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Prime Steaks

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Wayne, having told the cook to "burn me a good thick one," is infuriated and snarls: "That's my steak, Valance. Pick it up." Marvin barks at Stewart: "You heard him. Pick it up." Wayne puts his hand near his six-shooter and repeats, "I said you, Liberty. You pick it up." Just as the two gunslingers are about to draw on each other, Stewart retrieves the steak and shouts, "There! What's the matter? Is everybody in this country kill crazy? You woulda killed him for one measly steak!"
And at the risk of offending Mom, apple-pie makers of America and the girl next door, what did Hollywood GIs like William Bendix and Richard Conte really dream about in those foxholes? A two-inch T-bone smothered in onions, with a baked potato on the side and a pitcher of cold beer. Beefsteaks are as tied to American machismo as old blues songs like "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion."
For most men and many women, a good thick steak represents one of the purest pleasures of gastronomy, but for others it symbolizes unbridled gluttony. Despite all the nutritional "terrorism" of the 1980s, Americans are still consuming prodigious amounts of beef--66.4 pounds per person last year. That's about 16.9 billion pounds annually, with 280 million pounds grilled on Father's Day alone, and another 200 million steaks thrown on the grill when the Fourth of July rolls around.
The beef industry loves to repeat the cliché that, while Americans may be eating about half the beef they did 20 years ago, when a man wants a steak, he wants a good one and is willing to pay handily for it. For this reason, America's most expensive steakhouses, from Peter Luger in Brooklyn to the Grill in Beverly Hills, are doing gangbuster business, and chains like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, and Palm are opening up more and more units every year, each one of them serving highly marbleized, fat-rich U.S. Prime.
With this proliferation, the need to know what you're getting becomes more important than ever, as even a big-league beefeater--the kind of man who thinks nothing of putting away a 16-ounce sirloin, a platter of french fries, a three-inch slice of cheesecake, a bottle of Cabernet, and then smoking a good cigar with a glass of Port--may know little or nothing about the beef he's eating. Even assuming that all the better steakhouses use high-grade meat, the differences in cut, preparation and price vary widely, as does quality itself. Most steakeaters regard good beef as an American birthright and assume there is an endless supply of U.S. Prime, like Ford Fiestas and lawyer jokes.
"I haven't had an empty table in 12 years," says Pat Cetta, who, with his brother Mike, owns Sparks Steak House in New York. It is a sentiment echoed in other New York beef emporiums like Peter Luger, Palm, Smith & Wollensky, Ben Benson's, Gallagher's, and the Old Homestead. This year the Palm chain will expand its current 11 units, Morton's of Chicago will add to its 18, and Ruth's Chris, out of New Orleans, is aiming for 35 or more units before the end of next year, including, like Morton's, a recent move into the big league, New York, in the fall.
Going into the tough New York market is a scary proposition for a steakhouse chain, but it is done for the same reason clothing designers open in Paris, opera singers go to Milan and gamblers to Monte Carlo. Those are the places that establish the standards, set the mold and form the traditions. For while chophouses and beefeaters' clubs existed in 18th-century London, the American steakhouse as we know it is really a phenomenon of the Prohibition era in New York.
True, the Old Homestead in Manhattan opened in 1868, Keens Chop House in 1885, Brooklyn's Gage & Tollner debuted in 1879, and Peter Luger in 1887, but those revered establishments drew more on English and German models. Luger still features only one cut of steak--the sliced porterhouse, a term derived from English taverns serving porter beer and popularized about 1814 as a steak in America by porterhouse proprietor Martin Morrison in New York.
The New York steakhouse--a term still used outside New York to draw customers in the same way ads proclaim "London pub" or "Parisian bistro"--developed along lines drawn at Palm (1926) and Gallagher's (1927), both of which originated as speakeasies during the Noble Experiment of Prohibition. Palm was run by two Italians, John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi, on Second Avenue. (The name was supposed to be "Parma," after the owners' hometown, but a city bureaucrat spelled it wrong on an official document, and so "Palm" it remained.) Gallagher's, on 52nd Street off Broadway, was named after former Ziegfeld-girl-turned-speakeasy-owner, Helen Gallagher. Both places democratically served a little beer, a little hooch and a little beefsteak to everyone from New York's politicians and journalists to Café Society, who sometimes got their pictures or caricatures put up on the walls. Such places had a swagger, a very masculine feel to them and a perception of exclusivity that made everyone want to go there.
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."
Almost all Prime meat is bought from a handful of Midwest meat packers, principally IBP out of Nebraska, Monfort out of Colorado, and Excel out of Kansas. These companies don't raise cattle; they slaughter and pack it up in a Cryovac bag for shipment to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. If the meat is left in the Cryovac bag with its own juices, "wet aging" (actually a form of decay) takes place at a slower rate. "Dry aging" refers to meat removed from the bag and aged in cold, dry lockers, a process preferred by the best steakhouses.
Because of the proliferation of steakhouses around the country, many industry veterans wonder just how low competitors are willing to go to get what they call Prime.
