What is it about steak, and the arms race for most opulent steak house, that so clearly telegraphs wealth and prosperity? [rhetorical question]. While Hot Dogs may represent ‘Americana,’ steak embodies the ‘American Dream’ and all that is good about Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.
I recently spent a week in Denver attending a conference. At this conference I was the V-word, ‘vendor.’ That means I spent my time selling: schmoozing, hawking my wares, and most notably, entertaining. And by entertaining I mean, taking high stakes clients to the most impressive dinners my expense account would bear.
As I do with all destinations, I did my homework. Whether the journey is work or pleasure, I always make a point of pre-briefing on notable gastro-landmarks. In my research on Denver I quickly figured out that Denver has two predominant strengths, beer and steak. I resigned to experience both. And experience I did…
By the time I landed at DTW my gut was full and my liver cried uncle. I immediately traded suitcases and drove up north for a weekend with friends on Lake Michigan. And guess what we did? Grill Steaks. I was drunk on beef. All that meat left Gastroboy, and his lower GI, contemplative. Here’s what I’ve concluded.
What Makes a Steak Great? (Homework section – scroll down if facts bore you)
USDA Beef Grades There’s some debate in the beef world over the criteria for grading beef. As it stands today, USDA grades are assigned based on two primary attributes: marbling, or the degree of intramuscular fat, and age of the beast at slaughter. The pinnacle in this construct is assigned the distinction of “Prime.” Only 3% of beef in the US is Prime. The term “Prime” has become an excessively leveraged marketing term to instill an air of superiority. The most common grade is “Choice,” representing about 60% of domestic beef. All remaining carcasses are spread out across “Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter” and most amusingly, “Canner.”
Cut (to bone or not to bone) Let’s face it – we’re all in pursuit of the loins. [insert snarky comment here] From there personal preference reigns supreme. The most tender strip of steaks come from the short loin. Moving backwards on the beast you’ll find what some would argue are the more flavorful sirloins. That’s where you get the “tri-tip.” The tenderloin is a small stretch of the most tender beef running the length of both. My favorite, albeit producing more food than one man reasonably requires, is a bone-in Porterhouse, including a strip of short loin on one side, and the filet of tenderloin on the other.
Dry Aging When I was younger I found aging to be a confounding component of steak house lore. I was imprinted with the foundational principle that “fresher is better.” Why would high-end meat houses brag about letting beef hang in a cooler for weeks? Wouldn’t it rot? No. What I’ve since learned is that it when done correctly this aging process creates a magical transformation in flavor. Dry aging allows for excess moisture to evaporate, rendering the remaining protein more concentrated in flavor. In the absence of moisture more subtle flavors shine through, often perceived as ‘nutty’ or ‘grassy.’
Cooking Method Simply put: It’s a shame if there’s no flame. Enough said.
Buttering Here’s another curious point. Many well respected chefs insist on topping freshly cooked steaks with a tab of butter. I’ve been told that it allows the steak to retain moisture in the brief interlude between cooking and consumption. If it were butter alone I might me compelled to accept the idea. Butter is, in most cases, derived from the fat of the same beast. Here’s my problem. Many chefs get “Frenchy” with it and add herbs to the butter. These herbs dramatically impact the flavor of the beef. From my perspective, buttering is more often than not, a gimmick.
Sauce Now for a real debate. IN MY OPINION all great chefs fall into one of two camps…
- French Inspired: It’s all about the flavor that you create. Technique reigns supreme and ingredients are combined in complex detail.
- Italian (or Mediterranean) Inspired: It’s all about the natural flavor within. Simplicity reigns supreme and individual ingredients are highlighted.
I’m genealogically and gastronomically Italian. As such, I have never understood the fascination with steak sauce. Why would you work so hard to nurture a perfect steak and then smother it in foreign flavor? Perhaps you’re masking an imperfection?
I’ve softened with age and come to tolerate, even admire some steak companions. Here’s four classic options.
- Béarnaise Sauce: clarified butter emulsified in egg yolks and flavored with herbs
- Au Poivre / Peppercorn Sauces: heavy cream, congnac and or Dijon, and of course, black pepper
- Brown Sauces: This is the A-1, Lea & Perrins crowd, markedly strong in their savory nature. The most common varieties share a base of tomato, vinegar and fish
- Mushroom Sauces: I’m not sure who or how mushrooms became paired with beef, but I’m a fan. I much prefer freshly sautéed whole-fruit portabellas to a sauce. Still, the sauces persist.
