Carnal Knowledge

To the chagrin of vegetarians and cardiologists, red meat–and steak in particular–is being celebrated in more and more rooms, old and new. Herewith, a guide to the best steaks in town

March 2, 2008

By Charlene Rooke

To really know steak, I decide, I must look directly into the gaping maw of the beast. I can feel its hot breath on my face as I approach. I’ve never seen one this big. At the insistence of its keeper

I crouch slightly and tilt my head to look in its mouth. Bright red papillae glisten on the roof; hot beads of moisture spit from its depths. From its craw emanates a smell that is gamey, dark, primitive.

It’s not a cow. I’m face-to-face with a fiercer creature: a Montague double infrared radiant broiler that fires up to 1800°F, achieving that coveted steakhouse sear. It’s the secret weapon in the kitchen arsenal at the swingin’ new Pinkys in Yaletown, where the Browns Social House folk are out to prove they’re serious about steak. Their beef is a superior Alberta-raised brand, triple-A Sterling Silver, grain- and corn-fattened, like most commercial beef. But less than a week after the opening, the grill cooks are shaking their heads and mopping their brows, still trying to master the Montague.

Out in the dining room the hockey game flickers over the bar, the music is loud, and the reflection of the giant white-bulb ROCKSTAR sign twinkles in my Mikasa Kwarx wineglass. Pinkys is the steakhouse reinvented, an old-new balance of traditional scalloped potatoes and Thai chili-spiced “wicked” mushrooms; of 22-ounce porterhouses and female-friendly seven-ounce sirloins. You can even take your sliced leftovers, reinvented as a horseradish-licked baguette sandwich, home in a cute bag.

The pink ponyskin barstools, tufted leather banquettes, chrome-ball lights, and flocked wallpaper scream new-generation steakhouse, the kind popping up all over North America. After years of fresh and healthy dining, of counting calories and watching saturated fat and reducing animal protein, the steakhouse is back, baby.

I wish I could say the Montague is the secret to a great steak: my companion’s blue-rare filet is overcooked; my medium-rare rib eye is under-. Something as seemingly basic as steak cooking temperature can range widely, from 800° to 1800°F. And there are many more decisions to make based on personal preference. Which grade, brand, or breed to cook. Wet or dry aging (which all meat requires to release the enzymes that break down proteins). Whether to jacquard with little x-shaped cuts to tenderize the meat. And whether to sear and rest the meat, or cook it à la minute. Oh, and don’t forget seasoning variations, and the fine art of creating a Chicago (deeply charred exterior). Not to mention which cut to order based on taste and tenderness.


Still with me? Because things are going to get bloody. We’re celebrating the return of carnivorousness here. I don’t like my meat with a dollop of conscience. (Though the organic, grass-fed, and presumably more humane beef that shows up in the Pinkys 12-ounce rib eye and steak tartare is delicious.) I am unapologetically happy atop the food chain. If you don’t feel the same way, put the magazine down, back away, and go gather nuts and berries, or whatever you vegetarian folks do for a good time.

“Meat is the ultimate symbol of North American affluence,” writes Susan Bourette in Carnivore Chic, published by Penguin this month. Which goes a long way toward explaining the current steakhouse boomlet in Vancouver. Steak’s decadence is not just financial: “It’s about indulgence,” says Browns president Scott Morison, who is currently opening a second Pinkys in Kits. Scanning the pretty, young, expensively denimed crowd, he adds, “They work all week, they go to the gym every night-and on Thursday they want steak.”

Bourette’s book supports the theory that human history has been driven by the need to secure a steady supply of protein: “meat hunger,” as anthropologist Marvin Harris calls it. “Meat sweats” is what I call the condition I’m in a few nights later at Morton’s, the Vancouver outpost of a 78-strong international chain and the only local beefery serving USDA Prime (the top two percent of all North American cattle-fattier and theoretically tastier than Canadian Prime). My Chicago cut bone-in rib steak, 24 ounces and easily two inches thick, with the bone exposed, looks like a Fred Flintstone-size drumstick. This meat, from the less worked muscles inside the cow’s rib cage, is the king of steaks for its intense marbling of fat. The melting fat cooks back into the meat on Morton’s red-hot vertical broilers and gives it its intense flavour and buttery texture.

