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NEW YORK CORNER: Two Steakhouses You Can Depend On by John Mariani
LIES MY STEAKHOUSE TELLS ME
by John Mariani
A great steak is not a subject Americans take lightly.
In the John Ford western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (left) John Wayne almost gets into a duel with Lee Marvin over his refusal to pick up a slab of beef dropped on the steakhouse floor.
“That’s my steak, Valance,” growls The Duke, putting his hand on his pistol. “You pick it up.” Marvin snarls back, but he does pick up that steak.
O.K., that’s a little extreme, but men will argue endlessly over which steakhouse serves the best sirloin, tenderloin, T-bone or porterhouse, and debate which serves the perfect Martini, the crispiest hash browns, the ripest tomato salad, and the creamiest cheesecake.
Steakhouses are a genuinely American genre and examples of our exuberant largess when it comes to eating out. Most look a lot alike, offer pretty much the same sacrosanct menu, and charge about the same (these days a 16-ounce Prime sirloin runs about thirty bucks everywhere), and the big national chains like Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Palm, and Smith & Wollensky thrive because their patrons depend on them never to vary, right down to the waiters’ jackets and the hot platters those steaks come on.
But at a time when ultra-pricey steakhouses are proliferating like rabbits, you may have noticed that your $50 porterhouse at your favorite steakhouse doesn’t taste the way it used too—in a word, beefy—despite the restaurant’s claim that it only serves Prime, the top grade awarded via purple stamp by inspectors for the USDA. You’re right, it doesn’t, because your steakhouse may well be fudging on what it’s serving you. Here’s what you have to know:
1. USDA Prime never constitutes more than 2-5 percent of the meat supply, and 20 years ago nearly all of it went to New York City steakhouses. One steakhouse owner in NYC told me that currently the percentage is down to less than one percent. Yet scores of new steakhouses now claim they serve Prime. Do the math. Cattlemen simply don’t go out of their way to produce Prime-grade steers because a) the streaky, interior muscle fat called “marbling,” is largely a genetic anomaly, and b) it’s too damn expensive to overfeed a steer and hold it back from slaughter for such a small market that wants prime.
2. To meet demand for Prime, however, standards for USDA Prime have been repeatedly reduced--three times!-- over the last two decades, so that much of what passes for “Prime” today would have been graded “Choice” a few years ago.
3. You could number on the fingers of one hand the restaurants that actually “dry age” their own meat, meaning they receive it fresh from the slaughterhouse, then age it in their own cold lockers. “Wet aged” means the beef is aged slightly by the meat packers, then shipped in its body fluids in Cryovac. Some restaurants contend they will then further age the meat themselves, but once it’s been wet aged, it ain’t going to “dry age” well. The meat will be mushy and bright red, when it should be tighter and dark red.
4. “Angus,” which appears on many steakhouse menus, is not a grade of beef but a breed of steer (right), which may be of any grade. “Certified Black Angus” (CAB) is a proprietary name for a company that sells mostly high-grade Top Choice and a smaller percentage of Prime.
5. “Prime rib” of roast beef is not a grade, but a cut from meat between the primal chuck and short loin containing seven ribs.
6. “Kobe beef,” called wagyu in Japan (left), is a richly marbled beef from a specially raised breed, but from 2001 until last December it was long banned from importation to the U.S. because mad cow disease was found in some Japanese cattle. Kobe is back in the market now, but if you see that name on a menu, it may still not be from Japan and probably coming from Texas, made from the same breed of steer, but hasn’t much else in common with the original animal fed on a diet of beer. More honest restaurateurs will say theirs is "Kobe-style" beef.
So, if you want to make sure you’re getting the Real McCoy, demand to see a steak that shows the purple “USDA Prime stamp” on its outer fat. And look to see how much marbling the meat really has. Steers are not all created equal, and neither is a sirloin.
NEW YORK CORNER: Two Steakhouses You Can Bank On
by John Mariani
57 West 58th Street
Quality Meats is the mundane name for a sublime new steakhouse that has replaced the long-running seafood house named the Manhattan Ocean Club. The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group ran the latter and has contractually agreed never to open another Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse on the West Side to compete with its East Side original on Third Avenue (along with its ten other S&W branches), along with Cité Grill, Maloney & Porcelli, Park Avenue Café, and Post House in NYC. In fact, the initial press releases did not characterize Quality Meats as a steakhouse per se, noting that Chef Craig Koketsu would be doing a "rustic American menu."
