Since colonial times, a beefsteak's origins, quality, and flavor could make or break a tavern's reputation. As tastes and fashions change, the same holds true across today's chef-stamped steakhouse scene. Katy Keiffer reports.
A perennial favorite, the steakhouse, is enjoying even more popularity these days. Currently, the model divides neatly into the old-time style of steakhouse with the grumpy waiters and the minimalist menu, and the newer version, updated by today's culinary stars. In the past half-decade, luminaries such as David Burke, Laurent Tourondel, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Michael Lomonaco, and others have taken up the gauntlet, looking to add something new to the steakhouse tradition.
The distinguishing characteristic of the majority of the new era steakhouses is the specific aging programs for their beef. All steakhouses age their meat—some wet age, some dry age—and the norm falls between 14 and 28 days. Wet aging is synonymous with Cryovac packaging, a technology that emerged in the 1970s. But only the newer outposts actively use dry aging as a significant marketing tool to attract more sophisticated customers. As Lomonaco of Porter House New York in Manhattan, says, "Diners are becoming more discerning, and that is driving the new steakhouse." With menus boasting steaks aged up to 75 days in some cases, this is not necessarily meat to everyone's taste. Nor does it fit every pocketbook. Highly aged beef is a very personal and individual choice. In the words of Craftsteak's Colicchio, dry aged beef of over 45 days, can become, "funky, musty, very gamey."
Nevertheless, dry aged beef has acquired an even more illustrious veneer as the new luxury product, and there seems to be no shortage of consumers willing to fork out $50 and over for a steak. Aside from the concentrated flavor and surpassing tenderness, there is a reason why dry aged beef is truly a luxury. The loss of volume through dry aging can be breathtaking. Marc Sarrazin of DeBragga and Spitler, a New York City supplier says dry aged beef can lose as much as 15 percent of its weight, and up to 50 percent of its yield thanks to combined weight loss and the heavy trimming necessary to remove the most dessicated parts of the aged meat. Of course, aged steaks have always been popular, whether wet aged or dry aged. But the new emphasis on those specific qualities in flavor and texture found only in dry aged meat have become the focus of the new steakhouses, and this is exploited in a variety of ways. At Craftsteak in New York City, Colicchio offers steaks aged up to 75 days and encourages tables of four or more to buy a variety of ages and share, so as to experience the different options. As one of the leaders in this trend, he was hooked when food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten involved him in an article for Vogue several years ago. They aged and ate a series of steaks, and the differences were "amazing." Colicchio began his aging program at New York City's Craftsteak, where he installed a state-of-the-art aging facility. Shortly after that experience, he was asked to open a new steakhouse in Las Vegas, and then the Craftsteak sibling was born, concentrating more on Wagyu and on prime meats.
Given the dodgy economics of dry aged beef, when asked why he felt that new steakhouses were going in so heavily for dry aging programs, Colicchio responded: "We do it because we are chefs, and that's what we do. We want to push the envelope. It's a real pain in the neck, very difficult to do what we do. And it's really expensive!" He also points out that cooking aged meats requires extra skills. Steaks aged for 56 or 75 days are going to cook up differently. Staff has to be trained to do the job correctly. Union Trust, a steakhouse under the helm of Ed Doherty and chef Terry White, opens this month in Philadelphia. As a new twist on the aging trend, White will offer a "tasting flight" of dry aged steaks for one table a night. He's using a 107 rib, with a long bone, which helps him control portion size, since the cut shows very little weight variation from animal to animal. The flight will offer 35 to 56 days of aging, with each diner getting the equivalent of one steak that has been sliced and reassembled from each of four separate aged steaks to provide a real tasting experience. His sommelier will select wines to complement each increment.
The philosophy behind this flight is to offer something no other steakhouse yet has done. On a psychological level it also speaks to the desire for an experience of much exclusivity that only one table an evening can order, in advance of course. As White remarks, "there's always a sense of competition, who has the biggest expense account, or the biggest credit card." Steakhouses are traditionally bastions of masculinity, and the competitive aspect is probably more overt here than in any other restaurant category.
