Steakhouses for Every Occasion
By Warren Rojas / Photography By Anastasia Chernyavsky and Andy Robinson
Back before the advent of fad diets and media exposés about “good” and “bad” cholesterol, most red-blooded Americans consumed steak like it was their civic duty.
Today, steak remains a status symbol, though tastes seem to be skewing more toward designer beef—with authentic Kobe and non-traditional cuts like hanger steak fighting for grill space with your classic T-bone.
Steak-lovers: We must unite. Rather than carve out our own delicious factions, let us rally around the same chargrilled ideals. Our halls of worship await within.
Ray’s the Steaks
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday.
The strict no reservations/full party seating-only policy at Ray’s the Steaks has most certainly sparked many frantic “where are you?” voicemails/texting pleas from diehard steak aficionados stuck waiting for admittance.
A small price to pay for the unbelievably affordable steaks being prepared within.
Devotees routinely line up hours in advance for a chance at one of Ray’s coveted 45 seats. Inside, the cacophony of chit-chat, ambient music and the clanging of plates as staff hustle to reset each table for the endless string of waiting guests all seem to battle for your attention. T-shirt and sneaker-clad servers remain in constant motion, tending to their tables, running orders and attacking any other job that needs doing.
And renegade restaurateur Michael Landrum wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having labored at various steakhouses and other dining establishments prior to launching the original Ray’s (a Silver Spring spin-off debuted in 2006), Landrum prides himself on applying fine-dining philosophies to a true neighborhood setting. He only uses single-breed (Angus, Hereford or Dutch Friesian), farm-raised beef. Steaks are hand-butchered and wet-aged for at least 45 days, in-house. Everything is seared over an open flame—an unconventional technique Landrum admits can prove tricky, but which he claims infuses his steaks with more flavor than the enclosed broilers favored by traditional chains.
No arguments here.
The jaw-dropping, bone-in rib-eye reveals a hulking mass of meat with plenty of muscle and just the right amount of fat. Each slice of well-marbled steak becomes even more irresistible when speared with any bonus grilled onions. The house special proves tender to a fault, delivering a pepper-encrusted New York strip swimming in a luxurious mushroom sauce and dotted with rich blue cheese chunks (marvelous). An amazingly lean hanger steak is absolutely dripping with vitality, nearly melting with each swipe of the knife.
A well-thought out wine list displays international favorites, all for under $100 a bottle, including over a dozen by-the-glass selections. Skillets of garlicky sauteed spinach (excellent) and chunky-style mashed potatoes accompany every meal, while unexpected sweets—a nibble of homemade fudge arrives with the check one night, a demitasse of rich hot chocolate another—provide closure.
Meanwhile, Landrum says that he is very pleased with the response to his new “A Place at the Table” concept—a prix-fixe service offered on Sunday nights, with half the proceeds going to local charity. “I’m just doing what restaurants should be doing,” he insists.
Non-disclosure is never an issue at Morton’s, a steak emporium where transparency and showmanship go hand in hand.
The Chicago-based chain has built up its reputation by delighting customers with sterling service and top quality beef, the world over. “Consistency is our trademark,” stresses Roger Drake, Morton’s vice president of public relations, “which is what our guests expect.”
Staff address you by name from the minute you enter until you walk back out the front door, while regulars are often greeted with warm handshakes or half-hugs and genuine affection. The experience only intensifies during the tableside menu presentation—an interactive exposition of the restaurant’s signature selections where servers proudly display the mammoth cuts of raw steak, still-wriggling Maine lobsters and colossal garden vegetables that make up the heart of the Morton’s carte. Should sides be ordered, caddy-toting servers return bearing crocks brimming with fresh butter, sour cream and crumbled bacon to help dress any plain starches.
Then there’s the beef.
According to Drake, Morton’s serves only USDA prime, grain-fed beef supplied by the same Chicago meatpackers that started with the chain back in 1978. Drake says the suppliers typically wet-age each steak for between two and three weeks, and each steak gets finished in a 1200 degree broiler. He cites the 14-ounce filet, 20-ounce NY strip and 24-ounce porterhouse as the “featured cuts” at every Morton’s location.
Each meal commences with a jumbo bread round studded with crispy onion bits outside and a flaky interior. A simple starter of smoked salmon demarcated by clusters of horseradish, capers, minced onions and toast points coalesces superbly, while the eponymous Morton’s salad produces scattered romaine sprinkled with chopped egg and fresh anchovies.
