Monday, March 26, 2012

Minetta Tavern and the Best Steak I have Ever Eaten (so far)

My favorite restaurant in the whole wide world is Minetta Tavern. They serve my favorite hamburger, my favorite French dip sandwich, my favorite prime rib, my favorite NY Strip and, until recently, my favorite ribsteak - the $124 Côte de Boeuf for two with roasted marrow bones. That changed a couple of weeks ago when I sat down for dinner at Minetta with my good friend Larry Chicane, and we ate a steak that we concurred was the best piece of meat that either one of us had ever eaten. In fact, it was so good that we wonder if it isn't the best piece of meat that anyone has ever eaten.

Larry Chicane, the most interesting man in the world.
I am not going to feign objectivity regarding Minetta Tavern both Larry and myself count chef Riad Nasr amongst our best mates. In our younger days we used to race cars together,  but these days we tend to just eat and drink too much when we get together. And, although he will probably deny when sober, Riad has, during prolonged bouts of drinking, confessed to me that my obsession with beef served as inspiration for the Minetta menu - that I was the meat muse, if you will.

As you might imagine I tend to spend a considerable amount of time (and lucre) at Minetta. Frankly, it would be rude not to. After all they have, along with master butcher Pat LaFrieda, gone to all the trouble of crafting the perfect meat menu. I have become very good friends with Pat and his evil cousin Mark Pastore (we call him Markiavelli, as coined by Jeffrey Chodorow) since we worked together making  Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat

Photo by Pat LaFrieda
A little over two months ago they received a special shipment from Snake River Farms - A rib primal of their prized "American Wagyu". The breed is a cross between Japanese Wagyu bulls and domestic American Black Angus cattle. While not a pure Kobe, it is a heartier stock that was bred to withstand the rigors of the Idaho climate which sees temperatures ranging from 20º - 95º F. By comparison the weather is far more temperate in the breed's native Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan where temperatures range from 44º-88º F.

The cattle are raised using the same time honored long term feeding program employed in Japan. This is a process that is typically four times longer than that used to bring average domestic cattle to market and they are fed a special diet that includes Idaho potatoes, alfalfa hay and soft white wheat in addition to the more commonly used corn. The resulting steer exhibit exceptional marbling (intramuscular fat, the fat inside the muscle) - far beyond that of even the best USDA Prime. The cost is also far beyond that of even the best USDA Prime. The beef is typically wet aged and even then commands a price that is much more expensive than that of dry aged meat.
Pat LaFrieda in his dry age room
Pat decided to dry age the whole primal. And Pat being Pat he decided to age it for 60 days. Beef generally needs a minimum of 21 days of dry aging to tenderize it and enhance its flavor but the best steaks are aged for at least 28 days or more. Beef loses around 20-25% of its weight during the first month which explains the cost difference between wet aged beef (which loses none of it weight) and dry aged beef. Although the law of diminishing returns takes effect the beef will continue to tenderize and the flavor will intensify the longer it is aged.

Indeed, Pat ages the meat for Minetta Tavern far longer, both the aforementioned NY Strip and the Côte de Boeuf on the menu rank among the most consistently funky tasting steaks. But he outdid himself with the Snake River Farms rib. Because of the over abundance of marbling on the beef the pronounced intensity of flavor of dry aging permeated the entire cut to a greater degree than anything else that I have tried from his dry age room, or any other.

When Pat finally pulled down the rib and showed the gnarled hunk of flesh to Mark they both looked at each other an said, in unison, "Minetta Tavern!"

Rather than fabricating standard sized rib steaks from the primal Pat decided that beef this majestic needed to look the part and so decided to cut them into tomahawks - leaving the entire rib bone intact. A standard rib steak bone is trimmed right below the Longissimus costarum - the small triangular shaped muscle that rubs parallel to the main eye. But leaving the whole bone intact makes for an impressive presentation and, as long as it is not Frenched, it makes the cut all the more delicious because the "finger meat" that lines the bone (the Intercostales interni and externi muscles) is wonderfully tender and positively brims with flavor, all the more so when dry aged.

Minetta only received a handful of steaks and the chefs selected two that they thought  the finest. The first was probably the one that most people would gravitate towards - it had a huge portion of the Longissimus muscle (the "eye" that runs through both the rib and the loin) and, given its slightly rectangular shape, it clearly came from the short loin end of the primal as the muscle flattens towards the animals posterior. The other cut was from the shoulder end and while the eye was much smaller (and rounder) and there was a lot of intermuscular fat (the fat between the muscles) the Spinalis dorsi - the muscle that caps the Longissimus - was simply enormous. 

