How to make it sizzle: Modern chefs are elevating steak to an art form
But what makes the difference between a decent grill and a connoisseur's cut? Alice-Azania Jarvis finds out
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Thursday 29 September 2011
It's furtive affair, ordering steak. Quite frequently the most expensive item on the menu, it suffers the unfortunate reputation of being the dullard's chosen dish. Everyone likes steak, don't they? It's a safe bet. It's also – or so the conventional wisdom has run – a boring one. Why have steak when you can have lamb's brains and scallops? Or foie gras and pheasant? Or lobster ravioli with a side order of samphire? Unless it's dressed up in some exotically favoured sauce (and in which case, steak purists might say, it has been ruined), employing the considerable skills of a restaurant chef to season and grill a slab of meat for a few minutes seems like rather a poor allocation of resources.
And yet, the steak will not be thwarted. When Heston Blumenthal opened his pawed-over London restaurant, Dinner, a steakhouse classic – short rib of beef – took centre stage, cooked for 72 hours and served with an anchovy and onion sauce. Now the restaurant boasts three variations on the theme: a Hereford ribeye, an Aberdeen Angus fillet and a wing rib of Irish Angus. Earlier this year, Spitalfields' feted steakhouse and cocktail bar, Hawksmoor, opened its second instalment, in Covent Garden. Like the first, it was met with a rapturous response from critics, and a third, in Guildhall, is imminent. And now, of course, there's Cut, Wolfgang Puck's ultra-luxe UK debut, devoted almost entirely to the cooking and serving of steak. There, steak is awarded an almost religious reverence, with cuts brought in from Kansas, Chile and Queensland. "What we're doing is elevating the steak," Puck says. "We're using the best meat possible and cooking it well, so there's no need to smother it in a sauce or whatever for it to taste good.
"There are a lot of steak places in London, but few that are really upscale. People think fine dining has to be something fussy but when you have a really great piece of meat, it speaks for itself."
Puck isn't alone in his desire to "elevate" the humble grill. In November he will be joined by Richard Caring, whose Caprice Holdings is to open 34, at 34 Grovesnor Square. Complete with a bespoke charcoal grill brought in from Argentina, it is a self-described "haven for meat lovers". Meanwhile, the high-end chain Gaucho has succeeded in bringing decent fillet, rump and tenderloin to the masses. But why? Why is the straight-down-the-line steak enjoying a moment in the spotlight?
"It's partly to do with the quality," Richard Turner, Hawksmoore's head chef, says. "For a long time, Britain loved steak and beef, but the development of intensive farming methods meant that quality crashed. Now, there are some farmers who have just started to farm properly again."
With the return of the steak's hold over restaurant diners, a new set of standards has arrived. No longer, it seems, is a steak just a steak. Now it comes with a breed, an age and a provenance: At Cut, it's possible to order one dish (the "tasting of New York sirloin") that contains pieces of USDA [The United States Department of Agriculture-graded] Prime Black Angus, Casterbridge Angus and Australian Wagyu laid alongside one another for comparative purposes. At £48, it's just over half the price of the restaurant's most expensive option, an £85 Wagyu ribeye from Chile. The point is to illustrate the difference in flavour and texture between one cut of beef and the next. "It's very important to choose your meat well," Puck says. "Each meat is so different, so featuring one would be like having a wine list that only had Bordeaux. The Wagyu is much richer than the others, followed by the American steaks, which are graded – only 5 per cent of American steaks are – and very marbled."
Turner agrees. "I can taste the difference between steaks from different areas and can identify the different breeds of cattle that I work with," he says.
Before opening the first Hawksmoor in 2006, the restaurant's founders Huw Gott and Will Beckett travelled to Kobe in Japan, the Pampas plains in Argentina and the cattle plains of North America. In the end, they decided to feature meat from a source closer to home: the farm in North Yorkshire owned by high-end butchers The Ginger Pig. "They are really leading the revolution in farming. The cattle comes from a good grass pasture in Yorkshire, which contains a mix of 16 different types of herbs."