A traditional porterhouse is all business, summoning a magnificently tender steak hiding pockets of fat that literally burst in your mouth. The Cajun rib-eye—marinated for 60 hours in Cajun spices—produces a generous slab of succulent beef soaked through with plenty of zest (not quite hot, but definitely exciting). NY strip emerges firm but flavorful, bearing a seared-on salt crust shielding a still-juicy interior. Boneless prime rib remains crisscrossed with veins of fat that provide a buttery release with each bite, and comes with a scorching homemade horseradish.
Bacon. Blue cheese. Hollandaise sauce. Seems everywhere you look these days, somebody is trying to top steak with the next big thing. But at least one visionary outfit continues to make millions with the original flavor saver: real butter.
Ruth’s Chris built its reputation on its sizzling steaks—butter-bathed cuts of beef served straight from their signature broiler (tops out at around 1800 degrees) to your table. Though the plates are virtually untouchable, it’s all worth it for that moment the steak actually spills all its natural juices as your knife pierces the seared-on crust. The dairy-enriched steaks have made true believers of everyone from Wall Street down to Main Street, as evidenced by the multitude of cigar-chomping business buddies who dine alongside giddy parents with kids in tow.
According to a Ruth’s Chris spokesperson, the allure starts with the USDA prime and USDA choice cuts served at all Ruth’s locations. The spokesperson said the company wet-ages all their steaks for three to four weeks, then preps the steaks with little more than salt, black pepper and parsley. Nearly every steak can be augmented with gourmet add-ons like blue cheese, au poivre or fresh crabmeat, but the spokesperson maintains that the plain filet mignon remains their most popular item.
And with good reason.
The no-nonsense filet is amazingly tender, bearing slice after slice of mouthwatering beef artfully lubricated by the house butter treatment. NY strip summons a well-marbled steak graced with a ring of protective fat. A generous rib-eye provides real steak flavor without all the connective tissue one might find on a flabbier cut. A massive T-bone is magnificently decadent, appropriately fatty in some spots, firm in others, yet layered with buttery richness throughout.
The dairy assault spills over into sides like au gratin peas (so glaringly bad for you, yet so delicious) and potatoes au gratin (an exercise in cream and melted cheese, the potatoes almost seem like an afterthought in this calorie blaster). Meanwhile, a sweet potato casserole seems like it should be bumped to the dessert menu (the sugary pecan crumble crust tastes like it would be more at home atop a coffeecake). Better yet, skip the starches and open with osso bucco ravioli (tasty pasta rounds filled with salty veal and cheese) accompanied by sauteed spinach. That way, at least you get some greens.
A great steak rarely needs embellishments to make it better. Not that it hurts to have roughly 100 vintage flavor enhancers always at the ready.
Early this year, Fleming’s—part of OSI Restaurant Partners, Inc., the owners of such corporate dining ventures as Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill—unveiled a new “progressive” wine concept designed to showcase smaller winemakers and more global variety. The idea was to select 100 wines (corporate picks the core 60, and individual restaurants fill in the remaining blanks with regional/personal favorites) that would complement steak without offending the wallet.
The oenological experiment seems to be working.
The Tysons list is broken up into about a dozen categories (sauvignon blanc, merlot/merlot blends), which feature light to fuller bodied wines in descending order. Virtually all the wines are available by the glass, with most categories offering at least one value pour (under $10 a glass). Adventurous whites are plucked from boutiques in California, Italy and South Africa, while independents from Australia (d’Arenberg Shiraz boasts terrific tannins), France (the M. Chapoutier Cote du Rhone Belleruche 2005 is deliciously fruit-forward) and Chile beg investigation in the reds. Pre-packaged wine flights provide a trio of new flavors, but staff are quick to point out that two-ounce pours of any wine are readily available for one-third the per-glass price.
The food, of course, is all too happy to have such willing playmates.
According to a Fleming’s spokeswoman, the company serves only USDA prime beef from Midwestern providers. Steaks are typically wet-aged from between two weeks to a month, are minimally seasoned with kosher salt and coarse black pepper and are seared to completion at 1600 degrees.
A monster bone-in rib-eye emerges with a satisfying straight-off-the-grill char that all but demands a potent pinot noir to balance each smoky bite. NY strip gets a boost from a baptism in butter and some sprinkled herbs; the blackened crust hides a beefy center that explodes with flavor when paired with huskier merlots. For an auto-sauced selection, try the Madeira-spiked beef Flemington, a pastry-wrapped filet surrounded by the thick, semi-sweet wine-mushroom reduction.