I applauded Koketsu when he was chef at the Manhattan Ocean Club, naming him in Esquire one of the "Chefs to Keep Your Eye On" two years ago. His creative style of seafood cookery showed he had the chops (no pun intended) to take on meat cookery with equal talent, and I was persuaded he would be spreading his wings upon the opening of Quality Meats. But, according to S&W's founder and CEO, Alan Stillman, Quality Meats took off so fast upon opening two months ago that they've had concentrate on the traditional steakhouse items just to meet demand; later on Koketsu may yet get to spread those wings.
By whatever characterization, Quality Meats lives up to its name. This is a great new steakhouse, with highly un-traditional ambiance: No wainscoted beige walls, no bright lighting, no gruff waiters; instead AvroKO has done a turn on butcher shop decor that has the decided look of the inside of a meat locker, albeit a rather low-lighted one. There is plenty of exposed brick, white marble, stainless steel, walnut planking, vintage market scales, and lights hanging from meat hooks. The decibel level can get high, and they sure don't need the piped-in music. For some odd reason only about two-thirds of the tables have tablecloths, but glassware and silverware of of top quality.
Stillman has put his son Michael, 26, along with manager Sam Pack, in charge of running QM, and, despite the current crush, the place hums along and food gets to the table hot. The 350-label winelist, under sommelier Ed Chan, has both the breadth and depth that an expense-account rich restaurant like this can afford, with trophy names like Château Montelena, Spottswoode, Sine Qua Non, and Nickel & Nickel. There are also a score of Scotch whiskies.
By all means start off with the shellfish "bouquets" ($52 and $98), piled high with oysters, shrimp, crab, stone crabs, and lobster. There are four salads and eight appetizers, including an absolutely wonderful smoked corn chowder with spicy tasso fritters. The crabcakes is a fine big hunk of white lump crab, and the charcuterie offers a handsome display of sausages and cured meats like soppressata, coppa, and country ham that go well with the good bread and butter here. One of the prize items is a marrow bone roasted with root vegetables glazed in red wine--not for everyone but for those with caveman appetites still intact.
On to the main event: You won't find a better bone-in sirloin that that at QM, at 18 ounces well worth the $42 price tag. A flat iron steak with blueberries I can do without in the future, though the meat itself was very good. A rack of lamb for two ($41 per person) can actually be enjoyed by three. (You may have to endure a long recitation of saucing possibilities, so try to dissuade the waiter from going too far before he gets going at all.) All the meats come from two suppliers S&W has worked with for decades, Milton Abeles and Strassburger Meats, so QM gets the best available.
Sautéed Dover sole came sizzling and buttery, with fine fat flesh that went marvelously well with side dishes of pan-roasted crispy potatoes and excellent French fries. The gnocchi with Gouda and Parmesan cheese is not going bowl over any Italian grandmother. Corn crème brûlée, on the other hand, will send everyone reeling with pleasure.
Pastry Chef Cory Colton is taking some classic American desserts and pumping them up with a lot of wow factor, from warm apple pie and luscious coconut cream pie to warm chocolate Rocky Road tart and "coffee-and-donuts" flavored ice cream.
Quality Meats may not be the departure I'd hoped for when Chef Koketsu (left) was announced for the job, but until he has the time to do more with what he has, I am very happy to feast on what he is currently doing. And with a service staff that is as nice to women guests as to men--not always a given in steakhouses--my wife is as anxious to return as I am.
Appetizers run $9-$19, main courses $21-$44.
410 West 16th Street
Quiz: What is the oldest NYC eating establishment still on its original site?
No, not Fraunces Tavern, which is actually a total 20th century reconstruction on the original 1719 site. Nope, not Delmonico's, the very first restaurant in America, which opened its doors on William Street in 1831 but moved several times, and is now on Beaver Street. Nor is Keen's Chop House, Peter Luger, the Landmark Tavern, the Old Homestead, McSorley's or Billy's--all dating to the 19th century. The oldest still operating where it began would be the Bridge Café, which has been at 279 Water Street since 1847.
Still, all those other establishments demonstrate NYC's historic gastronomic underpinnings, and Frank's, which opened its doors in the Meat Market District on Tenth Avenue in 1912, going 24/7 by feeding the stevedores late at night and the meatpackers in early morning, is a big part of that history. Needless to say, Frank's connection to the market has always given them access to the best meat available, and workers will even bring their own favorite cut for Frank's to cook.