What Makes A Great Steak House?
This is simple… The blueprint for a successful steak menu is well established. Quality steak is a prerequisite. A basic selection of cuts and well-prepared side dishes will easily accommodate most diners. The truly differentiating attributes that separate men from boys (or women from girls) are service and decor.
Service If you’ve never waited tables you’re missing out on one of the most compelling perspectives on humanity. And few customers are more demanding in their pre-established bias than steak customers. A truly remarkable steak house waiter can simultaneously appease a connoisseur while politely training a novice diner without the slightest air of patronizing or arrogance. It’s a delicate dance. I tip my hate to those who master the art.
NOTE: I have one beef with Steak House service; explaining the individual cuts to unenlightened diners is a horribly cumbersome necessary evil. At a recent dinner, the otherwise perfect waiter rambled though his rehearsed spiel with such boredom that he could have been advising Cedar Point Coaster riders to keep hands and feet within the car. I was embarrassed for him. Can someone please figure out how to make this experience more endurable?
Décor Steak culture is by nature, masculine. From a naturalists standpoint it’s Cowboys and Cattlemen; tough, rugged Men’s Men exerting their strength over the species. On a commercial plane, it’s the quintessential “Boy’s Club;” powerful barons of industry communing over the spoils of their wealth. Dining rooms celebrate this power. Dark, rich paneled wood adorned with polished flourishes of victory. Before big screen TVs, the steak house was the original Man Cave. If you don’t feel humbled, the room isn’t finished. There’s an arms race in the Steak world to create the most opulent dining environment. My personal favorite is Prime in the Las Vegas Bellagio. Admittedly, more stylishly refined than the traditional Mahogany and Brass, and not in the least rugged, it’s a truly luxurious lair. I get randy just thinking about it.
Chains Here’s a curious thought…Chain restaurants have a diminished value in the culinary world. They lack authenticity. Still, in steak a few gold standards have succeeded in franchising their brand without tarnishing their cache. Is this a short lived anomaly that will expire as the dining public evolves or have these brands discovered the commercial antidote? Ruth’s Chris is clearly inferior. I’m specifically thinking of Morton’s and the Capital Grille. What’cha think?
Steak in A2
Ann Arbor has two amazing Steak houses. Their execution of the concept however, could not be more polar. Here’s my take. What’s yours?
Knights: I have to start with Knights, the more senior establishment (pun intended). Knight’s opened in 1984 as an expansion of the local’s favorite butcher shop. When I moved to town I heard legend of Knights. The stories bordered on mythical. Since that time I've made many trips to Knights. I’ve come to relish the institution. And while there’s much to tell, I’d like to start with a few tales about their bar. While many steakhouses become famous for their wine cellars, Knight’s is known for their cocktails. Understand, I’m not talking about the recent mixology crowd – I’m talking about strong men and stronger women draining the well with such fortitude they make Don Draper look like a pansy.
Bar Story #1: My company employs folks around the country. It’s common for us to host a group of out-of-towners. During one such hosting event I was invited to join another department’s dinner. You should know, I consider myself a local ambassador. I enjoy showing guests around. To that end, I was bothered to learn the group was going to Knights. What? No offence to Knights, but if I want to show-off Ann Arbor I am NOT dragging folks across town so they can see Maple Village.
When I challenged the choice of restaurants I learned that it was an imperative. Tales of Knights generous pour had long been common with this team. In the spirit of work-hard, play-hard, this group likes to get their drink on. Red Meat and gimlets were lifetimes more appealing than parading around hipsters on Main Street. This is also a fiscally conscious team and they’d determined that Knight’s offered the best food-to-buzz value in town. I was allowed to join with on condition, I didn't "puss out" and order wine. Charming.
Bar Story #2: On an entirely separate occasion I was sharing Knight’s stories with some friends. A woman in the group proudly proclaimed, “I know I have to put on my big-girl pants when I order a drink at Knights.” This statement is endlessly more endearing knowing that same woman is an elementary school teacher.
Do you have a picture in your head yet? Let me add color. The dining room at Knights reminds me of the 80’s – a mix between a Ponderosa Steakhouse and the Regal Beagle (a “Three’s Company” Reference for the younger readers). Steaks are served on pewter platters and sides come on cafeteria grade china. The salad is iceberg and the bread is soft. While Smoking’s been banned for years, you can imagine the smell with nostalgia. There is not a single air of pretense in this place. And therein lies the glory. There is nothing more authentic than Knights.
