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Consider steak in all its subtlety

There are those who would treat a good steak — pardon the expression — like just another piece of meat.

Carrie Oliver is not one of those people. In October, Oliver, who runs an "artisan steak" marketplace called Oliver Ranch (, hosted a steak tasting for selected foodies in Tampa, including local bloggers Greg and Michelle Baker of Culinary Sherpas and Jayden Hair of Steamy Kitchen. She served cuts of Angus and Wagyu, gave guests a tutorial on dry aging and explained the difference between grass- and corn-fed cows.

"Beef is not beef," Oliver said. "Beef is really more like wine."

A good steak, she said, should reflect terroir th way a prime Napa Valley pinot grigio does, and should rouse within us a more nuanced, intellectual response than Cow taste good.

But even in a country that loves red meat as much as ours, that hasn't happened. At least not yet.

Part of the problem comes from how we describe a good steak. Beefy, gamy, juicy and tender: "That's about the entire vocabulary for meat," Oliver said. So Oliver formed what she calls the Artisan Beef Institute to help expand the steak discussion. She advocates using terms like harmonious, metallic and lamby to describe cuts of meat. She wants diners to consider a steak's mouthfeel, its personality, its flavor notes, its finish.

As an example, she mentioned one of her favorite steaks, a dry-aged Charolais from a ranch near Boulder, Colo. She described it as "reasonably adventurous," with notes of mushrooms, a long finish and "a good bite."

When asked if she's ever met anyone who actually talks this way about steak, Oliver replied quickly: "Almost no one. We're very, very much at the beginning of this."

But it's not so far-fetched, she said, to believe fine beef could soon join the ranks of artisan coffee and chocolate, two other food products that in recent years have crashed the wine-and-cheese world of food snobbery.

Greg Baker, who is not a huge steak guy, said Oliver's lecture nonetheless helped him better appreciate what he was eating.

"What it opened my eyes to," he said, "was the different qualities, the different breeds and different feed and different areas that beef is raised in, and how that really affects the flavors and the textures and the nuances of the steak — like how the location of a vineyard affects the flavor of wine."

Why is steak so expensive?

At Bern's, the most expensive single-person steak, a 25-ounce porterhouse, is $70. At Charley's, a 20-ounce filet is $60. Over the past decade, the price of steak has risen a decent amount, due to the weakening dollar, a higher cost of transportation and increases in the price of corn. (Most fine steakhouses rely on corn-fed and -fattened cows for their steaks; this results in better marbling and texture.) At Bern's, steaks cost what they cost partially because of the seven or so people it takes to make a single steak happen. But the elaborate dry-aging that is now standard at most fine steakhouses also plays a role. Cows, like people, are about 70 percent water. Dry-aging a steak for five to eight weeks at about 34 degrees and 65 percent humidity removes much of this moisture, which enhances the flavor of the meat, but which also cuts the weight by up to 20 percent. Combine that with the bones, crust and fat removed during trimming, and the steak that ends up on your plate represents but a tiny portion of what the restaurant purchased. "The rule of thumb around here is for every 4 pounds of beef we bring into the restaurant, you're left with 1 pound of steak," Minney said, "which is quite expensive in the end, but it truly does make a better product." — Jay Cridlin

A note on bread

The man who dines on $40 steak didn't get where he is by ignoring the simple pleasures in life. Like free bread. Visit several steakhouses, and you'll soon come up with a mental list of the joints that really know how to get a meal started. At Council Oak, for example, they bring you five sweet, onion-topped pull-apart rolls still sweating in a cast-iron pan. Marvelous. Grille One Sixteen gets creative with a pretzel loaf served with artichoke hearts and hummus. Even the chains know free bread is where it's at — recipes for Outback's honey-wheat Bushment Bread abound online, and the rolls at Lone Star Steakhouse are delightfully fluffy and buttery. Me, I dig the sourdough at Charley's, a pungent loaf warm enough to melt the butter spread atop it. It's simple, flavorful and just filling enough to tide you over 'til the steak comes. But whatever your preference, know that it's okay to think twice before ordering that football-sized baked potato a la carte. The finest carbs come gratis. — Jay Cridlin

Consider steak in all its subtlety 12/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:43am]
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