A spate of new steak houses are dotting the horizon, not just in the meat-loving United States, but all around the world. Larry Olmsted takes a look at what’s driving the trend.
Deciphering a modern-day steak-house menu
Grass Fed: Beef from cows that graze entirely or mostly on grass instead of grain, a once-standard but now rare (though common in Argentina) practice. Steaks are leaner and often slightly gamier.
Corn Fed: Most U.S. cattle have a diet of corn, which makes them grow bigger faster and produces fattier meat — which many consider tastier.
Corn Finished: Some farmers graze cows on grass until older, then introduce corn — a hybrid of the two main dietary styles.
Natural: Beef that is raised without hormones or antibiotics; it has no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed.
Kobe Beef: A legendarily tasty beef produced from the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. Delicious in Japan, but USDA regulations forbid the import of any Japanese beef.
Instead, Kobe beef on U.S. menus indicates steaks produced in a similar manner.
Wagyu Beef: Literally “Japanese cattle,” Wagyu typically refers to historically Japanese breeds. While the USDA bars import of Japanese beef, there are reputable U.S. breeders who have raised pure lineages of these breeds. It’s worth seeking out reputable restaurants indicating specific breeds and the farms supplying them.
Prime: This designation from the USDA is typically given to about the top 2 percent of domestic beef, based on age and fat content.
Dry Aged: When meat is stored (usually 21 to 50 days) with proper temperature and air-circulation control, its connective tissues break down and water evaporates, making the meat tender, rich, and more concentrated in flavor. Most agree that dry aging improves flavor, often radically.
Used to be, great chefs stuck to French food and fancy techniques and unique ingredients that required a food glossary (or perhaps a snooty waiter) to decipher. A juicy rib eye on a plate? Mais non. And while the great American steak house has long been part of this country’s landscape, there hadn’t exactly been a rush to the borders to set up shop in far-away locales. Today, though, celebrity chefs from Emeril Lagasse to Gordon Ramsay to Bobby Flay are bringing world-class steak houses to places from Las Vegas to Buenos Aires to Singapore.
The great steak restaurant is becoming a global phenomenon.
“From hamburgers to steaks, meat is really America’s soul food,” says Wolfgang Puck, one of the best known of the many celebrity chefs who have jumped into the high-end steak-house market. “The idea of accomplished chefs like Laurent Tourondel or Charlie Palmer doing steak is new, so chef-driven steak houses are gaining popularity. I think steak houses are an American tradition, and it is amazing today to see us exporting the concept, like my opening CUT, a modern version of the American steak house, in London and Singapore.
Steak may be one of society’s most primal and simplest dishes, but it is still one where specialized steak houses enjoy advantages over home cooking, which also explains their recent popularity. The best restaurants dry-age their meat, an expensive process which greatly increases the cost and is generally not considered safe for home cooks to attempt. Dry aging results in beef that is both tenderer and much richer. Likewise, many top steak houses flash-sear steaks at incredibly high temperatures, in excess of 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which is simply beyond the home kitchen’s ability.
As demand has risen for the very best cuts, consumers find it harder to purchase such quality beef at the supermarket and increasingly have to use specialized purveyors — or eat out. “You can get Select and Choice in most supermarkets, but Prime beef is hardly in markets at all because of the tremendous price difference — it goes up 35 to 40 percent at wholesale between each level, and with dry-aged beef, it’s more like 55 percent,” explains Stanley Lobel, owner of New York’s famed Lobel’s butcher shop, a boutique retailer of some of the finest meats available to consumers. “The availability of Prime is just 2 percent of all beef produced in the United States, and with more restaurants, it’s scarcer and harder than ever for consumers to get.”