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.
Mario Batali’s Carnevino, our ninth and final restaurant, felt like the decaying salon of somebody’s aristocratic Italian great-grandfather’s dusty and ancient castle, except with a massive and an inexplicably gaudy gold-painted statue of a bull near the front door. Our waiter, apologizing for the fact that the 36-ounce rib eye would take 45 minutes to cook, insisted on bringing out a salad.
“Oh, no!” I shouted. “I mean, totally unnecessary.”
Pageler: “Yeah, we’re good.”
Waiter: “Don’t worry about a thing. You’re going to love it.”
As if awaiting our execution, we sat in fading silence until the salad arrived. Without meaning to, I served myself exactly one leaf. The leaf sat alone on my plate as I stared at it and grew desperate at the very idea of consuming it. So I cut my one leaf in half and then folded the smaller half onto my fork and exercised extreme willpower in bringing it to my mouth. But then a plate of beef carpaccio emerged, accompanied by warm lardo crostini: thin-sliced raw beef, in other words, with cured pork fat on toast. Steak tartare followed, with hon-shimeji mushrooms planted as if the fungus had sprouted directly from the raw meat — a somewhat dubious aesthetic implication — and there was an element of thrill in how much I liked this stuff. And how much of it I actually wanted to eat.
Thrill turned to giddiness when that rib eye arrived (it was about the size and heft of your average garden-path flagstone) on its own cutting board, perched on a cart alongside our table.
“So, how much do you guys know about aging?” asked the chef, Zach Allen.
In truth, we’d received quite an introduction, because every Vegas restaurant was making a big deal about it, claiming, by and large, that their beef went through about three weeks of “wet aging,” in which it sat around inside vacuum-sealed plastic bags, and another three weeks of “dry aging,” meaning the meat hung in the dry air of a cold meat locker. The idea behind aging is that once an animal dies, naturally occurring muscle enzymes begin assaulting and destroying other cells, breaking long, flavorless molecules into shorter, tastier bits and also dissolving some of the connective tissue between the muscle fibers, tenderizing the meat. Dry aging also dehydrates the meat, concentrating its remaining flavor but leading to about a 20 percent loss of product, both because of moisture loss and because the exterior becomes so rotten and mold-covered that much of it has to be cut off and thrown away. Because of that, supermarket beef and even most meat at butcher shops is never aged at all. Even high-end Vegas steakhouses generally buy meat that has been wet aged only long enough to start that enzyme work and dry aged only long enough to capture that concentrated flavor without losing poundage.
But at Carnevino, we learned, they’re doing things the hard way.
“See, the cattle are slaughtered on a Friday morning,” Chef Allen told us. “We have a USDA inspection, and the very next guy to touch the beef is our guy, and he’ll stamp it with our brand. Then it comes to us on Thursday morning and never goes into a cryo-vac. It goes instead into a thousand-pound box called a combo that we keep at 35 degrees with 85 percent humidity, and with a lot of air movement. There are a few other tricks too, but the main thing is that we can now age our meat for 124 days.”
“That meat you’re about to eat, that’s how old it is.”
Roman emperors would have long since crammed entire living peacocks down their throats, hoping to purge. High seas pirates could easily have set us adrift on a lifeboat without oars or food in the South Pacific only to hear that we’d washed ashore a month later in Tasmania, insisting to befuddled locals that we craved only a light salad. Our caloric needs hadn’t just been met, they’d been eliminated into the foreseeable future. And yet, because I’m not a quitter and also because I didn’t want to hurt Chef Allen’s feelings, I lifted my steak knife one last time, reached deep for strength, and carved off just one itty-bitty, teeny-tiny bite. Placing that morsel on my tired-out tongue and summoning the will to chew — and wishing also that Chef Allen would leave so that I could spit it out — I felt a confusion creeping into my mouth. Chewing a little longer, and readying my wine glass to receive my ejected cud, I meditated a moment and then located the source of my confusion: This meat tasted like no other in Vegas. So, instead of spitting it out, I washed it down with a sip of cabernet and carved off another bite.
Gamy and nutty, in an old-world, Roquefort-cheese kind of way, Batali’s magnificently rotten beef wasn’t just delicious, it was sensational. Pageler and my father-in-law, working on their own big mouthfuls, were both looking at me now, smiles breaking across their nodding faces so that even at this absurdly late hour, when a solitary leaf of lettuce had almost been the straw to make these three camels projectile-vomit, we dug in yet again, calling to the waiter for, yes, even more wine.
This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Men’s Journal.