Alas, on East Broadway, that move probably wouldn’t go over so well.
I was conflicted, and not entirely disappointed, but the next day, I still had questions, so I called the chef, Ryan Bartlow. He told me the restaurant buys an entire cow from Kinderhook Farm in the Hudson Valley and uses every part, breaking it down into this dish, a smaller tavern steak, and various meatballs or braises, for example. “I know that you have to get in there with specific components of the meat, but I love every element of it,” he said. “It’s grass fed. To me, it’s delicious. It’s a 60-day dry age. We have a whole program with the farmer.” Then Bartlow added, “I think, occasionally, maybe people have their opinion about it.”
I asked about all that cartilage. Was I just supposed to swallow it? I simply was not sure about the etiquette of it all. “I think you have got to be strategic when you get in there with a fork and a knife and cut around,” Bartlow suggested. “I feel very strongly about the animal, and it’s very specific. You could compare it to the way certain people feel about specific types of wine that are in trend right now or certain cheeses or liqueurs. It’s esoteric and different, but I’m trying to do something that’s reflective of what I learned how to do” while working in Spain.
I can respect a strong POV and a focus on sustainability, and I recalled my first trip to Ernesto’s, eating rabbit with snail ragout — not exactly a dish that’s guaranteed to move units the same way a burger or a tableside Caesar might. “I think maybe for some people, it is challenging,” Bartlow said, “but for me, it’s never been about trying to push the envelope in any way that’s trying to challenge anyone. It’s really just about sharing what makes me happy.”
I asked if anyone ever sends back the steak, and he estimated about 90 percent of his customers like it. “There are those 10 percent that say it’s not for them, and that’s why we always try to give a spiel beforehand, that if you’re used to a tomahawk steak at Quality Meats, this is not that, you know?”
Having eaten it, I do know. It was heartening to hear the chef stand up for his dish even if I had to ultimately count myself among that 10 percent. And I had to give Bartlow credit: I had never considered the qualities of the specific cow I was eating as much as I did with this txuleta.
“We know there are people that probably wouldn’t enjoy it, and that’s why we try to tell them not to get it,” Bartlow said as we ended our call. “Some people still want to. If we can’t win them over, that’s okay — we figure it out, and most people end up leaving happy.”
A running list of everywhere I’ve been, week 17: 174. Heidelberg 175. The Four Horsemen 176. Matsunori 177. Double Chicken Please 178. San Pedro Inn 179. Macosa Trattoria (I also went to Ernesto’s, of course, but this running list just tracks places I’m visiting for the first time.)