A Surprise in Steak

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Let’s say you’re in the mood for a steak – a really good steak. The obvious restaurant choice, then, would be a steakhouse.

But wait – maybe you don’t like the clubby, hyper-masculine ambiance at most steakhouses. And your idea of side dishes extends beyond hash browns and creamed spinach. And while you still want that steak, you don’t necessarily need it to be big enough to choke a rhinoceros.

That sets up a conundrum: You’ve been hearing for years how only 2% of American beef is graded USDA Prime, and how almost all of that now goes to steakhouses, and how only a precious few of those steakhouses take the additional step of dry-aging their beef. So where are you going to find your great steak?

As it turns out, you’re in luck. Great non-steakhouse steaks are definitely out there if you know where to look. The big steakhouses are actually in a tough spot these days, because there are now so many of them in the city that the high-volume wholesalers simply don’t have enough great meat to go around. And people are noticing: Internet food sites like Chowhound and eGullet have been abuzz for months with complaints about declining steakhouse quality, even at the once-unimpeachable Peter Luger.

Food writer Josh Ozersky, author of the New York carnivore’s guidebook “Meat Me in Manhattan” (under his nom de boeuf, Mr. Cutlets), said serious steak fans should rethink their options. “The more steak a restaurant sells, the less control they have over any individual piece of beef,” he said. “The big operations don’t have the luxury of getting artisinal, hard-to-find meat, which is really what you want. The fact is, you’re less likely to get a good steak at a steakhouse these days than at a good restaurant whose multi-million-dollar reputation depends on superb ingredients.”

And which eateries might fit that bill? “Most of the Zagat ‘most popular’ restaurants,” Mr. Ozersky said. “Balthazar, Craft, Cafe Boulud, and so on. With steak, it’s all about sourcing, and those places can afford to pay top dollar.”

If it would never occur to you to order “just a steak” at a restaurant turning out much more sophisticated fare, you’re not alone. Intrigued by Mr. Ozersky’s theory, I hurried off to Balthazar (80 Spring St., 212-965-1414), where under normal circumstances I’d have chosen the duck shepherd’s pie, the grilled trout, or the goat cheese and onion tart. This time, though, I ordered the steak frites ($29), rare, even though I felt like a bit of a rube as I ordered it, as if I’d asked for a Heineken at a bar famous for its single-malt scotches.

But of course a really great piece of beef can be every bit as sublime as a single-malt, and Balthazar’s steak – a 9- ounce slab of Certified Angus – comes close to that level of quality. It positively explodes with rich, beefy flavor, although it’s not as tender as some folks might prefer.

That’s by design, said Balthazar’s co-executive chef, Riad Nasr, when I spoke to him a few days later. “It’s a rump steak, which is a cut from French butchery. You can’t go to a supermarket here and get it,” he explained. “It’s not melt-in-your-mouth tender, but it’s very flavorful, and that’s why I like to work with it.”

My next stop was Prune (54 E. 1st St., 212-677-6221), the tiny East Village bistro where the chef-owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, is known for her flair with dishes like roasted marrowbones and fried sweetbreads. But her menu has always featured a dry-aged USDA Prime ribeye ($29), and it turns out to be a very good one – juicy, tender, and brimming with the unmistakable earthiness of dry-aged beef. It’s every bit as good as what you’d get at the Post House or Smith & Wollensky – and, at 14 to 16 ounces, much more manageable.

One reason Prune’s steak is so good is that the meat is dry-aged for 30 days, significantly longer than the 21-day steakhouse norm. “It just has a better funk that way,” Ms. Hamilton said. And do many people order it? “Actually, it sells like crazy,” she said. “I think it’s because all sorts of different people eat here. So if you want to bring your conservative parents, they can have a steak, and everyone else can go crazy with the more adventurous things we have.”

If there’s a downside to Prune and Balthazar – and to all those other restaurants Mr. Ozersky mentioned – it’s that it can be hard to get a table. But it turns out that arguably the very best steaks in town is available at a neighborhood eatery where you can usually walk in and get a seat without a reservation: Convivium (68 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, 718-857-1833), the gorgeously rustic Park Slope osteria whose inventive menu features a mix of Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish influences – along with a massive 48-ounce rib eye ($68).

Okay, so that is big enough to choke a rhino. Billed on the menu as “for two,” it’s actually enough for three or even four. So bring some friends and get ready for a treat, because this is a very special piece of meat. Chef Carlo Pulixi gets his free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef from the folks at Niman Ranch, who are usually known for their pork but also have spectacular beef.

Interestingly, Mr. Pulixi specifies that his beef not be aged. “I’m not a fan of aging, because it dries out the meat,” he said. Personally, I disagree, but it’s hard to argue with his results: The steak at Convivium has the complex, mineral driven flavor characteristic of the very best beef. No cliched grill marks, either. Instead, the steak’s exterior is blanketed with a crispy, slightly salty char that provides a perfect counterpoint to the pink, juicy meat inside. It’s the best steak I’ve eaten this year, and that includes a recent visit to Peter Luger.

As an added bonus, you can enjoy your steak in Convivium’s lovely garden. Just try finding a steakhouse with one of those.

The New York Sun

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