The newest phenomenon to mow through backyard leisure culture is the professional grilling center -- a portable outdoor kitchen with a gas grill, range, rotisserie, and more counter space than the average New York apartment. These monster outdoor appliances, offered by top manufacturers like Viking and Sunbeam, can be wheeled onto your patio, transplanting your kitchen into the garden; retailers can hardly keep them in stock. (Talk about taking the let's-stick-it-to-the-Joneses mentality to a new level.)
But you don't need to drop several grand to grill the perfect steak. Anything from a portable hibachi to the classic Weber Kettle grill will do; you're only limited by space and the city's fire codes. (Gas grills are prohibited in multiple-residence buildings, and all charcoal grills must be ten feet from any combustible.) Before that first burger sizzles, you'll have to choose sides in the gas-versus-charcoal debate. While some feel gas grills don't add enough of that woodsy flavor, they still account for more than 50 percent of the grills out there and are the best option if you're looking for convenience and easy year-round use (effortless ignition means you won't have to spend more time out in the cold than you have to). Bobby Flay, chef at Mesa Grill and author of Boy Meets Grill, admits he fires up his gas grill more than the charcoal one. "I understand the culture behind burning wood," he says. "But if you have the technology, why not use it?" Vincent Scotto, the chef at Scopa, feels that the biggest concern with gas grills is working up enough heat for a good char. He recommends turning on the grill and keeping it closed for twenty minutes before tossing on the food.
Adding natural wood chips to a gas grill (soaked in water, wrapped in aluminum foil, and placed on or under the grate) or using a smoker box can help you achieve some of that charcoal-cooking flavor. But as Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue! Bible, points out, "It's more a question of temperament than taste; if you're the kind of person who likes the sport of grilling, setting fires, and lighting fires -- that interactive sportsmanship -- you have to get a charcoal grill." We love the classic Weber Performer grill with Touch-n-Go gas ignition system ($449.99 at Gracious Home, 1220 Third Avenue, at 70th Street; 517-6300). A small propane tank lights the charcoal, so there's no stinky lighter fluid. The connected stand is a handy place to put your platters, and there's also a coal bin. Scotto declares it "the best grill out there."
If you know you're going to grill all year long, have a ton of space, and feel it's worth the money to invest in an outdoor grilling center, take a look at Viking's Professional 53-inch S-Series gas grill. Going for a robust $4,692 (at Gringer & Sons, 29 First Avenue, at 2nd Street; 475-0600; or call 1-888-VIKING1 to order via catalogue), this grill has enough firepower -- four dual grill burners, an infrared rotisserie, a built-in smoker, and fold-down shelves -- to make a midtown street vendor smolder with envy. Benson has also just released the first all-in-one grill that allows you to cook with gas, charcoal, or wood. The gorgeous 79-inch-wide carted grill comes with adjustable grids, a motorized rotisserie, and 90,000-BTU burners. Because it's got a hefty $9,950 price tag, you might expect that it would clean up after itself, too, but no such luck (available in June; call 1-888-306-2676 to order by catalogue).
The first challenge for die-hard pyros with charcoal grills is always getting those coals hot. You don't want to use lighter fluid, as the chemicals -- and their flavor -- can transfer to your food. Instead, we prefer an electric-coil starter or a chimney starter to quickly and safely ignite charcoal, though pros like Waldy Malouf, chef at Beacon on 56th Street, love to get things smoking the old-fashioned way, with paper and twigs. And always cook with "hardwood lump charcoal" (look for those words on the bag) instead of briquettes; it burns hotter, cleaner, and longer. Donna Myers, spokesperson for the Barbecue Industry Association and owner of 28 grills of her own, urges grillers to not just grab the cheapest bag of charcoal out there; those brands tend to be laced with greater amounts of fillers, invariably forcing you to use more charcoal than you would with a better brand. Raichlen likes Nature's Own charwood, made of sugar-maple hardwood ($8.99 at the Vinegar Factory, 431 East 91st Street; 628-9608), but finds that grilling with chunks of actual wood "adds a natural smoke flavor that's incomparable -- it's one-upmanship to the nth degree." David Walzog of Michael Jordan's The Steakhouse NYC suggests using cherrywood or hickory chips for flavor, which can be picked up in any gourmet gift shop.
If you're looking to capture some of that big-grill versatility with your classic charcoal number, try Weber's electric rotisserie attachment ($99.99 at Fortunoff in New Jersey's Woodbridge Mall; 732-602-1000; and Gracious Home). Any 22 1/2-inch Kettle Grill can be transformed into a rotisserie cooker, allowing you to easily throw together feasts featuring such hitherto impossible-to-try-at-home delicacies as Todd English's spit-roasted "Greek style" cumin-rubbed chicken (see page 30).
In the land of grilling accessories, though, tongs are king, and Bobby Flay wouldn't flip a pork loin without a pair of spring-loaded restaurant tongs ($5.95 at Bridge Kitchenware, 214 East 52nd Street; 688-4220). And the usual oven mitts won't do. Pick up a pair of well-insulated mitts with extra-long gauntlets (we're talking all the way to the elbow) to protect your forearms ($27.50 each at Bridge Kitchenware, good to 550 degrees and washable).
In these days of food-poisoning paranoia, a Taylor instant-read thermometer ($8.99 at the Vinegar Factory) is indispensable when it comes to measuring the doneness of steaks, chicken, and especially hamburgers. Keep a spray bottle filled with water on hand in case of flare-ups and a refillable olive-oil sprayer or mister -- Malouf uses an olive-oil-and-vinegar combination -- for roasted vegetables. As commandment No. 5 of "The Ten Commandments of Perfect Grilling" in The Barbecue! Bible advises: Keep it lubricated.
Apartment-bound Manhattanites needn't feel left out, either. Myers thinks Char-Broil's Patio Caddie, the first high-performance electric grill safe and small enough for use on city terraces, is a great alternative. Only $154 and sixteen inches in diameter, the Patio Caddie (at The Home Depot, 550 Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-369-8400) actually heats up to 700 degrees, allowing for easy searing of steaks and chops (and your smoke alarm won't have a seizure).