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If you've ever tasted the difference between a buttery, silky textured, nearly sweet, age-inflected steak and the chewy, faintly flavored mediocrity that usually passes for prime steak, you're undoubtedly reluctant to settle for the latter. Sadly, however, you'll most likely have to, as there's far from enough superlative steak produced in this country to satisfy demand. Oh, the intrepid steak-seeker achieves bliss every once in a grezat while at the very best places-but not often enough to prevent the phrase "consistent steak house" from practically attaining oxymoron status.

That's why Peter Luger, established in Brooklyn in 1887, continues to surprise me. Six recent visits confirmed an impression I'd gathered over the years-and a reputation no one seems willing to dispute: Peter Luger maintains a level of steak quality that is simply unmatched in America.

How do they do it? The Forman family, who purchased the restaurant from Peter Luger's children in 1950, seems almost as amazed as the rest of us. Jody Forman's best explanation is that she learned how to look at steak from her mother, who learned how to look at it from her mother. These days, Jody, her mom, and her aunt take a walk through Manhattan's very masculine wholesale meat district a few times a week, making their judgments and, somehow, charming the best steak out of purveyors.

Money helps. The Forman's own the building that houses their restaurant, and, with decreased overhead, they have more cash to slap on the barrelhead. They also have room for an in-house cellar where they age steaks at a secret temperature for a secret length of time. But it's no secret they buy meat on the carcass, before dry-aging it-unlike some places that buy meat "wet" (cutup and in plastic bags) before finishing it in aging cellars.

If you've never been to Peter Luger, you may be surprised by many things beyond the quality of the steak. First of all, if you want a reservation in prime time you won't be able to get one for tonight; it takes two weeks of forethought for a weeknight reservation and three to four weeks for a Saturday reservation. Secondly, those in Manhattan are always happy to learn that this part of Brooklyn is not in another time zone; a mere $15 covers a taxi from most downtown points, and about $20 will send you home in one of the limos that hover outside Peter Luger's door.

The next surprise is the bare-bones menu, which lists very little beyond steak. You'll probably order only a salad in addition to your meat plus the signature platter of German fried potatoes. But then comes the real food shocker: The double-thick loin lamb chops are unbelievably succulent, and the "fresh fish in season" (invariably a huge hunk of salmon) is crusty without, velvety within, earthy enough in flavor to be wild salmon.

When it comes to steak (and you're foolish if it doesn't) you have only four choices (not counting a steak sandwich)- and some surprises. Steak surprise #1: There's no differentiation of cuts on the menu. Steak surprise #2: Unlike the meat served at most other steak houses, Peter Luger's steaks are not super thick (all the restaurant's steaks are cut to 1 3/4 inches) nor super crusty (most come only mildly charred). Steak surprise #3: Instead of individuals dining on individual steaks, most people share their meat. In fact, the "Steak Single" (a shell steak, on the bone and with no fillet attached, for $29.50) is the only steak for one on the menu.

Those parties of two or more who know the kitchen well, know to order the "Steak for Two," (doubling the order, say, for a group of four). This steak (for $59) is a porterhouse, on the bone, with a disproportionately large fillet prized by fillet- lovers. Larger parties may also order the Steak for Three ($88.50) or the Steak for Four ($118). Unlike the Steak Single and the Steak for Two, however, the larger orders are not always exactly the same cuts. Yes, they are porterhouses. Yes, they are on the bone. But they feature a smaller portion of fillet than the "Steak for Two," and because a 1 3/4-inch porterhouse is not enough steak for three or four people, the kitchen puts together a collection of porterhouse pieces to make up the platters.

And to drink? Well, there is wine and beer available - decently priced, but not particularly imaginatively chosen. Steak houses are for Martinis, anyway-and here you can macho-out on your Martini without having someone out-macho you with a three-foot cigar (smoking's verboten!). A wonderful, old-world bartender will make your probable wait at the bar a slow, delightful immersion into steakhouse culture. Later, much later, after sampling a few heavy desserts drowned in whipped cream, you will emerge sated. You will emerge happy. And whether this has been your first visit to Peter Luger or your hundredth, you will no doubt emerge amazed at the exemplary quality of steak placed on your plate.

Starters at Peter Luger range from $6.95 for sliced tomatoes (for two) with Luger's own sauce to $16.95 for a large shrimp cocktail. Main courses range from $18.95 for a steak sandwich to $118 for Steak for Four. Peter Luger is open for lunch (with a regular menu and a less expensive lunch menu) Monday through Saturday from 11:45 to 3. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 3:45; last orders are taken at 9:45. On Friday and Saturday, last orders are taken at 10:45. On Sundays, the restaurant opens at 1 P.m. with a regular dinner menu only, and last orders are taken at 9:45. Peter Luger accepts no credit cards.

PETER LUGER
178 Broadway (corner of Driggs)
Brooklyn, NY
Tel. (718) 387-7400