In all those years the same family has run Frank's--the Molinaris--and there are still members of the family here every night, headed by chef Christopher Molinari. All of Frank’s meats are hand-picked, hung and dry-aged to their specifications. Last year Frank's moved around the corner to smaller quarters in Chelsea Market, where they also run a retail butcher shop. It's a 100-seat L-shaped dining room with a convivial bright bar and comfortable banquettes, white tablecloths, and good old captain's chairs. There's also a private wine room for 24 private dinners (below) and party space for 200. Many of the waitstaff have been with Frank's for years, others are young and eager. If the atmosphere lacks the roaring machismo of the former premises, there's still a sense that this is a no-nonsense place with legions of regulars who come to Frank's knowing exactly what they want as they have always had it. Once Frank's only competition was the nearby Old Homestead steakhouse, which opened 137 years ago, but just in couple of years the field has been joined by Macelleria and Craft Steak, and the whole neighborhood is hopping with trendy new restaurants, most in the Asian nightclub style.
You might start with some tender tripe stewed with onions, or a batch of snails baked with a Parmesan-cream sauce. Sweetbreads are sautéed with white wine, and a variety of mushrooms is sautéed in olive oil and garlic. If you feel like pasta--and there is a definite Italian slant here, given the Molinaris' background--don't miss mama's meat ravioli with tomato sauce: it's a throwback to when it was a Sunday afternoon dinner staple with Italian-American families, and it's tough to find meat ravioli anywhere anymore.
There are the requisite Caesar salads, and you can get sliced tomatoes (not very red or ripe this time of year) with Bermuda onions or fresh mozzarella. For main courses, steak, of course, will be most first-timers' choice, and I loved the broiled shell steak, a dry-aged 16-ounce boneless cut with the requisite beefiness I miss almost everywhere else. Filet mignon had more flavor than is the norm for this unfatty cut, and the veal chop was on a par with most other NYC steakhouses. They also have a huge t-bone and that very tasty cut, the skirt steak.
The sides are standard issue--good French fries, fat steak fries, and lovely spinach in olive oil and garlic. Desserts are not the high points here, although the cheesecake is dependable.
Frank's is not as old-fashioned as it once seemed, even though the new premises are linked to its roots more than most other steakhouses can claim. And the care of the Molinari family means a lot; it's as simple an issue as personality, which chain steakhouses inevitably lack. The people who serve you your food are the ones who have always chosen it and cooked it. And that's worth a great deal, especially when Frank's prices are below most other Prime steakhouses in town.
Appetizers run $7-$14, Main courses $21-$33.50. Sunday Brunch is $15. Frank's is open every day.
ESPECIALLY APPROPRIATE IF YOU'RE DATING
THE STINKY CHEESE MAN
The Stilton Cheesemakers Association commissioned a Manchester manufacturer to create a perfume that smells like Stilton cheese, Eau de Stilton that claims to "recreate the earthy and fruit aroma of the cheese in an eminently wearable perfume."
"The recently renovated Sapphire Club [on Grand Cayman], a low-key lounge, draws twenty-and-thirtysomethings with its killer drinks menu. Some 70 martinis and 132 other cocktails, along with 35 handmade garnishes, are served under blue lights that flatter everyone, especially the international set who fly back from studies in England, Australia, and Europe to exchange gossip."--"Hot Nights," Conde-Nast Traveler (May 2006).
* On July 15 Chef Zak Haylash of Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, SC, will host a Cooking Class & Wine Pairing, with a 3-course meal afterwards. $100 pp. Call 843- 722-4220; firstname.lastname@example.org
* From July 20-22 Say Cheese! The American Cheese Society’s annual conference will be held in
* The Del Sole Foundation for the Arts and Humanities will hold its first Festival del Sole in
* On July 22 & 23 the DC chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier will hold a "Green Tables" initiative, with a free Green Kids at Market Day at five area farmers' markets. On Sat. market days will be held at the Arlington Farmers' Market at
* From July 26-29 The Aspen Center for Integral Health presents “To Your Health! The 6th Annual Summer Symposium and Healthy Gourmet Fest,” with a one-day health symposium with presentations from eminent doctors, a 2-day healthy gourmet festival with award-winning chefs recognized for embracing “healthy gourmet” cuisine. Topics will incl. prevention of Alzheimer’s and heart disease, the dangers of toxins, the role of vitamins and supplements in nutrition, and anti-aging. Speakers at the all-day Summer Health Symposium incl. Drs. Mimi Guarneri, William J. Rea, David Perlmutter, and Stephen Sinatra. For info call 970-2957 ext. 2 or visit ACIH website.
* Erath Vineyard’s chef series “Wine Country Cooking in The Dundee Hills” features interactive multi-course wine dinners celebrating
"THE SWEET LIFE" CRUISE
This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine, will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche. There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more. Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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