Eager to meet consumers' demand for steak and keep menus fresh, chefs boldly serve up premium beef with assertive sauces and sides.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 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 Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
When writing a contemporary menu, it's hard to go steakless. Just ask Jeff Mauro, executive chef of La Pomme Rouge in Chicago.
"When we first wrote the menu, I never put any beef products on the menu. That was always the easy go-to, the safeguard, what people ordered when they didn't know what else to get," he reflects.
Then Mauro got real with his partners and guests and changed his tune. "Give them what they want," he now advises. So he buys rib-eye, trims the well-marbled cap and braises the cap over low heat for two hours in red wine and beef stock. The sauce accompanies seared and butter-basted steak, olive-oil mashed potatoes and onion jam. It's steak and potatoes, but done in a way that lets Mauro flex his creative muscle and satisfy diners.
Although steak always has held center stage on American menus, the consumer favorite is being served with newfound verve. Not content simply to offer diners a choice of cuts, many restaurants and steakhouses now promote beef grades or breeds, from pricey Japanese Kobe to all-American Angus. Even restaurants that don't specialize in steak, such as La Pomme Rouge, find that offering a basic steak-and-potatoes menu selection is not enough. Consumers want an on-trend cut such as rib-eye or hanger, and they expect that it will be accompanied by well-executed, well-matched side dishes.
Consumers "are ready to branch out because they're more knowledgeable," Mauro says. "People know what they're eating now. They have choices."
But beef remains among the most popular choices. According to R&I's Tastes of America Study, 68.4% of diners say they have ordered steak in the past 12 months, and 62% say they have ordered other beef entrées in that time. And with barbecue-loving consumers frequently preparing steaks at home, foodservice operators must bring value to their plates through less-common cooking techniques, evocative seasonings, intriguing flavors or premium products.
Many chefs are rethinking traditional steak sauces and garnishes, often by balancing the rich, full flavor of the meat with new acidic touches. Traditionally the balancing act was done using a red-wine demi-glace sauce in French preparations or a squeeze of lemon in Italian preparations. Now, chefs also are utilizing everything from tequila to grapes.
"Steak needs to have a palate-cleanser," says Joanne Bondy, executive chef at Old Hickory Steakhouse at Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas. Bondy deglazes caramelized yellow onions with añejo tequila, brightening the onions with acidity.
Executive Chef John Tesar plays with acid as well as texture, serving a butter-basted wagyu beef hanger with a wagyu tartare at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, a Rosewood Hotels & Resorts property. "One is refreshing, one is savory," Tesar explains, adding that he also marinates hanger steak in red wine and vinegar to help cut the meat's richness.
Oven-dried grapes, red wine and onions come together in an unlikely though popular sauce that tops hanger steak served at jP American Bistro in Minneapolis. Chef-owner J.P. Samuelson says that the sauce attracts diners seeking new flavors without going too far out of the box. And, he adds, the richness of the steak matches well with the sweetness of oven-dried grapes.
"You lower the water content and concentrate the sugar content, but there's still acidity there," Samuelson says. "People have really responded."
For the sauce, Samuelson caramelizes red onions and then braises them with red wine and honey until the onions are soft and the wine has reduced by half. Slowly roasted grapes finish the dish. "It replaces a heavy demi-glace sauce, and it's subtle enough to work with a lot of different wines," he says.
Mission Viejo, Calif.-based Catalina Restaurant Group's Coco's Bakery Restaurant chain has significantly changed its steak entrées, using sauces to give the dishes a more lively finish. For its Tuscan Angus Rib-Eye Steak, a roasted garlic jus is poured over the char-broiled rib-eye just before it is served. "It's a ‘wow' presentation because it's a 12-ounce portion and takes up a large part of the plate," says Heather Gardea, vice president of food and beverage and marketing.
Consumers may love their backyard-barbecue steaks, but they don't always buy premium-grade meat. That's one reason that Sean Griffin, chef de cuisine of Neros at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, features dry-aged steaks on his menu. "It's something that consumers can't get at the grocery store," he says. "And we only dry-age prime beef."
When the restaurant first menued dry-aged steaks, servers had to explain to diners how the steaks were left to dry in a temperature-controlled space for 21 days before being cooked. These days, servers spend a lot less time describing the dry-aging process and more time selling steaks. Neros serves one dry-aged steak for every two regular steaks.
Another pricey steak that has made significant inroads on domestic menus is the wagyu breed of beef from Kobe, Japan. The lifting of the ban on imported Japanese beef has given chefs access to Kobe wagyu and allowed them to serve it alongside both Australian and domestic wagyu.