I love the Spinalis dorsi, it is a fibrous muscle that has a hearty flavor and a grainy texture striated with streaks of fat, and since it sits on the exterior of the sub-primal it readily absorbs the flavor of dry aging. It is my favorite muscle on the steer and I would gladly give up a larger eye for it. The Spinalis dorsi tapers off significantly at the short loin end of the rib as the  Longissimus gets larger. Naturally we chose the chop from the shoulder end.

Executive Chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr
Next we discussed temperature. My inclination is always to go black and blue on prime steaks and nobody does it better than Minetta Tavern who consistently deliver a perfectly charred crust over a cool interior. Lee and Riad, being chefs, prefer to send out beef that is medium rare. 

The kitchen crew: Daniel Parilla and Chef de Cuisne Bill Brasile
In this case, due to the extensive marbling, I had to concede that they were right. The pure breed Wagyu steak I have eaten, most notably a ridiculously marbled grade A12 ribeye imported from Japan, really needed to be cooked to medium to make it edible - it was essentially a block of fat flecked with meat. While the Snake River Farms steak was not quite that marbled it was still far fattier than USDA Prime. 

And it was redolent with the steely, musky tang of dry age.  Both Riad and Lee felt it was actually a little too funky, that perhaps 45 rather than 60 days might be more appropriate. I can't argue, at least for civilians, it was over the top. But personally I can't get enough of the dry aged flavor - the moldier the better!

The steak probably weighed around 50oz and thus took a little while to cook and rest before carving. In the mean time the kitchen sent out some oysters - a dozen wonderfully plump and briny specimens procured from Widows Hole and a delicate slice of Cotechino over sea island black peas crafted by Chef de Cuisne Bill Brasile. On any other night it might have stolen the show. On any other night.

Arno, oysters, vino, cotechino


The cooked chop looked positively Flintstonian when it was presented at table side before being whisked back to the kitchen for carving. The smell of charred flesh mixed with the pungency from the aging produced an intoxicating aroma, heightening expectations and causing a stir about the dining room. 


Even back in the early days of Balthazar Lee and Riad understood the power of spectacle and that ceremoniously parading a sizzling platter of meat through the dining room would invariably lead to everyone ordering one. The presentation of Côte de Boeuf from Balthazar was understandably adopted at Minetta Tavern - the eye is sliced and draped neatly over the rib bone and that is how this steak was served. 

From the first bite it was obvious that this was the best piece of meat I have ever eaten. Which is to say that it was the best thing I have ever eaten. The aged flavor was so intense that it caused a slight shudder in the back of the spine, like taking a stiff shot of whiskey or getting punched in the kidneys. My mouth was immediately enveloped in a rush of funk and tang. It was as pungent as the most intense blue cheese, instantly clearing the nostrils like wasabi, the fumes lingering on the palate for a protracted period of time.

This was not unexpected, although it was shockingly intense. But what followed was a unique experience. The over the top blue cheese flavor was only the first barrage, it ceded to a deeper flavor, that of the beef itself which seemingly combined all the best aspect of meat cooking - the smokiness of barbecue, the heartiness of a long braise, the burnished Maillard flavors of the best smashed hamburgers, the voluptuousness of the finest prime rib. Suffice it to say that the beef was supremely buttery and tender. It was an incomparable steak.

What is it about such aged and decayed matter - whether alcohol or cheese or meat  - that enraptures us so?  Is it perhaps that they are so far removed from life? That the further from the point of death they are the more intense they become the more fascination they hold for us. A morbid curiosity perhaps? As if we are somehow cheating death a little.

The price for this masterpiece of beef? A perfectly justified $260. Especially considering that this was, in all likelihood, a once in a lifetime steak. If there is a next batch it probably won't be aged quite as long, although hope does spring eternal.

Of course Larry picked up the tab, as he is wont to do and Riad sent out a couple of glasses Black Tot rum. I realized that a man couldn't have better friends, or eat better steak.

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal Street  New York, NY 10012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Wren

I didn't love the fish 'n chips at this pseudo-British pub (note a complete lack of any British beers) The fish was good with a crunchy beer batter but the "chips" where wan - soggy, flavorless, stuck together. I am confounded by how poorly the chip part of fish 'n chips in the US are generally handled.

But no matter, skip the fish 'n chips and stick with anything with beef in it and you will do just fine (this is a rule I generally adhere to, as you might imagine) Both the oxtail marmalade on toast and the Guinness braised steak and Stilton were wonderful but best of all was the beef jerky which was moist, soft and spicy and ate more like heavily rubbed barbecue. A heritage pork sausage sandwich was good but the bread served with it was too dense and unyielding.