"Listen," says Pat Cetta of Sparks, which maintains its own proprietary aging cycle, "The difference between Choice and Prime can be $6 or $7 a pound, and some guys are buying black Angus, which is a stockier animal with a shorter loin, but it's not the best breed for a great steak. Others use what are called 'gravy cuts,' whose water-soluble proteins and collagens go out of the meat when it's cooked and make good gravy. That doesn't happen in a great steak."
Other steakhouse owners don't worry quite so much about the supply of Prime. Ruth Fertel, owner of the Ruth's Chris chain, argues, "the truest supply-and-demand commodity is beef. As long as there's a demand for Prime, the producers will produce it. If Ruth's Chris is going to open up another two or three units, I call my supplier three or four months in advance and tell him what our needs will be and he'll have the meat for us."
While most industry spokespeople say that kind of supply and demand can be met, they caution that raising cattle for Prime is not quite as mechanical as building VCRs--or as predictable. The facts of animal husbandry dictate that it takes about two-and-a-half years for a steer to grow big enough for slaughter, and, based on the breed and the individual animal's genetics, there's no assurance that you'll get a steer with enough interior fat to grade out at Prime.
"No large producer targets Prime," says Terry Dockerty, director of meat-science programs at the National Livestock and Meat Board. "It's just not very economical for a producer to feed an animal longer so that it grows much fatter. Remember, it is the meat packers who request the grading, not the producers." Harry Katz of Stockyards Packing Co., a Chicago wholesaler, agrees: "I don't think anybody is taking out cattle just to make them Prime meat. I couldn't. And right now, if a new account of mine wanted to buy only Prime, I'd have to turn them down. There's just not enough out there."
The fact is, Prime is more or less an accident of breeding, not a coerced result. "To a small extent, you can bulk up an animal by extra feeding," says Jens Knutsons, director of economic research and industry affairs for the American Meat Institute, "but it's really a function of genetics. There are about 70 different breeds of cattle in this country, and only a very few make a good beef animal because they tend to put on the kind of intermuscular fat that producers want. Producers don't want external fat, because they have to trim it off and their yield is lower. But the main thing is that some individual animals put on more fat while others in the same herd, eating the same feed, don't. And those fatter steers are the ones that grade Prime after they've been slaughtered."
As Pat Cetta says, "There's no mystery to it. People are waiting for a magic supplier or producer. It doesn't exist. You just have to be able to look at an individual carcass and cartilage and say, 'that one's good; that one's not so good.' We buy only the best of what's in the market."
Another bone of contention has to do with what the animal eats. Some, like Ruth Ferrel, swear they use only animals raised on corn.
Others, like the Chicago Chop House, contend that finishing off a steer on alfalfa gives it a nice sweet flavor. And others in the industry say it's almost impossible to tell what the animal ate. "Fat's fat," says one producer.
Assuming that there will be an adequate, if not plentiful, supply of good beef in the future, what is it that distinguishes one great steakhouse from another? In the case of a restaurant like Smith & Wollensky, the attraction of a great wine list is significant, but offering a wide menu of soups, salads, seafood and an array of desserts by an Austrian pastry chef gives it a wider audience, including more women than go to traditional steakhouses.
This additional female-customer base is certainly the case at Chops in Atlanta, where designer Pat Kuleto married elements of traditional steakhouse decor to rather glamorous, subdued lighting some women feel comfortable in. The Capital Grill steakhouses in Providence and Boston promote family dining, and the grand restoration of the cavernous boiler room of the Providence train station has made the restaurant as much an attraction as a place to eat.
At Bern's Steak House in Tampa, the decor has been called everything from kitschy to bordellolike, but in addition to stocking the world's largest wine list--2,500 pages, with more than 300 dessert wines--owner Bern Laxer grows his own organic vegetables and herbs, has specially built water tanks for live fish, offers more than two dozen caviars and serves more than 65 different kinds of dessert each night in a series of upstairs dessert rooms (each of which have two television monitors so that customers can watch The Simpsons or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). There's also a pianist who takes requests via closed circuitry. Last but not least, Bern's measures out vermouth out by the eyedropper for Martini drinkers.
At the Chicago Chop House, they do an extraordinary bar business and feature a Prime Rib No. 1, which is charred before roasting and takes on a wonderfully succulent flavor.
Morton's of Chicago has always prided itself on having a distinct Windy City style, and the original, opened in 1978, was characterized by owner Arnie Morton as a "comfortable saloon." Morton himself had been director of Playboy's worldwide dining operations, and the restaurant had a definite Midwestern masculine bravado that continues to this day in the 29-unit chain, now owned by Quantum Restaurant Group Inc. Unlike the no-frills look of Palm and the extravagance of Bern's, the Morton's restaurants are built around a clubbish atmosphere of dark woods and subdued lighting accented by Leroy Neiman prints (Neiman was Playboy's quintessential sports artist) as well as historic photos of the city in which each restaurant is located.
New York's Old Homestead is unique for offering Japanese Kobe (actually wagyu) beef, an incredibly rich meat from a steer that is fed on beer and gets massaged by hand every day. Even at $100 per one-pound steak, the restaurant sells plenty, although their $20 sampler portion is a much saner way to taste something that tastes closer to pure butter than beef.
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