All that attention on wine, however, demands a little more follow through. Particularly when it comes to the glassware. One visit revealed a chipped mini-carafe and serrated water glass, while a wine glass chipped in three places along the base raised eyebrows another night.
In an area well-populated by destination dining spots and special occasion haunts, few places consistently elicit the nostalgia and excitement of a trip to The Palm.
According to Tysons-area general manager Tim Seymour, the world-renowned restaurant continues to attract its share of visiting celebrities, politicos and social luminaries by embracing the hallmarks that have made it famous. Walls remain plastered with campy caricatures of cultural VIPs from across the ages. Each table comes outfitted with an official Palm scratchpad for impromptu note taking. Cigar smoking remains the après-dinner activity de rigueur in the private smoking lounge located off the bar.
Meanwhile, meticulously bedecked staff in white coats and aprons clear and serve with the customer in mind (try not to interrupt conversation, offer to accommodate any special requests to the best of their ability), police tables collectively to ensure a seamless dining experience and openly share their menu knowledge without a hard sell.
Seymour says The Palm serves only USDA prime beef, typically wet-aged by their suppliers for no less than one month. He pointed to the traditional filet mignon as a big winner with the business lunch crowd, but listed the 24-ounce, bone-in rib-eye as perhaps the most popular steak and tapped the 20-ounce, bone-in New York strip as a personal favorite. He noted that families, on the other hand, seem to gravitate toward lobster (average size ranges from three to six pounds, but he says they’ve special ordered up to 17-pound behemoths).
“We’re a place for celebration,” Seymour maintains.
The celebration begins with a bowl of crunchy radishes and jumbo pickles that whet the appetite. An East Coast gigi salad assembles a refreshing mix of diced onions, tomatoes and green beans tossed with puffy jumbo shrimp pieces and crispy bacon (terrific). Bone-in NY strip is formidable, showcasing a smoky-salty crust surrounding a remarkably juicy center. The porterhouse is a bear of a meal, delivering a well-marbled NY strip on one end and a substantial filet mignon on the other side of the juice-reserving bone.
The herb-infused hash browns—heavenly, matchstick-sized spuds featuring a crispy outer shell and flaky center—add gusto to any meal, while garlic-laced spinach sometimes seems too commonplace.
Most days, it’s hard not to mistake the parking circle outside McLean’s Capital Grille for an exotic car show. Maseratis, Lotuses and Ferraris are all there for the ogling. Once inside, though, every guest can expect a ride aboard the all-out service express.
The high-end holding of RARE Hospitality International, Inc. (they also own the more casual Longhorn Steakhouse chain), Capital Grille is all about unbridled attention.
Hostesses cheerily escort guests to their table, making sure the table napkins match your outfit before presenting menus. Dedicated servers introduce themselves by name, expertly discuss steak preparation techniques and cooking temperatures (one strongly recommended I do the Delmonico to at least medium to allow the fat to “melt into the meat”) and oversee the general flow of the meal, while an army of busers clear away empty plates, replenish empty water glasses and tend to the little things that make these high-end meals run so smoothly. Maitre d’s are not above resetting napkins when guests step away from the table, and multiple courtesy visits are the norm as each successive wave of food is delivered to the table. Loyal customers are even bestowed on-site wine lockers to store their favorite steak-friendly vintages.
The illustrious steaks are almost as well-coddled. Capital Grille corporate executive chef Jim Nuetzi says the company utilizes certified Angus beef customized by select Midwest producers. A number of steaks, including the traditional sirloin, porterhouse and signature Kona-crusted sirloin, are dry-aged, in-house for between two to three weeks, and finished off in a 1400 degree broiler. According to Nuetzi, the most popular cuts include the Kona-crusted sirloin, the porcini Delmonico and the filet mignon covered by onions and mushrooms.
A traditional sirloin arrives thick, juicy (very little fat, but what remains is magnificent) and dressed to the nines with a splash of savory au jus. A rib-eye sandwich heaps mouthwatering slices of steak accentuated by strands of beautifully caramelized onions, melted Havarti and a side of tangy horseradish onto a soft roll (grandiose sandwich). The porcini-rubbed Delmonico (fantastic) arrives bathed in a potent mushroom-vinegar blend that soaks through to the heart of the beef. The doubly pleasing filet Oscar summons a savory steak (tender to the core) draped with a crown of jumbo lump crab (a welcome surf and turf offering).
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