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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

After Prohibition ended in 1933, Palm, Gallagher's, Jack Lyons, Manny Wolf, Cavanaugh's, Christ Cella and Farrish's flourished. New York steakhouses got the best meat because they paid the most and charged the highest prices. The menu, rarely varied, became a formula for success: prime beef, lamb chops, lobsters, fried potatoes and cheesecake were pretty much the whole shebang. Wine lists were unknown until the 1980s, when Sparks and Smith & Wollensky invested heavily in wine cellars, winning some of the earliest awards from the Wine Spectator; both still hold the magazine's Grand Awards for their lists. Today Smith & Wollensky prides itself on having one of the largest selections of Cabernet Sauvignons in the world.

The decor was copycat, too: red-checkered or white tablecloths, unfinished furniture, varnished wood, inexpensive flatware and china, big oak bar and brusque waiters in ill-fitting, tan jackets apparently all bought from the same warehouse. Some, like Christ Cella, were as bare bones as a schoolroom; others, like Gallagher's, were decked out with autographed portraits of Broadway and sports legends. But they all expressed the no-nonsense, no-frills, we-don't-need-you attitude that made them both exasperating and irresistible--so that going to a New York steakhouse became a rite of passage for a young executive on his way up, the kind of place where you had to prove you belonged before they'd accept you.

But the supremacy of the New York steakhouse was always due to its service of U.S. Prime beef--and not just Prime, but the best Prime available. The simple fact is, until about 1980, almost no restaurants except New York steakhouses even bought Prime beef, which has never totaled more than 2 percent of all beef production in this country and usually stays steady at about 1 percent. Even after restaurants in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and California began buying Prime, New York still had dibs on the finest available in the market. "The truth is, New York still pays the most and gets the best," acknowledges Henry Norton, owner of the superb Chicago Chop House in Chicago.

The distinctions that make one steak--even a Prime steak--good and another pure ecstasy are grounded in the realities of an industry where a lot of people will tell you anything you want to hear and make you believe it. One thing everyone in the steakhouse industry knows is that it's getting tougher and tougher to get Prime and that no matter what you pay, it's not going to taste as good as it did 20 years ago.

While all beef is inspected for health reasons by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), grading of meat by the agency is done only at the request of the meat packer, who pays a fee to a USDA grader. Over the past decade, the USDA, under pressure from the beef industry, has consistently lowered standards for fat and marbling in beef. The ostensible reason for this is to encourage leaner meat in the American diet, but it handily enables beef producers to reduce costs: it takes eight pounds of grain to build one pound of beef; a leaner animal costs less to produce. As a result, the higher grade of Choice may now be graded "low Prime," and within the Prime category itself, three degrees of marbling are recognized.

"I could put two pieces of Prime meat in front of you, and you'd see the difference immediately in the marbling," says Brian Reidy, general manager of Gallagher's. "The USDA has gotten so lax with its grading that it's become a joke, and a steakhouse operator has to be very demanding to get top quality. We buy only meat on the bone and butcher it and age it ourselves. That way we can tell the age and sex of the animal. The containers come in on Monday or Tuesday, we get the meat on Wednesday or Thursday and we never take meat on Friday because those are the leftovers. We then date it and dry age it for three more weeks at 36 degrees in our own lockers, so we control that steak every step of the way."

Indeed, when you go to Gallagher's, you'll actually see the meat hanging in the cold locker in the window. "What you see is what you get here," says Reidy.

At Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, the steaks are aged in their own lockers for an extraordinary five to eight weeks. The gargantuan menu offers customers 62 options for cut and degree of done-ness on a steak.

"Even though we are one of the best-known steakhouses in the world, we occasionally have problems getting the quality U.S. Prime we want," explains David Laxer, the son of the owner. "This summer we had a tough time getting it, and when the Japanese come into the market, the supplies get very short."

Alfred Thimm, CEO for Palm restaurants, concurs: "It's harder and harder to get a consistently good product. We have a lot of clout in the industry, but we also have our own meat company--JORM [Just One Restaurant More] that operates as a wholesale business whose only customers are Palm steakhouses."

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