While many chefs prefer to let their suppliers age and cut their steaks, some chefs, Burke among them, have invested heavily in aging rooms. In general, using restaurant real estate for an aging room is a luxury most cannot afford. Indeed, even with an aging room, this is a job that requires some expertise regardless of modern technology. Jeff Lohser, director of foodservice for Creekstone Farms, describes a dodgy experience he had in a Florida restaurant that was capitalizing on the dry aged trend. In this case, the restaurant's version of dry aging was to cut the ends off the Cryovac bag, and put the meat, still shrouded in the remains of the bag with only the ends exposed to the air, on a sheet pan in the cooler to "age." Not surprisingly, this did not yield a very wholesome steak.
At DeBragga and Spitler in New York City, partners Sarrazin and George Faison have, at least in part, retooled their business to cater to their restaurant customers and the demand for dry aged beef. Over the last year and a half, Sarrazin and Faison have brought this family business of several generations into the 21st century through a deep understanding of restaurant trends and an ability to anticipate the needs and desires of the chefs they work with. They have revitalized their product mix and repurposed their staff to adapt to the new requests by different aging for specific customers.
It is widely acknowledged that tying up inventory and capital in an aging program is one of the principal reasons most mainstream steakhouses keep their aging periods relatively brief, well within the norm of 28 days or less. DeBragga and Spitler select their meat based on what they know their customers are looking for, and it is aged according to the specifications of individual clients. Beef needs to be of the highest quality at the outset to yield a great tasting aged steak.
They have a number of aging lockers where the meat is inspected daily and the stock is rotated to be sure that it's aging as it should. Their goal, according to Sarrazin, is to "add value by sourcing correctly and aging properly." Faison identifies another major trend in newer steakhouses, pointing out that the demand for "clean product has been double, maybe triple, what it was last year." Clean (or "natural") he defines as no antibiotics, no hormones, and a 100 percent vegetarian diet.
Though the USDA is being lobbied heavily over the controversial definition of "natural," the term is still very much tailored to fit by the individual producer or packer. It is a buyer-beware scenario. ...there are many beef packers who will label a product as natural, when in fact it is being fed the same antibiotics and hormones as conventionally raised beef. How do they get away with it? They phase those elements out 120 days before slaughter, which allows them to label natural. Remember that the USDA defines "natural" as "minimally processed with no added ingredients to the finished product." The genetic heritage of cattle is becoming more of a key criterion in selecting meat as well. The Certified Angus Beef program requires that cattle must prove to be 51 percent or more Angus or traceable in the Angus Source register. Once they've got their beef-aging preferences down cold, consumers can turn their attention to their preferred genetic strains, seeking out steaks with a particular flavor and texture bred from their favorite bull. Indeed, most chefs select their meat based on genetic elements that yield specific flavors, and if possible, they will ensure that their supply comes from a particular herd or ranch. Another point worth noting and which was universally expressed by all the sources for this article was the belief in humane practice in the industry. This presents another compelling reason to be very conscious of where meat is coming from, as there may be many factors affecting the flavor of the final product. It is believed by many in the industry that the neurochemicals produced by stress, fear, and anxiety have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat. The husbandry of animals that employs stress management and high-quality feed is another reason why premium and natural beef is so expensive. It costs approximately 20 percent more per head to raise cattle on a "natural program" as defined by Faison. In the end, a steakhouse will survive on good meat and fail with bad. There is no hiding in this format, no matter how great the sauces and sides. According to Colicchio, the steakhouse trend will continue to thrive. "Why would it stop? Meat has always been, and always will be, a staple of the American diet." He ended the conversation with a tag line that the beef industry should pay him for: "When times are bad, people are going to splurge, and beef feels good."