New York is renowned as a premier destination for a classic steakhouse. Whenever foreign winemakers come to visit the Big Apple on wine business, I usually field requests for the best beef restaurants. While it is true that the home cook now has access to a variety of top pedigree beef, ranging from naturally grass fed to dry aged, the options at restaurants are much more problematic. Aside from the exorbitant costs, especially comparing what you can get for the home kitchen versus what you are actually paying for at a steakhouse, there are other pitfalls to consider as well.
Wine lists are generally unimaginative and rocket juice oriented. If there are gems on the list, they are too far and few between, creating a dilemma of agony over the correct wine pairings and strategy. Stylistically there is little imagination or variation, often a who’s who of cult cabernets or expensive super Tuscans, Burgundy or Bordeaux wines that are nowhere near ready to drink.
The second issue is quality. The demand for high quality beef is simply too high to meet demand, and I have visited steakhouses only to have wildly varying experiences in terms of beef quality. One visit to Pete Luger’s was quite good, the second, not up to par. There was a time in the eighties and early nineties when the porterhouse at Luger’s was always great, often exceptional.
While a cote de boeuf at Minetta Tavern was very impressive on my first visits, a recent presentation of this signature steak was upstaged by the black label Pat Lefreida special cut burger.
At the old standby Keen’s Chophouse, I realize that conventional wisdom is to order the mutton chop, but they have long since stopped serving mutton for a over an era now. The steak, although good, ultimately becomes unmemorable.
And this is the same feeling I get at a litany of beef parlors. Sparks, The Palm, Smith and Wollensky’s, Old Homestead, Marc Joseph, Wolfgang’s, Ruth Chris, The Strip House, Morton’s etc. Often good, but not memorable, and ultimately overpriced.
At the steakhouses being sponsored by celebrity chefs such as Costata, M. Wells and BLT Prime, the wine lists are richer, and the sides stand out for execution, but the steaks are only marginally better. Prime Meats in Brooklyn, sans celebrity chef, is a member of this tier as well.
Not in the same league, and clearly for value, it is a safer bet to head over to Queens and have an entrana (skirt steak) at a Uruguayan or Argentinian steak house such as La Esquina Criolla, or El Gauchito. La Entrana is an everyman’s cut and harder to screw up. If it is overcooked (good chance) there is classic chimichuri sauce too soften the blow, and the price is definitely right. I cook skirt steak at home often and reserve my portions with my butcher at Harlem Shambles.
Nowadays I lean towards St. Anselm, across from another meat lover’s paradise, Fette Sau, in the Burg. Most everything is grilled and/or smoked, and the hangar steak (on par with skirt, albeit a bit gamier) is one of the best deals in town. They also offer an axe handle steak of various sizes, from 60 ounces and up. It is rich and satisfying, and reasonably priced for the portion size in comparison to all of the plus $100 cuts of cote de boeuf in Manhattan. Of late, this is the only steak preparation that beckons me to return, and for more of that feeling I decided to go to South America.
First stop Uruguay, where the capitol, Montevideo, is home to a Mercado of smoked meat dreams. Outside, billows of flaming ember smoke release tender wafts of sweetbreads and iron rich blood sausages. Inside this temple of cow is a wonderland for carnivores, several communal, rustic dining areas juxtaposed vying for tourist attention to the religion of beef worship. Parrillas are designed to use either wood or carbon which is the half the secret to cooking a perfect steak. The other half is pedigree, of course.
The technique is impressive to watch. On one side of the grill wood burns. The embers fall underneath on their own natural time and is then pushed by the pit master to the other side of the grill, where the meat is waiting, receiving no touch of fire, just gentle blazing neon orange wood embers, relaxing the beef, grilling slowly and surely, creating masterpieces of cooking perfection. It was a revelation.
Across the pond by Buquebus from Colonia de Sacremento, Buenos Aires stands, ripe with steak houses of all sorts for all budgets and styles. There are too many to count, and each particular in what specialties they can deliver. For some it is the chinchulines (intestines), the mollejas (sweetbreads), morcilla (blood sausage), ojo de bife (ribeye), entrana (skirt steak), or costillas (short ribs). At La Cabrera, the restaurant is designed for tourists and local families alike, but the quality of the Pampa beef is undeniable. The portion sizes are not for the weak.
In Argentina, the only issue is that the wine lists are 100% local, and selecting a malbec that isn’t overoaked, overextracted and less than 14.5% alcohol can be problematic. Much Caution must be exercised. In fact, throughout most of Buenos Aires, this is the style of wine that proliferates. It is disheartening to say the least, but a recent visit with a few winemakers in Mendoza and Patagonia has yielded a glimmer of hope. Lighter, fresher styles, even for malbec awaits. Better bet are the lighter fresher indeigenous grapes such as criollo, torrontes, or wines made from cab franc, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot grapes. With some bottle age these wine tend to be softer and better suited for the rich beef.
At a modern take on the steak house at La Carniceria, I felt transported to a hip Brooklyn eatery as the young owners have created a cool vibe focusing on casual service and great beef. The quality is eveident as the beef is sourced from one of the owner’s family run ranch at La Pampa. Snag a seat at the bar for the show. They are passionate about wines and can steered me in the right direction.
The showstopper was at Don Julio in Palermo Soho. Considered to be the best, I had the good fortune of being invited by a sommelier named Rodrigo, a regular who arranged a tasting of wines showcasing a lighter style of Argentinian craftsmanship.
Chef Pepe spread slabs of beef on the counter, and I got to choose from the several cuts. We nibbled on starters such as the grilled provoleta cheese, chorizo, intestines and sweetbreads, cleared our palate with a fresh tomato salad, and made room for three cuts of beef that were nothing short of spectacular. Everything was so tender, juicy , smoky, rich, and deeply nuanced. So many flavors and thought provoking swoons from the ethereal beef. We tasted many wines from all over the country, JI JI JI,, Micheliniwine, Otra Piel, Zorzal Eggo, Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira,, Zuccardi Piedra Infinita, Blanc de Alba to name a few. All were a breath of fresh air and confirmation the climate for heavy, brooding wines is not the only option in the Argentine winemaking landscape.
I also dined at Francis Mallman’s 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, the chef who is a legendary master of fire. His clay oven, open mechanized grill and almost medieval grill invention inspired adulation and awe. Unfortunately for me, the madman was not present to conjure his magic, and the famed double cut portion of beef was not the menu. I did partake in a beautiful rib eye, just another example of tender, rich Argentine Prime, but couldn’t help but feeling just short of being transported.
Back in time for the holidays, I recently ate a dry aged steak with a good amount of funk to it. My best friend Dr. L. cooked it near perfectly, and we drank very good wine, as NYC is the wine capitol of the universe now. But something was missing, and it took a heartbeat or two to figure out what. If only I could bring a few branches from Riverside Park and infuse some local wood flavor. Now that, my friendly carnivores, would be a steak. The cost of flying to Argentina to have four or five steak dinners may actually be comparable to steak dinners here at home, but given a choice, bring out the wood baby, every time.