As executive chef of New York City's Kobe Club, Russell Titland spends a lot of time with Japanese Kobe, a luxury item for which he pays more than $70 per pound. A 10-ounce Kobe rib-eye (which Titland calls the most decadent piece of meat in the world) is so well-marbled that to sear it, Titland uses a 1,200F griddle.
"If you cook it slower, the fat starts to melt out and you won't get a sear on the outside," he explains.
Kobe is one of the steaks represented on the restaurant's signature "Samurai flight," which also features American and Australian wagyu steaks. More recently, Neros' Griffin started serving a wagyu beef tasting, pairing Kobe with soy salt made from dehydrated soy sauce, Australian wagyu with pink salt from Australia's Murray River and American wagyu with salt from Utah.
But are diners willing to pay premium prices for premium steak? "It might not be for everyone," Titland admits, explaining that well-traveled diners on expense accounts are Kobe Club's target demographic.
Consumers aren't the only ones who love steak-so do fine-dining veterans such as Chefs Bobby Flay, Michael Mina and Kenneth Oringer, who create destination restaurants by serving prime and imported steaks with inventive side dishes and sauces.
BLT Steak, New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico
- The Players: Chef-partner Laurent Tourondel and the BLT Group
- Trendspotting: The menu, which integrates classic French sauces such as béarnaise with classic American cuts such as New York strip, travels well.
Bobby Flay Steak, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City, N.J.
- The Players: Chef-partner Bobby Flay, Executive Chef Tara Keeler
- Trendspotting: The restaurant features steak specialties inspired by regional American cooking such as Philadelphia-Style Strip Steak with provolone cheese sauce and caramelized onions and Spicy Southwest Rib-Eye with roasted red and green chiles and garlic.
Bourbon Steak, Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, Aventura, Fla.
- The Players: Chef-partner Michael Mina and Chef de Cuisine Andrew Rothschild
- Trendspotting: To accompany steaks cooked over a wood-burning grill is a strong lineup of inventive side dishes such as English Pea Pancakes and Tomato-Dusted Red Onion Rings.
Craftsteak, MGM Grand, Las Vegas, and New York City
- The Players: Chef-partner Tom Colicchio and Craft Restaurants
- Trendspotting: Steaks aren't the only items categorized on the concept's menu. So too are side dishes: Entire categories are dedicated to mushrooms, pastas, and grains and rice.
Cut, The Beverly Wilshire, Beverly Hills, Calif.
- The Players: Chef-partner Wolfgang Puck and Executive Chef Lee Hefter
- Trendspotting: Pork belly, oxtail and veal tongue make inroads onto the extensive appetizer lineup. Additionally, guests get a peek at the raw steak's marbling before the steak is cooked.
KO Prime, Nine Zero Hotel, Boston
- The Players: Chef-partner Kenneth Oringer and Chef de Cuisine Jamie Bissonnette
- Trendspotting: A bone-in, 30-ounce rib-eye gets a global treatment when topped with bone marrow, chimichurri or North African spices.
Casual Dining Beefs Up
Although concepts such as Sizzler built their business on inexpensive T-bone dinners in the 1960s, steaks soon became only one of many entrée choices on casual-dining chains' increasingly varied menus. But casual dining once again is celebrating steak's popularity and value.
There's also more interest from consumers in better cuts of meat. Heather Gardea, vice president of food and beverage and marketing for the Mission Viejo, Calif.-based Catalina Restaurant Group, says that customers expect more than just a classic T-bone on the menu. "They're willing to pay a little more for the steak that they want," she says, reflecting on trends she's observed at Catalina concepts Coco's Bakery Restaurant and Carrows, which has switched to Angus beef.
Among other recent casual-dining steak additions:
- Bennigan's: Stout-Glazed Angus Sirloin: A grilled 8-ounce top sirloin brushed with a stout glaze. ($12.99)
- Coco's Bakery Restaurant: Tuscan Angus Rib-Eye Steak: A 12-ounce char-broiled Angus rib-eye steak topped with roasted-garlic sauce and served with creamy mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. ($14.99)
- Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub: Filet Mignon: An 8-ounce filet with blue cheese and applewood-smoked-bacon butter, grilled asparagus and rosemary-and-Parmesan-dusted fries. ($17.99)
- Sizzler: Steakhouse Favorites: An 8-ounce choice steak with aged blue cheese, garlic butter or peppercorn sauce. ($8.99)
- T.G.I. Friday's: Argentinean Rubbed Flat-Iron Steak: An 8-ounce flat-iron steak coated with garlic and oregano, served with Parmesan-crusted red potatoes and a fresh lime wedge. ($11.99)