Know Your … Terminology
Prime vs. Choice:
Plain and simple, USDA Prime beef is the best you can get; USDA Choice runs a close second. If your meat bears the official stamp of USDA Prime, you can expect abundant marbling and the most tender, flavorful cut of meat out there. What you need to watch out for on menus and in reviews is the use of “prime” as an adjective. If it doesn’t have those four uppercase letters and a capital “P,” it’s not necessarily Prime.
Dry-Aged vs. Wet-Aged Beef:
They’re costly and harder to find, but dry-aged steaks are worth it. Whole loins are hung in climate-controlled coolers — hovering around 40 degrees — for up to six weeks. What’s left is a less juicy but deeply flavored piece of meat. Wet-aged beef is butchered cuts that are Cryovac-packed — sealed in airtight plastic — and refrigerated. Though less intensely flavored than their dry-aged cousins, these steaks offer juicy bite after juicy bite.
Wagyu vs. Kobe:
Don’t be fooled: Like true Champagne, true Kobe beef is bound by region, so the “Kobe” you see on a menu is more likely an American version, properly called Wagyu, of the pampered Japanese cattle. Never fear; it’s just as tender, and less expensive. While raised on our soil, it’s a direct descendant of the Asian breed and is often fed the prescribed Kobe diet of beer and sake mash.
Know Your … Toppings
A French standard, this buttery sauce gets its yellow hue from egg yolks and is flavored generously with licorice-evoking tarragon. It’s a popular accompaniment to loin cuts like filet mignon and chateaubriand that need a little extra oomph.
This combo of port wine and demi-glace is cooked for hours, yielding a thick reduction. And a rich one — so use sparingly or run the risk of masking the natural taste of the beef.
The luxurious savor of butter gets even better when it’s dressed up with herbs, spices, wine and, on occasion, even cheese. A medallion melted over a fresh-from-the-broiler steak won’t compete with the beefy flavor.
Widely available, and classic. An au poivre steak is coated in coarse black pepper before being seared, for a crunchy, earthy exterior. It’s often served with a sauce.
Know Your … Special Orders
Named for its cool temperature, not its color, steak ordered this way is tossed on the heat for just a minute or so, resulting in a nearly raw cut on your plate. The throwback term is mostly heard these days from older steakhouse aficionados and foreigners.
Steak lore says steelworkers used to throw raw meat on sheets of scorching metal for lunch. If you like a crispy coating, such flash-searing traps the juices inside a nicely charred exterior. “Pittsburgh rare” — a.k.a. “black and blue” — is most common, but it can be cooked to any temp you like.
Prime rib lovers, pay attention. Restaurants offering this classic dish will slice your cooked roast into paper-thin strips (instead of the heftier cuts that come standard) if you request it. British accent optional.
Know Your … Classics
William Douglas Steakhouse
A certain degree of tipsiness will take the sting out of a steakhouse’s steep tab, but most steakhouses don’t bother to mix anything better than a passable vodka martini. Not so Cherry Hill’s William Douglas, where you’ll find house-infused liquors and freshly squeezed juices. The handsome mahogany-hued bar is just right for a pre-dinner sidecar made the right way, with brandy, Cointreau and bracing fresh lemon.
The Capital Grille
Legendary diner James Beard once praised iceberg lettuce for this culinary achievement: It keeps longer than other lettuces. But steakhouses long ago discovered the ideal use for this barely-a-vegetable — the wedge salad. And the Capital Grille does it right, covering a crisp, cold mountain of iceberg in rich, chunky blue cheese dressing dotted with crisp bacon, the perfect counterbalance to the meat to follow.
Smith & Wollensky
Crisp, garlicky and blissfully simple, the slender green beans sautéed in oil at Smith & Wollensky are not only a welcome switch from the same-old, same-old asparagus-and-hollandaise routine, but they represent the real steakhouse ethos: uncomplicated food, cooked well, for a meal that’s just a little more special than usual.
It sounds so low-rent, so workaday — potato skins — but Barclay Prime turns the beer-bar staple into the ultimate in steakhouse potatoes. Topped with a healthy slather of truffle butter and truffle cheese and oven-roasted to crisp-skinned, soft-centered perfection, the Barclay potato-skin side is the most decadent use of the humble root veggie you’ve ever seen.
The Prime Rib
Retro clams casino remain a steakhouse staple decades after the dish’s 1950s heyday. So it’s not surprising that the Prime Rib, with its proudly vintage vibe, serves the best in town. Here, huge, sweet clams are chopped, combined with a generous amount of bacon, and returned to their shells before being broiled to a garlic-scented crisp.
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse
It’s as much a steakhouse requirement as the steaks themselves: the gushy-centered chocolate cake you crave with the last sips of cabernet. The brilliance of Fleming’s version of chocolate lava cake lies in the sheer amount of smooth, liquid chocolate that flows when the delicate cake is punctured — and the fresh whipped cream served alongside.