Friday, June 27, 2008

DC Dining: The Prime Rib

Beef Aficionado reader Kevin L. recently wrote in recommending The Prime Rib, in Philadelphia as an excellent choice for prime rib. I had actually dined at the location in Washington DC about seven years ago and remember being most impressed with not only the prime rib at The Prime Rib but also everything else about the experience. I had not been to DC in a number of years and I thought that a return trip was in order. I don't want to say that The Prime Rib was the main attraction in returning to the nations capital lest I appear to a complete philistine, what with the Smithsonian and all the historic monuments to visit but it was certainly icing on the capital cake.

The Prime Rib originated in Baltimore in 1965, the Washington DC location opened eleven years later and soon became a ubiquitous part of DC dining. Its civilized decor, outstanding service and top notch steaks and seafood not to mention its K street location made it a natural for the politicking that goes on the nation's capital but it is also a prime location for birthdays and anniversaries.

The Prime Rib is one of my favorite restaurants, for while it offers what is a fairly standard steakhouse menu with a couple of stand out items the room ,the service and indeed the atmosphere are what truly set it apart. For starters there is a dress code which I think is something that is sorely lacking at many fine dining restaurants and yes, even steakhouses. I just don't think that it is aesthetically appropriate, let alone civilized to wear sports clothes and baseball hats to a restaurant, especially if you don't remove the latter. While jeans are permissible in a steakhouse I think that shorts and flip flops are absolutely beyond the pale. A restaurant with higher culinary aspiration and especially one that has invested in a tasteful and civilized decor has the right to ask its patrons to abide by certain standards. Speaking of decor The Prime Rib is one of the most lovely rooms I have had the pleasure of dining in. The onyx walls tastefully accented with gold trim, the leopard skin print rug, a central floral arrangements that has the majesty of a peacock; not to mention the plush leather seating and the jazz trio playing softly in the background, huddled around the grand piano that sits between the dining and bar room., all make for a salubrious dining experience I generally despise live music at dinner but the band were very good and played so gentile that it added an element so welcome that when they stopped the room felt somehow emptier. Further distinguishing The Prime Rib is the service which is among the most polite and effusive I have experienced, it fits the room perfectly. All this would be meaningless of course if the food did not deliver but it most certainly does.

Take the outstanding crab cocktail for example, you know you are close to Maryland when the crab tastes as fresh as it does at The Prime Rib. it was succulent and deeply flavorful making the accompanying cocktail sauce superfluous.

The potato skins that the Prime Rib claims to have originated back in the 1965 are not the cheese, sour cream and bacon laden monstrosities that are ubiquitous on bar menu's. Rather they are wonderfully crispy fried whole potato shells that come served with a tangy horseradish and the finest sour cream I have ever had. Actually both of the condiments that come with the skins are also great mixed and served with the prime rib. Do not pass up the skins here, they are outstanding.

If there was one minor disappointment it was the char on the boneless New York strip. Despite being ordered medium rare the exterior displayed some rather lackluster looking grill marks. The steak was cooked perfectly to temperature and was tender enough but lacked the over the top dry aged flavor that I get back in NYC from my favorites (Luger, Smith and Wollensky, Primehouse etc.) Not that the steak was not flavorful, it certainly was, but while it had a clean beef flavor it ultimately lacked the complexity and depth of flavor of offerings from the aforementioned steakhouses.

If the steak was a bit of a let down The Prime Ribs' signature dish more than met expectations. My favorite cut of beef is a generous slab of prime rib but the one on offer here is simply enormous, I finished it, of course but it left me no room for desert. It is easily a third bigger than the one I so enjoy at Smith and Wollesnky, being closer but still bigger than the ones on offer at The Palm and Keens. Compared to S&W the prime rib at the Prime Rib does not have the over the top musky moldy dry aged flavor but does share the deep, hearty and rich beef flavor that only Prime steer can truly impart. The beef is amazingly marbled and ethereally tender. It literally melts in the mouth. The lack of the over the top dry aged flavor I so prize is really an aesthetic consideration, I can not fault the Prime Rib for not exhibiting these traits, it covers all the bases required for great prime rib.

I didn't leave room for desert but I had some anyway. The peanut butter mousse was excellent, having just enough saltiness to balance the sweetness of the dish. It was the perfect conclusion to an outstanding meal. A wonderful room, service that borders on the obsequies and a traditional menu that is perfectly executed all combine to make dining at the Prime Rib a true delight. This is one of America's top steakhouses and while I am not in DC that often it will always be my destination of choice for dinner when I am.

The Prime Rib
2020 K St. NW
(bet. 20th & 21st Sts.)
Washington, DC

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Philadelphia Dining: Pat's and Geno's

I finally made it to Philadelphia to try the two most famous cheesesteaks from the City of Brotherly Love. I speak of course of Pat's and Geno's and before I receive a flaming from indignant Philadelphians accusing me of being a tourist and succumbing to hype lets me just plead guilty to both charges right off the bat. I know many fine folks from Philadelphia who all have their personal favorite cheesesteak and none of them name either Pat's or Geno's as their favorite so I can accept that there may indeed be finer examples of the breed than the big two. However, given their geographical proximity and their national renown I thought I would weigh in on the great cheesesteak debate.

