Hunkier beef in Phila. restaurants

Posted: March 13, 2008

When it comes to beef, some restaurants are finding that bigger is better and that bigger and better is best.

The philosophy may run counter to restaurant and food trends - small plates, more fresh and local vegetables and fruits, even vegetarian fare - but, in the ongoing scramble for consumer bucks, some restaurants are beefing up their menus, with prime, aged and specialty beef such as Kobe and Wagyu. And, in spite of the looming recession, the carnivores are buying, at prices up to $100 an entree.

The reserve menu at Rae at the Cira Centre, with its 21/2- to 3-pound, 28-day-dry-aged rib chops, the equally hefty porterhouse, and the only slightly smaller T-bone cuts, is a prime example, proving you don't have to be a full-blown steak house to grab a share of the growing meat market. Even at $30 and up per pound, they sell out most nights.

Add the pending openings of at least three high-end steak houses here this year - Union Trust, Del Frisco and Chima - to Philly's already long list of steak menus, and you've got a meaty representation.

And it's not just the city. At nuevo Japanese Azie in Media, chef Takao Iinuma blends his Japanese heritage and French culinary training in a Black Angus rib eye served with sweet potato fries.

Even seafood restaurants like Michael Mina's at the Borgata have raised surf-and-turf to nirvana status with the likes of Kobe beef.

Seemingly undeterred by a faltering economy, rising prices, declining expense accounts, and tightening supplies of prime beef, diners continue to indulge in luxury meals. Some perhaps less often, but indulge they do.

The big spenders are pharmaceutical companies, law firms and real estate firms, and that's not changing, says Ed Doherty, who as managing partner opened Capital Grille here in 2001. Despite competition, a mild recession, and the after effects of the 9/11 attacks, Philadelphia became and remains one of Capital Grille's most successful markets, Doherty says.

So, too, for Sullivan's in King of Prussia, which Terry White, former corporate chef for upscale Del Frisco and Sullivan steak houses, recalls opening in 1997 as the first white-tablecloth restaurant in that area. White says it's still that chain's number-one location nationwide, with sales trending up again this year.

Now Doherty and White, with local club and real estate developer Joe Grasso, will open the ultimate steak house, Union Trust, at 719 Chestnut St.

"Philadelphia is a meat-and-potatoes city. And there is always room for quality," said White, who plans innovations like vertical beef tastings (comparing 30-, 40- and 45-day-aged beef) for his new menu.

Due to open around Labor Day, Union Trust won't be just another steakhouse, Doherty says. The partners see it as filling a void not just on the east side of town but also in the city's overall restaurant scene, a local steak house with national "chops."

Says White, a returning native: Philadelphia truly is a city on the upswing. The nightlife is more vibrant than ever, with more luxury lounges and clubs. Enough so to attract more major chains.

Chima is due to open at 20th and JFK Boulevard by summer. Our second major Brazilian steak house, it joins Fogo de Chao and local "churrascarias" such as Picanha Brazilian Grill in the Northeast in serving skewered meats at the table.

And a November opening is scheduled for Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse at the Grande at 15th and Chestnut, the chain's eighth location, third in the East after New York and Charlotte, N.C.

At Rae, owner-chef Daniel Stern added the reserve food list to complement his reserve wines, and to showcase great steaks that few restaurants offer, chosing dry-aged beef for its more complex flavor.

"The rib chop stands on its own and we complement it simply with a marrow terrine and a peppercorn mousse . . . a little play on au poivre," Stern says. "For the T-bone and porterhouse we wanted to have fun with traditional steak-house sides, so we smoke onion rings and fingerling steak fries."

And yes, in keeping with the food trend, some of those prime cuts will be sourced locally from Four Story Hill Farm in Honesdale, Pa.

Do diners really eat that much beef at one sitting?

True, they are large and great for sharing, Stern says, but "our experience has been that most people keep them for themselves."

"The response has been tremendous and for most guests the MO has been 'the bigger the better.'

"We do see a lot of corporate guests take advantage of the reserve, but I have also seen plenty of 'dates' and 'evenings out' settling in for a great steak or Dover sole or surf-and-turf."