And the steak? Sublime! There is no one better to take care in serving your steak than the hard working family of a butcher. If you want sauce you’re going to get a bottle. Not a tureen. And to accompany the steak? All entrees include choice of potato, choice of soup or salad, fresh vegetable of the day, and house bread. If you don’t leave full it’s not Knight’s fault.
Final Advice: Get ready to wait. The word is out. Even on weeknights when Main Street is a ghost town there’s a line at Knights. The Blue Hairs start showing up around four and the crowds last till nine. And while you’re waiting don’t get distracted. Knight’s waits for no-one. If your name is called and you don’t respond they move on, simple as that. Not even Mother nature stops Knights. After a horrific spring flood I stopped in at Knights for a week-day Daddy-daughter date. There was an inch of water rushing in through the west side of the dining room. A wet-dry vac and fifty feet of extension cords wrapped though the waiting area. As I stood at the host stand assessing the situation an elderly woman with a walker told me to, “put my name in or beat it. I’m trying to get through.” I LOVE KNIGHTS.
Chop House: You’ve got to respect our friends at Main Street Ventures. Nothing says success like fine art and wine lockers. While “The Chop House” has yet to establish the same national recognition of brands like Morton’s, I relish in Ann Arbor pride driving through Annapolis and finding on of their growing number of sister restaurants – each equally as refined.
The Chop House is a Nouveau Steak House. By that I mean, they subscribe to the ala carte menu philosophy. Cuts are highlighted as individual masterpieces and sides are presented separately. As a restaurateur, it’s a brilliant tool for building check averages. As a diner it’s a great way to sample multiple sides. Everything, and I mean everything, is superb. I am particularly fond of their Cheddar Au Gratin Potato’s.
The Chop House also offers tremendous seafood options without overtly indulging the cliché “Surf & Turf” motif. Oysters and filets are flown-in fresh. Lobster is presented with care allowing diners to enjoy without fear of donning a bib.
Technology Note: It’s worth noting that the Chop House is now using the Menuvative tablet menu system. This was not used at my last visit. I have not experienced it. I’m curious to hear what others think.
Service: Again, major respect for the team at Main Street Ventures. While I still have emotional scars from when they forced diners to relocate downstairs for dessert, they have matured into a staple of local luxury. The servers are professional steward of pleasure; polite, educated and masterful at anticipating the needs of their guests. Bravo.
Final Note: I miss the Chef’s Table. After some ten years of success the Chop House closed briefly for some design refreshing. One of the changes was the removal of their Chef’s Table in the front left window. It was replaced with a larger Chef’s Table in the front right window. While this accommodates larger groups, the table is too large for the space. It makes for a less intimate meal and awkward passage around the table. I miss the original.
POST SCRIPT I can’t talk about steak houses without sharing my tale of the 48 oz. Club. In 2003 my respectably carnivorous father-in-law learned that Shulas Steak House offers a 48 oz Porterhouse. Those brave enough to order and finish the cut are inducted into the 48 oz Club. Victors earn a commemorative autograph and the pride of having their name displayed in brass. Enough said. We immediately made plans for the pilgrimage.
For weeks ahead of time I researched strategies for competitive eating. Should I fast, should I gorge? Can I even consider an appetizer? Would alcohol help or hurt? Should we start with the filet side or strip? Ultimately I went with the water method, drinking gallons of water in the hopes of stretching my stomach and more importantly, keeping my gastro-intestinal track lubricated.
When the big day finally arrived we’d become giddy adolescent boys. Luckily, the staff had seen our kind before and was hospitable enough to play along.
Understand, cows are only so big. To achieve the requisite weight the butcher simply cuts thicker. The resulting steak rises above the plate like three T-Bones stacked upon one another. It’s an imposing sight.
Now here’s the real shocker. While I’d love to tell a tale of exhaustive, lethargic agony, it simply wasn’t the case. We set a strong pace. Conversation carried the meal so effortlessly that our progress became an afterthought, like sports scores scrolling along the bottom of the screen. When we both finished we stared at each other with equal parts shock and pride. Dessert? Most definitely! Within minutes we polished off a Crème Brule the size of a casserole dish and a chocolate cake large enough to feed a family.
The night ended with photos in the lobby and a high-fives from the staff. On a rare occasion someone drills down to page three or four of my google results and discovers the achievement. It’s a proud moment. A similar search for my brothers yields race times. I’m a competitive eater. In deed!