Sunday, April 06, 2008

Steaks and More

Flat Iron Steak at Moonshine Grill in AustinI have to admit being a newcomer to the world of steaks and steakhouses. Conditioned by my upbringing in India, I began by ordering my steaks well-done - that is, until two years back. I was at the Moonshine Grill in Austin, Texas. The pained expression on the waiter's face when I said 'well done' made me change the order of my Flat Iron to 'medium rare', and I have never looked back since!

Steakhouses are a revered institution in America. Catering predominantly to the male customer, these places have rarely focused the ladies. Therefore, the traditional steakhouse lacks chic interiors, variety in the menu, sophisticated side-dishes and the like. What you do get are large cuts of meat, potato sides, and warm, dark interiors.

Kobe SteakSteaks can be pretty expensive now. It is possible to spend over $150 on your steak at dinner. To make you part with your money, upscale steakhouses have gone beyond advertising certified Black Angus or USDA Prime. Now, diners can expect customized beef: corn-fed or grass-fed; USDA Prime or the highly marbled Wagyu beef from boutique American producers or from Japan's Kobe region; and wet-aged or dry-aged.

For the newbie, here are some basics you need to know before heading to the new, modern steakhouses:

Dry-aged slab of steakDry-aged: Beef is hung in climate-controlled rooms (sometimes lined with salt) for three to six weeks, sometimes longer. As the moisture evaporates and enzymes break down tissue, the beef shrinks, the texture becomes gelatinous, and the flavor becomes concentrated.

Wet-aged: Beef is vaccum-packed in plactic and ages in its own juices, for seven to 28 days. The texture becomes tender, but the flavor does not become concentrated. This is the common aging method.

Corn-fed: Cattle that spends their final months in a feedlot eating a grain-rich diet. The meat has more marbling and a richer flavor than grass-fed beef.

Grass-fed: Cattle that spends their lives feeding on grasses in pastures. The meat is often lean, cooks quickly and has a nutty flavor, though critics claim it can be tough and gamey.

Prime: The highest grade of beef awarded by the Department of Agriculture in the USA and is given to less than 2% of the meat produced every year.

$200 Kobe SteakKobe: A region of Japan famous for its Wagyu cattle.

Wagyu (wa-gu): A breed whose meat is known for its rich flavor, exhorbitant price and exceptionally high fat content (marbling). When raised in Japan, the cattle are fed barley, wheat bran, grass and beer, their skin is massaged with sake, and their recieve little exercise.

American Wagyu: Cattle with Wagyu genes that are raised in the USA and aften crossbred with Black Angus.

The common brag on USDA Prime beef is that it's butter knife tender; Kobe beef can reach six grades higher. So tender and rich, Kobe is more like foie gras or something else of ethereal taste and texture - perhaps a truffle or some luscious nut. The key is the marbling of fat, but it's not the travertine stripes and veins we call 'marbling' in an expensive cut at the meat counter. In Kobe, the fat dots the beef thoroughly ; it looks like polished granite, not marble. When cooked, the fat melts slightly in every part of the beef.

Dry aged beefThe catch is that it must be cooked quickly; even medium rare is risky. Meat this expensive deserves care at the stove, hitting hot iron just long enough to get a crisp crust like seared tuna. The chef needs to take care that the grill is perfectly hot so the beef comes away with a crisp crust and a rare interior.

Even the most genetically blessed beef can turn tough if it is not treated properly. Chilling the meat immediately after slaughter triples its toughness. The ultimate steak has to be cooled gradually and then properly aged. Most importantly, it must be cooked to no more than 140ºF (60ºC), or medium rare.

This brings us to another paradox: moist raw meat means dry, tasteless steak. Fresh is certainly not best. Beef has to be hung to lose excess water, develop complex flavor, and break down tough fibers, but for how long? Experts disagree, sometimes violently!

Coming back to steakhouses in America, there are changes afoot. A new generation of celeb chefs are bucking trend with their new offerings that are architecturally stunning, female-friendly, and loaded with contemporary sides.

Great beefWolfgang Puck's Cut opened about two years back at Beverly Wishire Hotel in Los Angeles. With a light, airy decor, impossibly good-looking waiters in cool and casual outfits, this restaurant's popularity now rivals Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago, located just a few blocks away. Meats are grilled over wood and charcoal and finished under a 1200 degree broiler. Sexy sides includes bone-marrow flan with mushroom marmalade and parsley salad; roasted Chino Farm baby beets with French feta cheese, pistachio, citrus and micro cress.

Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Westin Chicago Northshore Hotel offers 10 cuts of USDA Prime beef, both wet- and dry-aged. While prime ribs are seared in a wood-burning oven, other cuts are seared on a 1200 degree high-speed broiler. Toppers for the steaks include sliced marrow, truffled poached eggs and seared foie gras. Sides include foie gras terrine with rhubarb, red wine and strawberries; sauteed sweetbread salad with chanterelle mushrooms, pears, chestnuts, French beans and black currant vinaigrette.

