Versatility and favored status with diners make beef an ideal conduit for culinary currents from Mexico to Morocco.
This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
For diners, such multicultural approaches satisfy cravings for big flavors and variety within familiar contexts. Beef's diverse cuts, treasured across world cuisines, make the product especially pleasing to operators who weigh flavor and texture preferences against labor and cost restrictions. In kitchens and dining rooms, the full-flavored protein wins favor for its readiness to stand up to the assertive profiles common in international fare.
Such broad-based benefits help explain why many menus are taking beef on a worldwide tour.
BB's, a globally influenced gastropub in Chicago, offers steak arrachera, beef empanadas and Hungarian goulash, while Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., builds beef into Moroccan tagines and ancho-chile quesadillas. A recently introduced prototype for Raleigh, N.C.-based buffet chain Golden Corral features Italian, Mexican and Asian stations with entrées such as lasagna, steak fajitas and Mongolian beef, all made with commodity beef products fabricated in house.
"Our customers come to us for beef, so we're looking for more ways to expand on that," says Beverly Lynch, the chain's vice president of food and beverage. "Research told us that what guests liked best about our buffet was variety, and that doesn't just mean changing from meatloaf with Salisbury steak."
For operators, the hardest decision when faced with beef's broad array of versatile cuts-ready to shine in globally informed preparations roasted or braised, grilled or stir-fried-may simply be where to take the flavor first.
Beef selections have a worldly view at Zaria, a recently opened upscale-casual concept with plans for expansion in Atlanta.
"Customers want ethnicity on menus without everyone in the group having to eat the same kind of food," says Founder and President Jerry Couvaras, who also heads bakery-cafe chain Atlanta Bread Co. "You can sit down at our restaurant and have Asian-style food without everyone having to eat Asian food."
On the dinner menu, seared flat-iron steak is coated with heady, Moroccan harissa, while flank steak satay, paired with Thai peanut sauce, is matched with a marinade of soy, ginger and sesame oil. A grilled flank steak sandwich, stacked with Napa cabbage, mushrooms, daikon, scallions, garlic and ginger, comes with wasabi mayonnaise and soy dipping sauce.
"Cuisines today have become very fused, and we think these types of options really answer what our customers are looking for," Couvaras says.
A long history learning from colleagues in multi-ethnic kitchens helps shape beef dishes on Executive Chef Americo Mintegui's high-end menu at The Seafood Barge in Southold, N.Y. His curry-braised short ribs, matched with roasted sea scallops, basmati rice and steamed edamame, rest overnight in a spice rub of curry powder, coriander, fennel and cinnamon. Seared and braised, the beef is finished on a bright note with lime juice and cilantro.
The hearty taste of the short ribs stands in pleasing contrast to the curry and scallop flavors, Mintegui says.
In the heart of the Midwest, beef is a huge seller at Trostel's Greenbriar Restaurant in Johnston, Iowa. Executive Chef Troy Trostel prepares plenty of straightforward steaks and chops, but he calls on a host of other cuts in globally influenced recipes designed to offer diners something different.
Bits of meat that fall from short-rib bones during preparation of another entrée are rerouted, seasoned with chili powder, cumin, garlic, cilantro and pepper Jack cheese and used to fill flaky empanadas. Toasted ravioli are stuffed with top sirloin ground in house and blended with Italian seasonings, while sliced petite tender is swathed in chipotle sauce to top a salad of spring greens, Cheddar cheese, green onions and grape tomatoes.
"Often, we'll try these types of dishes as starters first to see if people are willing to try them, and we get a lot of feedback," Trostel says.
One reason diners are drawn to global beef recipes is the lighter hand ethnic preparations often take, augmenting dishes with starches, vegetables and spices.
"Beef still has a connotation of being heavy and not as good for you," says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Pittsburgh-based Big Burrito Restaurant Group. "A lot of ethnic cuisines are perceived by customers as healthier, because the food is light and fresh. There may be beef in it, but there are vegetables too."
Selections at Soba, Big Burrito's pan-Asian restaurant, include lettuce wraps with pickled mung bean sprouts, cucumbers, carrots and sesame-peanut sushi rice. Grilled flat-iron steak, served as a small-plate item, is marinated in sweet soy sauce, lemongrass and garlic. At Caribbean-Latin concept Kaya, brisket is swapped for typical pork in an ancho chile-spiked braise. The sliced beef, topped with green papaya salad, perches atop a sweet-potato masarepa cake in beef jus.
The South American culinary tradition of churrasco-savory cuts of meat grilled on spits or skewers-is rapidly gaining ground on U.S. menus by placing beef front and center. Terry Reed, executive chef for Dietrick Dining Center at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., sees the recently introduced churrascaria station as an interactive showpiece for the marketplace-style dining facility.
The university purchased a special grill with two rotating skewers to cook chunks of ball-tip sirloin, a cost-effective muscle cut from the bottom sirloin butt. The beef, seasoned with coarsely ground salt, is seared on the bottom rung to gain a nice crust and moved to the top to slowly cook through, basting in its own juices as the skewer turns. Students can choose among four different chimichurri-style sauces or a more-familiar cracked peppercorn sauce to accompany their meals.