I will admit that I have never been a big fan of the cheesesteak sandwich until I tried it at the source of its origin. There was simply no comparison between what I sampled Philadelphia and anything that is on offer in NYC. While there are a plethora of cheesesteak spots in NYC such as Carl's Steaks and 99 Mile to Philly they are not honorable homages to the archetype. This was brought in to stark contrast when I recently walked by the latter and witnessed a Sysco truck delivering pre shredded beef in cardboard boxes. Never has 99 miles seemed such a great distance.
My first stop was Pat's King of Steaks which claims to be have originated the steak sandwich back in 1930 and which also added Cheez Wiz to the recipe in 1952. The building, located on Passyunk, is the original location and even beyond the smell of onions and beef it reeks of history. There is nothing fancy here just a Colonial style building flanked by two large signs and a hungry crowd wolfing down cheesesteaks.

One thing I noticed about the workers, both at Pat's and Geno's, is that they are all grown men, unlike the teenagers that often populate this type of business. They are all burly, often tattooed and they are serious about their work. Fortunately I read the warning signs as I approached the counter at Pat's and gave my order succinctly and in a timely manner. Quite unlike the hapless couple behind me who received a verbal haranguing from the counter man "!.... NEXT!, I axed you'se tree times!" Clearly these guys are busy and they don't like to be kept waiting, even if there is no one else in line.

My cheesesteak was ready almost as soon as my order crossed my lips. The large, foot long sandwich, oozing Cheez Wiz and dripping with onions and grill grease was soon sitting in front of me, steaming invitingly. As I picked up the sandwich I was surprised at how light and airy it was. Especially the bread, whose delicate properties locals proudly claim is the result of the high alkaline content in the drinking supply that has been dubbed "Schuylkill Punch." The bread really was superb but the rib-eye that topped it was equally captivating, having a hearty flavor and a generous amount of fat. Despite being cooked through it was very tender, aided and abetted by the molten Wiz.

I am not a big fan of synthetic, highly processed foods but I have to admit that even beyond the authenticity of the ingredient it added a certain je no sais quois to the sandwich. I had a similar reaction when I ate at Louis Lunch in CT, while I would never countenance the use of a processed cheese on any other burger I cannot argue with a recipe that is older than I am. Same with Pat's, the Wiz just seems right here.

I ate my sandwich in front of the grildle and marveled at both its taste and the spectacle of cheesesteak assembly. While it was doubtful that this is the original cooking surface it was none the less clearly well seasoned and worn being massively concaved with a large indentation in the middle. Facing the grill from the counter the raw, thinly sliced slivers of rib eye are layered on the left and allowed to cook.

As they become cooked through they are moved towards the depressed center. It is here that the onions and steak come together in a gooey, bubbling cauldron before being scooped up and deposited into the loving embrace of the bread. The quick flick of a large flat knife smears the beef with Wiz and the whole contraption is either served open on a piece of wax paper or expertly wrapped for take out.

My first bite was one of those eureka moments when you realize what all the fuss is about, this really is a superb sandwich, everything in perfect proportion. While locals often site the bread as being what differentiates a true Philly from out of town impostors I don't think one can discount the beef which was expertly cooked and very flavorful. The tangy Wiz is of course the easiest facet of the sandwich to replicate but at Pat's it is applied in quantities that accentuate the beef rather than mask it.

Next up was Geno's situated diametrically opposite from Pat's both geographically, it is a few hundred yards on the other side of Passyunk street, and aesthetically. While Pat's is a fairly run down, understated bare bones operation Geno's is a bright shiny temple of tacky ostentation. A massive photo of a cheesesteak looms over the building which is brightly colored in orange with an American and Geno's flag fluttering in the breeze and gaudy neon signs piping through the structure.

Although Geno's was opened by Joey Vento in 1966, several decades after Pat's, Vento's father was the founder of Jim's, another Philadelphia staple and thus he does bring to the table some serious cheesesteak pedigree. Geno's was featured in the news recently for a somewhat controversial sign that Vento posted on his restaurant insisting that all ordering be done in the English language. While I agree to a degree with the sentiment, having been educated in England I am not sure that I would necessarily consider Vento, with his thick Philly accent and questionable diction, the most obvious champion of the language. Lou Dobb's might love him but I find his posturing a thinly veiled publicity stunt. Never the less I vowed to keep an open mind when trying the cheesesteak here.

Had I not eaten Pat's moments earlier Geno's might have been love at first bite. Clearly it was superior to any other cheesesteak I had eaten, except Pat's. A side by side comparison did not favor Geno's. While the bread was comparable on both sandwiches the steak at Pat's had far more depth of flavor and the onions were cooked through, at Genos they came out al dente. I noticed that the griddle at Geno's looked brand spanking new and did not have the wear and seasoning that Pat's had. I feel that the difference here is the cooking surface since everything else - steak, cheese and bread were congruent.

The onions at Geno's were not cooked through

So there you have it, my 2 cents on the cheesesteak debate. While I found the ingredients on both sandwiches comparable I preferred Pat's steak as well as the look of the place. I found Geno's to be horribly gaudy and their steak to be less flavorful than the competition. I would be interested in tasting Geno's again in a few months to see if the griddle benefits from wear and seasoning but I would certainly recommend Pat's over Geno's. Of course the geographic proximity of both institutions make for easy comparison.

Pat's King of Steak
corners of 9th Street, Wharton and Passyunk Avenues
Philadelphia PA 19147

1219 South 9th St
Philadelphia PA 19147

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008