The mega-steaks are priced by the pound, which Stern believes gives customers the best value. Each rib chop (cut in-house) starts at roughly 21/2 to 3 pounds, Stern says. At $32 a pound, that's about $80 to $95. Cooked rare to medium-rare, with shrinkage at four to six ounces, with eight ounces of bone and fat trimmed off, that typically leaves a 11/2- to 2-pound portion of meat being served - huge for one, ample for two, and by most nutrition standards adequate for three to four servings of the most succulent, flavorful beef.

Stern keeps about 10 of each cut on hand on weeknights, double that on weekends. Most nights, he says, they sell out.

Yet, in spite of the steak's popularity, not all steakhouses survive. After closing Kansas City Prime, his restaurant in Manayunk, chef Derek Davis redirected his experience towards retail, opening Main Line Prime, a meat market and grocery in Ardmore offering home cooks the prime cuts, even Kobe beef, once found only in restaurants.

As for the restaurant scene, White isn't concerned by the "steak house" competition for Union Trust on the Broad Street corridor or beyond. White sees Union Trust as having the advantage: "This area has the potential to be what Walnut Street uptown was in the '90s."


Robinson Bar Potatoes

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 medium red potatoes

1 clove garlic

2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup grated Comte cheese (or Gruyere or Emmental)

1/3 cup heavy cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Peeled or unpeeled, your choice, cut the potatoes into thin (1/8-inch thick) slices, dropping the slices into icy-cold water as you go. (This is easy with a mandoline.)

3. Slice the garlic diagonally and rub it around a dry, shallow baking dish (one large or two small). The potatoes should be layered just three deep.

4. Generously butter the dish. Dry the potatoes on a towel and layer them in the bottom of the pan so they just barely overlap. Sprinkle salt and pepper on that layer and add one-third of the grated cheese. Repeat with the next two layers of potatoes.

5. Finally, add the cream, stopping when it almost comes to the top layer of potatoes. (You don't want that top layer to be floating.) Dot the top with butter and shave just a hint of fresh nutmeg (less than 1/4 teaspoon) over top.

6. Bake at 400 degrees until the potatoes are nicely browned and most of the cream has been absorbed by the potatoes, about 30 minutes. Serve with steak or other comfort foods as an alternative to fries.

- From The New Steak: Recipes for a Range of Cuts Plus Savory Sides by Cree LeFavour (Ten Speed Press)

Per serving (based on 6): 292 calories, 8 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 95 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Hot Mustard Marinade for Steak

Enough for 4 servings or 11/2 pounds of steak

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce (mushroom soy is a good choice)

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1. In a shallow dish large enough to hold the meat to be marinated (about 11/2 pounds trimmed of excess fat and left whole to grill or cut in strips to stir-fry), whisk together the soy sauce, mustard seeds, oil and dry mustard.

2. Trim the meat of excess fat. Add the meat, turning to coat evenly. Let stand to marinate at room temperature up to one hour, or refrigerate up to 24 hours.

3. When ready to proceed, remove the meat from the marinade and cook on a grill or a broiler or in a very hot wok as desired.

- Adapted from The New Steak: Recipes for a Range of Cuts Plus Savory Sides by Cree LeFavour (Ten Speed Press)


Sage Butter and Fried Sage Leaves

Makes 4 servings as accompaniment for steaks

For the Sage Butter:

8 sage leaves, chopped

1 large shallot, minced

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Fried Sage Leaves:

20 to 25 whole sage leaves

1/3 cup olive oil

Kosher salt

1 sage leaf, in strips, for garnish

1. For the Sage Butter, mash the chopped sage, shallots and softened butter together with a fork. Mix in salt and pepper generously, to taste. Set aside. Do not refrigerate.

2. For the Fried Sage Leaves, remove the stems and put the sage in a large frying pan with the oil at very low heat. Frying the sage will take 30 to 45 minutes. Don't rush it. It should seem as if the sage isn't cooking at all. It will slowly become crisp, and by the end, ever so slightly brown at the edges. There is no need to turn the thin leaves. When crisp and barely browning, remove the leaves with a spatula, salt lightly, and set aside until ready to serve the steak it will accompany. (The same pan can be used to pan-fry a steak.)

- From The New Steak: Recipes for a Range of Cuts Plus Savory Sides by Cree LeFavour (Ten Speed Press)


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or online at mmarter@phillynews.com.

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