The Great Las Vegas Steak Project
Posted By Daniel Duane On November 24, 2008 @ 6:56 pm In Food & Drink
The first sign of trouble — the first fleeting hint that there might be a limit to how much steak, no matter how exquisitely prepared, a single human stomach could hold — surfaced at 9:30 pm in the tasteful, upscale Tom Colicchio restaurant Craftsteak, deep inside the festive and glittering halls of the MGM Grand Casino. In a truly heroic streak of nonstop gluttony over the prior 32 hours, my two teammates and I had relentlessly salted, carved, chewed, and swallowed every last bite of 27 expertly seared slabs of cow meat on the Las Vegas Strip. Sixteen pounds in total, and always with side dishes and fruit-bomb red wines, and we’d done great — not just surviving but savoring, even interrogating chefs on their most cutting edge of meat-cooking techniques and the eternal question: to sauce or not to sauce?
But then two Craftsteak waiters set down a 10-ounce USDA prime filet ($56); a 10-ounce wagyu beef filet from Snake River Farms in Idaho ($115); a six-ounce filet of grade 10 wagyu beef from the Blackmore Ranch in Queensland, Australia ($138); and an entire six-ounce filet of grade 12 A5 wagyu beef from Kagoshima, Japan ($180). A once-in-a-lifetime filet mignon comparison tasting that, at any other moment on any other day, would have elicited sobs of ecstasy, and this is all I heard out of Jon Pageler, a liquor executive, skirt hound, and the single worst influence I’ve ever considered a dear friend:
“I’m guessing porn stars.”
“Those chicks over there.”
Thirteen women gathered around a nearby table: loose dresses falling off salon-browned shoulders and hair so teased wild it looked as if they’d just crawled out of an orgy, reapplied their lipstick, and gone hunting for protein.
“What’s your guess?” Pageler asked. “Hookers?”
“For chrissakes, Jon, do you mind?”
Our third teammate, see, was my father-in-law: a real-estate financier and a fine upstanding citizen who swore he had no idea why every Caesars Palace casino employee kept smiling at him and saying things like, “Welcome back, Mr. Weil. It’s such a joy to see you again.” Fortunately, he was dozing off now. Sitting next to me at a high-end restaurant but dozing off nonetheless.
Right from the start I’d been afraid of this moment. Telling that first waiter at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill that we wanted every one of his money-shot steaks and thereby kicking off a monumental eating binge with what I normally would have considered a day-destroying lunch, I’d felt a quiver of fear very much like I would’ve felt now if somebody had told me that all 13 of those hookers or porn stars — or whoever they were — were going to do me, tag team–style, in every imaginable way for the next day and a half with no breaks. But once my teeth actually bit through those first layers of Flay’s red-and-black-pepper-crusted filet mignon with mushroom-ancho-chile sauce, I put aside my fears and greeted each subsequent meal with a growing certainty that my life was utterly blessed.
The angels were still singing in my ears well into this second night of multiple steak dinners, starting at the supremely refined Joël Robuchon and moving on to a Michael Mina place called Seablue that is nominally a seafood restaurant but, in reality, because Vegas is Vegas and men are men, is a wildly successful steakhouse with a one-of-a-kind grill marrying mesquite charcoal with an endless supply of apricot wood. And yet now here at Craftsteak — the eighth of a planned nine restaurants, with an epic feast at a Mario Batali joint yet to come this very night — my thoughts drifted to ipecac, that vomit-triggering medication so beloved by adolescent ballerinas. I also began to visualize a very private and very nicely scented toilet in some remote desert spa, followed by a Zen wheatgrass enema tenderly delivered by a smooth-skinned young woman with a foreign accent. And I might have drifted away altogether if my father-in-law hadn’t snapped me back.
“What’d you say?” I asked because I hadn’t heard properly.
“Australian wagyu,” he muttered, chewing something.
“What’s that, Doug? What’d you say?”
It was no use. He’d fallen back to sleep.
I think of Vegas as a place that had to exist somewhere and that exists in the Nevada desert only by coincidence. So fundamental are the human hungers on which it thrives — greed, lust, and gluttony, the fun three of the seven deadly sins (who’d build a resort based on pride, wrath, envy, and sloth?) — that inevitably someplace was going to exploit them. But what makes Vegas so peculiarly American is the crazed free-market competition for a piece of the action. Back in the 1950s this meant opening a gambling hall and selling cheap steaks, only to see the next guy start paying his cocktail waitresses not to wear shirts. Now you’re flying over to Paris and importing an entire French titty show, except then some other casino is putting up a 300-foot neon sign the suckers can’t miss. And so on, until you’ve got exact replicas of the Eiffel Tower competing with the entire Manhattan skyline and full-scale pirate ship battles in which huge British sailing frigates genuinely sink in vast man-made lagoons, despite the fact that we’re in one of the driest places on Earth.