Stripsteak in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, opened only a year back. However, this has quickly become one of Michael Mina's most profitable restaurants. Creative highlights include a unique steak-cooking method that combines slow-poaching in oil with wood-grilling; a 'Shabu Shabu' appetizer that allows customers to cook strips of Kobe beef in a hotpot of matsutake mushroom broth; and foie gras prepard four different ways.

There are many others now who let you eat steak in style. Emeril Lagasse with his Delmonico Stealhouse in Vegas to Bobby Flay and his 11000 square foot Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City. The trend probably began with the celebrity chef run Prime which opened at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas featuring gourmet side-dishes and a view of the dancing water fountains.

Finally, a warning for some of my Indian friends: Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, in his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, says the worst meat is usually reserved for those who order well-done steaks. So there!

Note: In addition to my own experiences, I have sourced information from articles in Time and USA Today (dated July 27, 2007). Pictures sourced from Time have been linked back to the original photo-essay.


Sig said...

lol, yep we did the well-done bit for a while too... :) Now I can't even imagine... and after reading Kitchen Confidential, I am so ashamed...

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Anonymous said...

@sig: Hey, welcome back!

@shaan khan: Hmm, thanks for the info. Good steakhouses are not cheap, like you have pointed out too.

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Holly Jean said...

yeah.. i had my steak medium rare this valentines day.... chef's recomendation cos i actually ordered it well done, and the waiter came back to me to say the chef recommends this cut to be done medium rare.. i trusted him and have not turned back since.. it was sooo tender,,, melt in your mouth type of goodness!! :d

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Anonymous said...

@shaan: Punishable crime...heh! I guess you love your food as much as I do!

@holly jean: I remember your Valentine Day dinner experience (you blogged about it). Lucky girl! :-)

The meat certainly tastes way better when less cooked (which was a surprise to me the first time).

@shaan: I am pretty certain it is risky! Unfortunately most things we enjoy eating are. :-)

Anonymous said...

You are a man after my own heart. Great article. Oh maan. I wanna get some medium rare Wegyu this moment.

I live in Brooklyn. Peter Luger is an institution, but its speciality is the Poterhouse steak. Smith and Wollensky in Manhattan has a tartare....and thats hardcore. Try that sometimes. I'm more of a rare to medium rare depending on the cut and the meat.

Patrix said...

Great post! I am a relatively newbie to the joys of steak but I'm completely hooked now, no pun intended. I usually go with medium-well coz have been queasy about the rare part but now based on your recommendation, I'm taking at least a step back and going for the medium. I haven't eaten at a upper-end steakhouse yet and have restricted to Texas Roadhouse stuff but there is a new steak restaurant in town which makes me wanna try it out.

Anonymous said...

@arzan: Hmm, another Peter Luger fan!

@patrix: Let me know how it goes... :-)

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Wavefunction said...

Corn-fed beef is one of the reasons why Americans have become the corniest people on earth, why beef prices have dropped, why there is a secret "Department of Corn" in D.C. and why antibiotic resistance is exponentially going up; corn in animal rumens breeds more and tougher bacteria. Pumping the animals with antibiotics breeds even tougher bacteria that then can get transmitted to humans. Ah, the fond hopes of industrialized cattle...and don't remind me of Texas Roadhouse Patrix. I tend to display violent behavior from the restlessness ;)

Anonymous said...

I now feel truly wise about the ways of the steak. And to think I have been having steak well done all these years.

Thank you.

indicaspecies said...

What a fascinating post full of interesting information.

I like my steak Medium. :)

Anonymous said...

@ashutosh, greatbong: Thanks for visiting. Looks like DesiPundit picked this post up getting me a sudden spurt of visitors.

@indicaspecies: You are almost there... :)

Anonymous said...

As always, your post is a great read - so informative with substantial facts.

There are steakhouses in Norway too and they are connected to American food tradition. I don't mind a good meal, but this its often a bit to big or too much food.

Nomadic Matt said...

I was a vegetarian for many years and when i did start eating meat (i wanted to try kangaroo in australia), i never knew how to cook it or order it was always too rare or too burnt...

I like the your travel blog. it's well written and informative.

I have one of my own. come take a look if you so fancy.

Anonymous said...

@rennyba: Welcome back here. I haven't researched or experienced European steakhouses, but I do hear about some great ones in Spain.

@nomadic matt: Thank you and welcome! Will certainly pay a visit to your blog.

Anonymous said...

So, Shantanu, here is what I cannot decide. Is it better to eat a Wagyu steak or to be the wagyu cow? If being the cow gets me to be fed 'grass' and beer and regularly rubbed down with Sake, the possibility of ending up as a Wagyu steak on someone's plate doesnt seem a bad price to pay. We all die anyway; but how many of us get massaged with Sake?

Anonymous said...

@hari: Haha! Good point. :)