Like Gott and Beckett, Tim Hughes, Caprice Holding's chef director, has drawn upon his travels when it comes to designing the menu at 34. "I had some wonderful steak in Buenos Aires, where they tend to let the meat speak for itself," he says. "And Keith McNally's Minetta Tavern in NYC is great – it does an aged rib there which is around nine weeks. I had it plain with a green salad. And I've had amazing meat in Dubai, which is grain fed for 300 days and shipped in from Australia."
At 34, customers will not only be able to experience steak from all over the world – they'll be able to sample rare breeds, too. Puck says origin can be key to determining the steak's quality. "It is like pearls or diamonds – if you want the best, you have to choose the right source," he says.
Just as important as where the beef originates, though, is how it is treated. The Ginger Pig leaves its cattle (Longhorn, if it's destined for Hawksmoor) to mature for almost double the standard time in order to maximise the flavour. After 30 months the cattle are slaughtered and the meat is hung for a minimum of 35 days, which allows time for it to shrink as excess water evaporates. At Cut, too, the meat is left for more than a month to mature, before being grilled over a wood fire to give it a smokiness that you just can't get when cooking steak on a hob. "If you sauté it in a pan, that just doesn't taste right to me," Puck says. "The wood gives it a wonderful smokiness. We also put a lot into our seasoning. We mix dry onion, garlic and fresh thyme, roast black and white pepper, dry off sea salt and then mix it all together in a food processor."
After cooking, the steak is rested to allow the heat to redistribute throughout the meat. Hughes leaves his for five minutes, while Puck recommends allowing eight to 10 minutes. Turner goes even further. "I would rest it for 20 minutes. In my experience that gives the best results. At Hawksmoor, we keep them at 57C. It is the right temperature for it to stay warm but not really continue to cook. The blood permeates back out from the centre, making the meat softer. A tough steak with a bloody centre is one which hasn't been rested properly."
Finally, it is served on a hot plate – with as few adornments as possible. "If you have a great piece of meat or a great piece of fish, you don't need a fancy sauce," Puck says. "I like to have a béarnaise sauce on the side to dip French fries into, but when it comes to the steak, I want to be able to taste the meat."
Recreating the Cut experience at home is a tall order – not everyone has a wood-burning grill in their kitchen or the resources to bring in their own Wagyu beef. There are ways, though, that you can maximise what you get. "At home, try to cook your steak over a barbecue," Puck says. "Put some damp wood or woodchips into the fire for smokiness, and then wait until the embers go down." Turner favours one brand of charcoal in particular: Big K, preferring the taste to other commercial brands. He also recommends using smoked sea salt to season the steak – but most important of all is choosing the correct meat. "Go to a butcher you know and trust, not a supermarket," he says. "A good butcher should be able to tell you where the meat came from and what breed it is."
Aim for a steak that is at least 2in thick and avoid anything too bloody, which is likely to be too young. When cooking, take into account how much fat there is. "The more fat it has, the closer to medium you go to give the fat the chance to dissolve," Turner says. "A fillet, you can have rare."
So does this herald a new era of carnivore connoisseurship? It just might. Turner says he's already seen steak snobbery in action at Hawksmoor. "We have some customers come in who are real steak fanatics – they know so much about it." And, if the success of Cut is anything to go by, they're willing to pay for the privilege – on a recent Tuesday night, the 70-seat dining area was fully booked. Steak has come in from the cold.
Top tips for beefing up your steak
Fat is good
"Fat is flavour," Hawksmoor's Richard Turner says. "I look for intermuscular fat, which means that it's distributed within the meat."
Make it hot
"Ensure that the steak is at room temperature, not straight from the fridge," Caprice Holding's Tim Hughes says. "Cook it in a really hot pan and oil the steak, not the pan."
Get the right cut
"There are some interesting cuts that are quite rare, which I like using," Hughes says. "Hanger steak – probably only available at an independent butcher – is known as onglet in France, where they cook it with shallots and red wine. It's a cut that is found deep within the carcass and the flavour is strong, slightly gamey. Also, short ribs are great for oriental-style cookery."
Make it interesting
Seasoning is key. Wolfgang Puck blends dry onion, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper, while Turner uses smoked sea salt on his steak. There is some scope for creativity here. "You can do some really nice rubs and seasonings to add different flavours," Hughes says. "For instance, using cayenne, sugar, black pepper, salt, celery seeds and so on."
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