The Vegas dining scene used to be about all-you-can-eat buffets, but then in the late 1980s casino-magnate Steve Wynn figured out that high-class restaurants were yet another way to wow the yokels — especially if the chef had done some time on TV. One thing led to another, and the Vegas of today is a nonstop culinary talent show with unlimited funds, and nearly every big-name American and French chef has been lured into opening at least one restaurant here, sometimes several. The de rigueur Las Vegas meal has remained the big steak, but all these culinary geniuses, motivated by a perpetually spree-spending male clientele, are now engaged in a decentralized, unplanned, unmonitored, yet world-historic celebrity chef death match to create the finest, most decadent, most luxurious beefsteaks ever experienced by humankind.
This is not a gross overstatement. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Joël Robuchon — they’re all here. The new $2 billion Wynn Hotel and Casino, to name just one example, has both the Country Club (self-billed as “a new American steakhouse”) and SW Steakhouse, which offers a 42-ounce chile-rubbed double rib eye for $98 — a single portion of which, unless my math betrays me, could provide a generous and fairly typical half-pound steak portion to each of five hungry men. Slice it up for stir-fry, throw in some broccoli, and you’re feeding a Laotian village. But only a block away, at the even newer $2 billion Palazzo Hotel and Casino, fully three of seven brand-spanking-new restaurants are also wildly ambitious and expensive steakhouses. Morels, a so-called “French steakhouse,” whatever that means, offers, among other things, a 10-ounce “A-5 Wagyu strip steak frites with parmesan & truffle pommes frites and foie gras butter,” which is about as turbo-charged as pure steak decadence can possibly get and doubtless somehow still a bargain at $185.
In any other city this dish would qualify Morels as the go-to beef-lover’s temple par excellence, but in the Las Vegas of today, Morels is absolutely outclassed within the same casino by Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, where the appetizers include Kobe steak sashimi, prime sirloin steak tartare, and bone marrow flan, and where the steak list offers the discriminating carnivore the opportunity to compare corn-fed Illinois prime dry-aged 21 days with corn-fed Nebraska prime dry-aged a full 35 days, and to contrast a crossbreed of Japanese wagyu and American Angus with purebred Japanese wagyu, just to be sure you’re on top of the key distinctions. The very future of steak, in other words, is being redefined in Las Vegas, and we’d flown into town to eat it.
But first, a definition: Japanese A5 Kobe, the single most expensive and highest-status animal protein currently consumed by humans (roughly $400 a pound retail for filet mignon), comes from a wagyu breed of cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan (of which there are fewer than 20,000 head). A5 is the highest pedigree for this beef, and it means your cow is guaranteed to have come from five consecutive generations of Kobe cattle. Mystery shrouds the exact breeding and rearing techniques, which are carefully guarded by both the Japanese Agriculture Ministry and the handful of small ranchers who actually produce A5 Kobe, but various reports describe cattle in total confinement and darkness, serenaded by soft music to keep them absolutely relaxed, with their weight supported by belly straps as they feed endlessly on beer and rice, with regular sake-rub massages to further soften their muscles. The result is meat marbled with fat only in the sense in which ice cream is marbled with cream. So-called American wagyu beef and Australian wagyu beef, such as we tasted at Craftsteak, comes from the same Japanese cattle breed but is raised elsewhere and without the same coddling, so the meat is a little more like meat and less like some entirely different food you’ve never dared dream might exist.
We didn’t get any A5 until we arrived at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s posh Prime Steakhouse, downstairs at the Bellagio and next door to the Picasso Restaurant, which has $100 million worth of genuine Picasso paintings on the wall and decor by the great man’s son. Where the Picasso place is bright yellow, Prime is all blue velvet and blue drapery, cool and calm and quiet like a super-elite men’s club in a classy northern city.
“May I recommend a small-batch American bourbon, perhaps?” This was our waiter’s opening move.
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” Pageler replied. “What’s your view on pairing whiskey with beef?”
“Well, sir, the conventional wisdom holds that a properly grilled steak, with a properly charred exterior, can support a whiskey neat.” He paused to clear his throat, and it was obvious the man loved the theater of all this. “But if, on the other hand,” he continued, “you’re considering a more subtle cut, such as a filet mignon, it’s generally considered desirable to add a little branch water.”
