Josh Ozersky has written on his carnivorous exploits for Time, Esquire and now Food & Wine; he has authored several books, including The Hamburger: A History; and he is the founder of the Meatopia food festival. Follow him on Twitter @OzerskyTV.
Like every other man of spirit, I love steak houses. Even the cheesiest New Jersey ones, like Arthur’s, in Hoboken, or the Library III, in Egg Harbor Township, the kind with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books on the walls and a “Queen’s Cut” filet mignon, make me happy. Happier, in fact, than their more upscale rivals.
The contemporary high-end steak house promises an Hermès experience but often delivers a Men’s Wearhouse feeding. The reasons range from incompetence to immorality, but it’s the damage to body, spirit and bank that matter, not the motivations. Even a hard-bitten meathead like myself only gets to go to a steakhouse every few months. The calories are indefensible, the check averages sky-high. It’s not asking too much for the meal to live up to the hype. When it doesn’t, one or more of the following swindles is to blame.
Therefore, it is imperative that they serve the best meat, which is to say USDA prime. Prime meat isn’t always that great; what they get away with calling prime these days is a crime, as old-school butchers are fond of saying. But choice is guaranteed to be mediocre. The only exceptions are the “choice or better” programs like Creekstone’s Master Chef line or Certified Angus Beef, which sometimes deliver better marbled beef than their rivals’ top-grade product.
Too many steak houses try to cram too many steaks into a limited area, and are, let’s say, less than fanatical about humidity control. The result is mold, plenty of it, and a steak that tastes more like toe cheese than great beef.
But price, in fact, is typically an issue, and they know that, so the cheaper wines on the list will too often tend to be big, jammy, Parkerized reds - the kind you buy for the price of a pizza in bulletproofed liquor stores, and which appear here at three times the cost.
There is a very famous New York steak house that takes this to an extreme, but I won’t say who it is or what bridge it is located beside. Laying on suet after the fact is the culinary equivalent of Photoshopping pimples and stretch marks: undeniably effective, but a swindle nonetheless.
The best part is that it’s usually Boar’s Head or some other cheapo food-service product. You don’t even get three slices of good bacon out of this deal! My mind is still reeling from the effrontery of it.
Where do you start? There is the rib eye steak masquerading as a rib eye, and denuded of its precious cap - the only reason to order it, for my money; the “frenched” rib lamb chops, ladylike lollipops with half their meat (and the best half) simply thrown away; the lamb or veal “T-bone,” really just a tough loin chop, cheap, chewy and hard to cut up; the porterhouses from the very end of the loin, with enormous gristly nerves disfiguring their strip loin sections; boxed or single-served meat, the kind you see at Costco or the Restaurant Depot, often hiding behind the facade of a great window of robust and ancient steaks; filet slices the size of muffins, and with no more flavor than scones.
The list goes on and on, infinite variations on the same theme of deceit.
© 2011 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.