Cameryne Roberts, co-owner of restaurant LuLu Café & Bar in Milwaukee, Wis., appreciates how choices such as flank steak and beef tenderloin hold up to the piquant sauces and marinades that are characteristic of her global menu.
"We like to mix it up a bit. Instead of plain cheesesteak, we play around with different profiles and ethnic flavors," she says.
For the Mediterranean Steak Pita, flank steak is marinated two days in red-wine vinegar and olive oil with oregano, basil, thyme, paprika and garlic to tenderize the chewier cut. The meat is grilled rare, sliced and portioned. To serve, it's grilled once again to cook through and folded into warm pitas with feta cheese and tomato-kalamata-olive relish.
Tenderloin stars in the cafe's Thai beef salad, for which it is roasted, then quickly seared in strips. The beef, tossed in chile-lemon vinaigrette spiked with fish sauce, nestles atop a salad of spring greens, green onions, carrots, cucumbers and edamame garnished with fried shallots and toasted sesame seeds.
Old Is Comfortable and New
As comfort foods continue to whet appetites, ethnic influences provide creative ways to present new spins on old favorites. At Bastille in Alexandria, Va., Chef-owner Christophe Poteaux's Parisian Bistro Steak With Long Pepper Sauce and Pommes Frites gives Asian inflections to steak frites.
Along with significant heat, ground Indonesian long peppers impart a smoky, citrusy taste to the sauce, which Poteaux finishes with bittersweet chocolate to soothe the spiciness. The hanger steak gains flavor and tenderness from a typical bistro marinade including red wine, juniper berries, shallots, garlic, rosemary and thyme.
"The best way to cook hanger steak is on the grill. You could pan-roast it, but it's better to use direct high heat for a nice crust," Poteaux says. "Typically, you wouldn't want to cook it more than medium because it becomes too tough."
Sarah Nelson, chef of global small-plates restaurant Fixture in Chicago, enlivens short ribs with a glaze influenced by bulgogi, a Korean staple of grilled beef marinated in a mix often including soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, pepper, garlic and vinegar.
In Nelson's version, short ribs are braised to supple tenderness, boned and cut into 2-ounce portions. The bite-sized pieces, glazed with soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic and Thai chiles, are garnished with kimchee (pickled cabbage) she buys from a local Korean market and plated atop a crisp won ton with green-onion emulsion.
"Everyone knows how beef should look and taste, so we're just taking that and getting creative with different cultures," says Nelson, noting that customers' comfort with the product encourages them to try less-familiar preparations.
At Dartmouth, Mass.-based casual-dining chain Not Your Average Joe's, menu specials such as Grilled Caballero Steak are intended to encourage repeat business. They also give Vice President of Culinary Chris Bodington the opportunity to gauge how guests respond to different flavor profiles.
A recent creation offers grilled soy sauce-and-lime juice marinated flank steak adorned with pico de gallo and served over jasmine rice pilaf.
"We try to raise the bar when coming up with specials," Bodington says. "Everyone is doing these things with chicken, and beef goes just as well."
Beef effortlessly finds its place in almost any global cuisine. Below are the most popular ethnic and regional cuisines on American menus according to R&I's 2005 Menu Census:
R&I asked chefs to answer one tough question: If you could use only one cut of beef in the kitchen, which would it be? The biggest surprise? The variety of their responses. What wasn't a surprise - how much they love beef.
- Bill Fuller, corporate chef, Big Burrito Restaurant Group, Pittsburgh: "I love short ribs for their rich flavor. I like braising and slow cooking, and there's so much you can do with ribs."
- Americo Mintegui, executive chef, The Seafood Barge, Southold, N.Y.: "The fat, the flavor and the tenderness of rib-eye cooked on the bone."
- Christophe Poteaux, chef-owner, Bastille, Alexandria, Va.: "Hanger steak is my favourite cut of beef. It has more texture than other cuts and a beefy, almost gamy flavor that's more intense."
- Terry Reed, executive chef, Dietrick Dining Center, Virginia Tech, Blacksburgh, Va.: "For our purposes, ball-tip sirloin is a nice, all-purpose meat. It's good for roasting or slow cooking."
- Jonathan Reico, director of dining services, The Fountains at Canterbury (Compass-owned Morrison Senior Dining): "There are so many things you can do with center-cut tenderloin, from serving a fantastic filet to making a really good roast beef sandwich."
- Cameryne Roberts, co-owner, Café Lulu, Milwaukee: "I love New York strip and prime rib when I go out to eat, but for a good steak sandwich nothing beats flank steak. Some people find it tough, but if it's dealt with right, it's a really great, flavourful beef."
- Troy Trostel, executive chef, Trostel's Greenbriar Restaurant, Johnston, Iowa: "I'm a New York strip kind of guy for cooking and eating. I love the flavor, and I like to be able to chew my meat a little."