My companion’s 24-ounce medium-rare porterhouse is soft and juicy on the tenderloin side of the bone, deeply nutty-tasting on the strip-loin side. “That’s what marks USDA as a distinct product-the specific flavour profile of each cut,” executive chef Lee Milton tells me on the phone the next day. “Being a Canadian, it’s a tough thing to say, but USDA Prime is the best.” And tough for an Alberta girl to admit, too, but he just might be-for $57, he better be-right.

I’ve eaten in the Chicago and Miami Morton’s and could swear I’m back there. The food porn of plastic-wrapped raw steaks, melon-sized potatoes, and gigantic asparagus stalks is paraded before us. The iceberg salad, centre cut from a whole head of lettuce, is drenched in tangy, chunky Dana blue cheese dressing. Even the black-and-white celebrity photos on the walls look the same. And the familiarity is deeply, deeply satisfying-to me and to the mobile and local business crowd that calls this place home.

The thing is, steakhouses aren’t just defined by the food. For anyone who came of age in North America in the last century they’re awash in nostalgia. Think Prohibition-era, beefsteak-serving speakeasies in Chicago. Frank and Dino sawing into a sirloin in Vegas. Ten-year-old me, out for a birthday-dinner steak (with a pink plastic cow stuck in it) with my family. They’re about giant shrimp cocktails, Caesar salads tossed and bananas Foster flambéed tableside.

That tradition continues at Hy’s. Our waiter, Bonnie Fong, has been here on and off since 1972, about the time that Jimmy Pattison, a regular-he’s in the house tonight-started coming in. Hy’s has been in this 100-year-old Hornby Street building since 1962, when the garlic-buttery escargots and Gorgonzola-spiked mac and cheese would have been nouvelle. (They still taste damn good.) I defy the most rigorous Atkins disciple not to devour a basket of Hy’s cheese toast or a creamy double-baked and stuffed potato. By the time Fong flambées syrupy Bings and pours them over vanilla ice cream in a sundae dish for the popular but off-menu cherries jubilee, I’m the happiest 10-year-old girl in the world.

 

Hy’s real advantage is charcoal. From the coat check there’s a viewing corridor straight to the glassed-in mesquite-fired grill, where sparks, smoke, and flames rise theatrically. “It’s not an easy grill to cook on. It takes a lot of experience,” says assistant manager Tim Butt. “It’s different every day, with slight temperature variations.” The charcoal works magic on Hy’s spice rub, giving a distinct, smoky finish to my 16-ounce bone-in rib steak of triple-A Sterling Silver beef, wet-aged at least 28 days. (Wet-aged meat literally stews in its own juices in a sealed plastic pouch, which its proponents say creates tenderness while maintaining moisture.) But this steak is notably chewier than its dry-aged siblings at Gotham and the Shore Club, the other two jewels in the David Aisenstadt meat empire (which also includes the Keg).

If Hy’s is pure retro, then the Shore Club is retro-chic, a modern meta-meditation on the good old days, with nods to modernity (seen in the lamb and fresh fish on the menu); like Pinkys, it’s the steakhouse reinvented. I dine like a circa-1960 queen on buttery-crumbed clams casino in the shell, bright with bell pepper bits; velvety creamed corn; a massive rib eye; and a banana split. “Hy’s is where you’d take your wife. This is where you’d bring your mistress,” one of my companions quips wickedly. Tonight the room buzzes with several martini-laden tables of guys and dolls. The toughs in the corner are either sunglasses-wearing, unlit-cigar-chomping bridge-and-tunnel pretenders or real mafiosi. (I’m afraid to stare long enough to find out.)

Brandishing a six-inch wood-handled Walco, I saw into my rib steak with anticipation, only to realize that the Steak Nazi won. I wanted it rare; the white-jacketed waiter politely advised that the kitchen recommends medium; we compromised on medium-rare. It arrives medium, perhaps because it’s only a scant inch thick. Overcooked to my taste, but my friend’s eyes practically roll back in his head when he tries it. “The fat kind of squirts in your mouth,” he whispers. To me, his steak is the real winner: a 24-ounce bone-in New York cut, perfectly medium-rare. A steak eater’s steak, with real beefy taste and the extra flavour and gravitas that come from slicing it off the bone.

