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Friday, April 11, 2008

Steakhouse: A Title That Should Mean Something

A steakhouse by any other name is simply a restaurant that serves steak on their menu, so what qualifies one to be known by such a prestigious label?

When I hear "steakhouse" I think of a restaurant that specializes in serving only the best quality of meat, prepared perfectly to order by a staff that knows what good meat should look like before it hits the grill. I think of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse immediately, along with Morton's.
Many people will think, "Black Angus Steakhouse, that's a great place for steaks" and it makes sense because that is the title of the restaurant, but they'd be wrong.

Let me leave the subject of steak for a moment, in mentioning Jamba Juice or Marie Callender's. As a former manager of Jamba Juice, I know for fact that extensive research and development goes into every item on the menu at Jamba Juice, which lends to their success in making the very best smoothies and fresh juices available. I've been in the test kitchen, spoken with the main recipe creator who is also one of the founders. The work and dedication that goes into every single recipe is amazing, and the customer experiences that with every visit. That is what people expect from a place that specializes in smoothies and juices, they expect it to be great because it's what Jamba exists for. We can also use Marie Callender's, who specializes in pies, as another example. They turn out huge volumes of pies every year, especially during the holidays and people go to them because they know that it's what they do which is why it's in their name. The same rule should apply to any restaurant that presents itself as a "steakhouse", right?

Let me clear up one thing right now, I'm not going to complain if I go to Sizzler and pay 9 dollars for a steak and call out the manager if it's not USDA choice. However, if I go to a restaurant such as Black Angus Steakhouse and pay 24 dollars for my dinner, I expect that it be a nice cut of meat cooked perfectly to order and taste like it wasn't put through a microwave. Tahoe Joe's Steakhouse has always been one of my favorites but I've avoided it recently because I've heard that a change of management has left the food inferior to previous times. I will give them a chance because their ribeye steak, which is the most flavorful cut besides the filet, is still the best I've had in any restaurant. A ribeye steak has excessive "marbling" which is the small ribbons of fat you see in the store in most meat, and that is where the flavor comes from. Personally, I don't think a ribeye should be served less than 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick (take a soda bottle cap and turn it on end) to ensure its proper tenderness and expected quality.

Before meeting me, my wife was not the biggest eater of red meat, certainly not cooked with much color inside. Being the son of a former butcher I learned long ago what the best cuts of meat are and what to expect from each one. Growing up, my favorite was a NY steak, medium rare. Over the years, I started branching out and discovered the ribeye and never looked back. Don't get me wrong, I will not pass up a prime NY if the ribeyes in the case aren't up to par. My wife has adopted her own appreciation for the better cuts of meat and ordering them medium rare as any great cut of steak should be cooked. I'm sorry for all of you who order yours medium and medium well (AKA jerky). If I owned a steakhouse, the filet and ribeye would be served medium rare or not at all.

My wife ordered her ribeye from Black Angus and the second it was placed in front of her I sat there looking at it in disgust across from my Prime Rib. It was barely thicker than the edge of the plate it was served on, and looked like it was thawed in a microwave and thrown on a cookie sheet for a flash broil in the oven. It was void of flavor, tenderness and was overcooked horribly.

**Note:When we sat in front of the computer glancing at the menu online, this certainly was not the picture we were looking at. Of course, what food item actually ever looks like the pictures on the menu, right? That excuse works only when employees are flinging together your order in lightning speed at the drive thru.**

We did not address this with our server or the manager and before I catch hell for this, I will explain. If there is one thing I've learned, especially after this instance, it is that if you are served a bad steak, whether overcooked, thin, or just boring, there is really nothing that can be done to recover; that is simply the quality you can expect from that place. You know that if you get another steak, it will be the same thing, perhaps cooked a little better or they'll dig through the pile for a slightly thicker cut, but your dinner is now ruined. With that in mind, along with the fact that the manager was just called to the table next to us regarding a steak being "cold", we decided to walk away, knowing that we gave them a shot and let that be the end of it.

With that being said, if you are going out for dinner and in search of a good steak don't automatically assume that any restaurant with the title of "steakhouse" will serve you the kind of steak you are craving that took you there. I'll not apologize for having high standards for a steak and I'll not apologize for calling out Black Angus if that is one of your favorite places to go. If a boring, thin steak is ok for the people who eat there then I suppose their dining experience would be just fine. However, if you head to a steakhouse hoping for the kind of steak that makes that restaurant live up to it's lofty title, give Ruth's Chris or Morton's a shot. You may feel it a bit more in your wallet, but you'll know why when you're eating. For a great steak at a more affordable rate, go to Outback Steakhouse or Tahoe Joe's who serve an excellent steak for about the same or less than Black Angus.

I'd love to hear from you if you have a steakhouse you've been to and enjoyed that I didn't mention, or if you have a similar story to share (good or bad) about any of these places.

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