37 hours. 9 meals. 21 pounds of beef. Putting his cholesterol count on the line, Daniel Duane embarks on a gluttonous quest to discover the future of steak.
Cooking steak, as we learned at prime, requires the reconciliation of opposing demands, one for hell and one for heaven: hell, because it takes the fires of damnation to char flesh in the manner demanded by true steak aficionados, and heaven because only the slowest and gentlest of warming can possibly produce the tender interior that looks equally pink from just under the crust to the very center and still drips with natural juice and blood. The basic trick is and remains hitting your meat first with high heat, searing the surface, then lowering the heat to let the interior “come to temperature” more evenly. But the chefs of contemporary Las Vegas are pushing so hard at this core program — driving that first blast of heat so absurdly high — that the Pentagon ought to be taking notes. At Prime, for example, executive chef Robert Moore has installed a ceramic broiler that roars to a terrifying 1,200 degrees, as a means of searing the holy bejesus out of a steak’s exterior before the interior knows it’s out of the fridge. Yet Moore is already upgrading, convinced that he can get even more extreme and instantaneous charring out of a new 110,000-BTU infrared broiler capable of hitting 1,800 degrees, the temperature at which jet fuel burns and also at which certain grades of steel begin to melt.
So the moment he gets your order, the Prime grill chef yanks the meat out of a refrigerated drawer, covers it with salt and pepper, and slips the whole slab into the blast furnace for about two minutes. Once he likes the color he’s getting — the dark brown exterior — he pulls that steak out and shoves it into a 600-degree convection broiler. Three to five minutes more and now the interior’s up to rare, so he hauls it out again. Steaks are cut from muscles that contract in reaction to intense heat, toughening up and squeezing all their juices toward the center, so next comes a resting period: five minutes so the steak can relax again, becoming more tender while redistributing moisture. After that, the chef squirts on a thick layer of melted butter, grinds a pile of black pepper on top of that, and shoves the meat back into the super-broiler, where the butter instantaneously foams up, absorbs all that pepper flavor, cascades down the sides of the steak, and browns to a crispy hard crust. Then the plate is immediately sent on its way to your table.
One of our more striking discoveries was that every subsequent restaurant tackled the same problem — how to sear the outside while keeping the inside rare — in a completely different fashion. Dashing out of Prime, having wolfed that whole meal in under 45 minutes, we trotted burping across a pedestrian bridge and slipped into Caesars for a reservation at Restaurant Guy Savoy, the eponymous Michelin-starred eatery of the French gastronomical artist.
When the casino bosses first came calling on Monsieur Savoy, in Paris — “Okay, Kermit, name your price. What is it? Ten million? Twenty? All we want is an exact copy of this here joint” — Savoy pére apparently tapped his son Franck to head up the new project. So it was Franck we met and Franck to whom we directed our questions about steak cookery.
“You can’t really want to talk only about beef at Guy Savoy,” he said.
I’m afraid we can.
“But in Paris, we don’t even serve beef.”
“The quality of French beef is no good.”
Couldn’t you just fly in American beef? People ship fresh fish all over the world.
“This would be very hard for the French clientele, to say you are using American beef in France. We would be dead.”
He looked disgusted, so I asked why he bothers to serve steak here, in Vegas.
“Hey, we are not stupid. No steak, no client.”
Then his waiters delivered flutes of champagne and quite a load of new A5, every bit as face-melting as the stuff from Prime: slices accompanied by a sweet onion puree and sliders on toothpicks. Moments later, after we’d inhaled all the A5, out came Savoy’s “American prime beef tenderloin and paleron à la française,” which pairs a version of French pot-au-feu with a big filet mignon topped by bone marrow. Where Vongerichten essentially nukes the exterior of a steak to satisfy the caveman in all of us, it turns out Savoy takes the opposite approach: only lightly searing the filet’s exterior, in a pan of hot grapeseed oil, and then simply lowering the flame beneath this pan and adding a bunch of butter.
“Our palate is not so aggressive,” Franck explained. “It is more subtle.”
We were surprised, however, by how quickly this American-char-versus-Gallic-finesse distinction collapsed at our very next restaurant for our final meal of that first night: StripSteak, inside the Mandalay Bay, where chef Michael Mina has a truly innovative steak-cooking technique. Just behind the grill is a long stainless-steel table with multiple openings at the top, each sized to hold a deep rectangular pan. Once set down into the tabletop, each pan is warmed from below by its own bath of heated water, each controlled by its own digital thermostat. These gently warmed pans are then filled with enough melted butter and fresh herbs to completely submerge even the biggest of steaks. “It’s like a warm marinade,” Mina told me. In order to skip that whole seize-up effect, from extreme heat, Mina uses this process — borrowed from an old-world technique for gently cooking fish in olive oil — to slow-poach his steaks for as long as three hours, never bringing them above 110 degrees, which is just below rare. In other words, long before you even find the restaurant, your steak is drifting in a state of blissful suspended animation, changing ever so slowly. This way, when your order comes in, your beef is already just at the brink of rare and yet profoundly, soulfully relaxed — so much so that the quickest of kisses on a mesquite grill will sear up the pre-warmed surface and pulse just enough heat through the meat’s middle to make the whole thing perfect and also to make a man understand that, despite the glories of A5 Kobe, good old American Black Angus does have its moments.