I taste the same terrific bone-in New York again at Gotham, which, like the Shore Club, serves Canadian Prime beef, first wet-aged for at least 28 days and then finished with old-school dry-aging, which evaporates moisture and concentrates flavours. That must be the secret behind the city’s tastiest filet mignon, a lean and comparatively flavourless cut I usually avoid. (Morton’s Lee Milton calls well-done filet mignon a “texture-delivery device only.”) Not only is the inside a juicy red rare, the crusty, salty exterior has been broiled to a perfect Chicago sear. This is a big, black baseball of meat. (Gotham also offers a Pittsburgh, or slightly less blackened char.) I have to giggle at the curried lentils in phyllo that Sri Lankan corporate chef Bala Kumanan has snuck onto the menu. “Okay, we have a vegetarian entrée,” waiter Joel Wright concedes. “But if you’re a vegan, I really can’t help you.”

The long-aproned, white-coated Gotham waitstaff are as young and handsome as the crowd: couples on dates, high rollers, and no doubt a raucous sports team or two tucked into the downstairs private rooms. Jazz standards float in from the porkpie-hatted player in the lounge. The oysters Rockefeller taste like sex, and don’t get me started on the divinely browned, duck-fat-crisped Lyonnaise potatoes. Gotham is a showy steakhouse for grown-up and-at $49.95 for the rib steak and the New York, $42.95 for the filet-deep-pocketed fun.

Steak earned its special-occasion allure over the years partly through price: though Pinkys and Hy’s offer steak-and-side dinners in the $25-$50 range, usually your chunk of beef comes à la carte, with $10 creamed spinach or $15 frites for the table to share-a pricey proposition, even before you order the $1,200 bottle of 1999 Château Latour.
Defying the what-you-pay-is-what-you-get maxim is chef-owner Neil Wyles at Hamilton Street Grill, a steak aficionado’s paradise that, after a bit of a New Year’s makeover, is an intimate and casual neighbourhood joint with prices to match. This is Vancouver’s temple for certified Angus beef; the stocky, black, hornless cattle produce a fittingly unusual meat, with a nuanced, complex flavour. But that’s not the only difference at work here. “My new specification, and I’m going out on a limb here, is 35- to 55-day-aged,” Wyles tells me. “It was pounded into me that 30 days is optimal for aging steak. But that’s old-school. Today everything is so much more temperature- and quality-controlled, you can let it go longer.”

Wyles receives wet-aged chunks of rib, short loin, and sirloin from which he cuts his own steaks in-house (as do Hy’s, Gotham, and the Shore Club). This also helps trim prices: $34 for a 16-ounce rib eye; $38 for a 20-ounce New York strip, served with fluffy Burbank russet mashed potatoes and veg; and just $26 for a terrifically bloody, grass-fed organic hanger steak (the muscle that hangs from the bottom of the cow’s rib cage) with tasty Kennebec frites.

Before throwing them on an “ordinary gas grill” that reaches about 800°F, Wyles rubs the steaks with pepper, plenty of kosher salt, and a little canola. The result plays out in layers, like trance music for your mouth: a crunchy salt crust, toothsome meat, a fat explosion, then a browned-butter, gamey flavour that lingers in the mouth. Our New York strip and rib eye share the unmistakable Angus flavour profile, though their textures-one fleshy and substantial, the other soft and melting-are distinct. Wyles’s signature starter is a silky Gorgonzola fondue, his killer finish a moist warm gingerbread pudding with caramel sauce and pumpkin ice cream. If steak’s really back for everyday dining, I’m making this my local.

Indulgence, affluence, nostalgia, and plain old meat-lust might not be enough to fuel a local steakhouse boom. Wilson’s on Beatty Street tried to make a go of it in 2004 but failed, perhaps because the NHL strike challenged the successful sports-steak equation (case study: the new Players Chophouse). More recently, the Steamworks offshoot Transcontinental launched a steak-heavy menu and quickly retreated to more diverse fare. But here’s hoping in soy-and-potatoes Vancouver, steak eaters can finally come out of the closet: We’re here, we love steer, get used to it.

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