The waiter laughed. “Creek water. Just, you know, water.”
Then the A5 arrived and melted my face.
Before I get lost in describing it, let me say that it was only a nibble compared to what followed: a 16-ounce New York strip, an 18-ounce rib eye, and a 16-ounce filet, accompanied by sides that included truffled mashed potatoes and by an assortment of steak sauces: a peppercorn sauce with brandy; another with soy and rice wine; a classic béarnaise with herbs and butter; and an Asian-inflected sauce with lemon zest, lime zest, orange zest, and miso.
But back to the A5, because it was the big news. We each got four thin slices on a white plate as an appetizer, paired with balsamic-preserved portobello mushrooms stuffed into a Japanese shishito pepper. And from the moment I placed the first slice in my mouth, I felt as though I’d eaten the red pill in The Matrix. It was the most transporting single bite of food ever to pass between my lips; the paper-thin crispy exterior yielded to such oozing and sumptuous fats that I felt as if I’d discovered a whole new pleasure organ within my own anatomy.
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.
All my life I’ve wished I could make myself vomit. I can find the button, no problem: It’s right at the back of the throat, that slippery-but-hard knob you can press, triggering the gag reflex. But no matter how stuffed and bloated I get, and no matter how hard I ram my whole filthy hand down my own gullet, I can never quite evacuate my belly. That didn’t stop me, however, from trying in the gleaming granite beauty of the bathroom in my room at Caesars — while, I might add, my old friend Pageler and my father-in-law were at the blackjack tables. When I gave up and lay alone atop my bed, oozing saturated fat and alcohol from every pore, I realized that I had in effect turned my mouth into a meat grinder and my skin into a sausage casing — a human hog intestine, jammed to bursting with what the British call forcemeat. I got confirmation of this when I stepped onto the bathroom scale at midnight. For the first time ever, 2 was the first numeral in the readout.
Fortunately, the bloated feeling faded the next day, over lunch at the Delmonico Steakhouse, Emeril Lagasse’s operation inside the Venetian, where my father-in-law announced that he’d won $1,100 in 45 minutes the previous night. I felt a curious ache in my belly that I finally recognized as — could it be? — hunger. We tore like champions through a bone-in New York strip, a filet mignon, and a bone-in rib eye — all accompanied by house-made potato chips flavored with black truffles and parmesan. And, just for good measure, we devoured some New Orleans barbecued shrimp.
“Non! Non! Non!” This was superchef Joël Robuchon, a few hours after the Delmonico feast. He was standing in the red velvet cocktail loun ge of the MGM restaurant bearing his name, Nevada’s only three-Michelin-star dining establishment. Dubbed the “chef of the century” by a top French culinary review and the possessor of a total of 17 Michelin stars, the most held by any living chef, Robuchon looks and dresses like an avant-garde international architect, a severe intellectual in a black turtleneck and black plastic eyeglasses, and I’d provoked him by asking if he, like all other chefs, salted and peppered his meat before cooking.
“Non! You must salt the meat only while it is cooking and after, but never before.” Salt draws out moisture, was the point; moisture is golden.
So what about pepper?
“Only once the meat is cooked. This is because the flavor of pepper changes intensely with heat. The only exception is for steak au poivre, and even here you would never, ever add salt before pepper.”
“Because the moisture the salt pulls out will release the pepper. So: for au poivre, pepper first. Then salt.”
I loved this guy. He was clearly out of his mind.
“Je suis contre le sauce!” he barked, like a Trotskyite terrorist opposing bourgeois reforms to the Communist Party platforms.
Robuchon’s translator interrupted, to clarify: “Monsieur Robuchon would like to explain that he is opposed to sauce, always.”
Not that Robuchon won’t drizzle a little jus over a finished steak, but where classical French technique often calls for jus built around butter, vegetables, and red wine, Robuchon is a fierce minimalist. (“Pas du vin! Pas du vin!” he shrieked predictably, meaning “No wine! No wine!”) Trimming a raw steak of all its imperfect fat, gristle, and stray meat, Robuchon sautées these discards in a small skillet until they’re well browned. Then he pours in just enough water to release those bits from the skillet bottom, simmers this broth, strains it, reduces it to a thick syrup, adds a little salt, and voila!
The result — as we experienced on a 16-ounce A5 Kobe rib eye, the biggest single serving of A5 available anywhere in Vegas and one that clocks in at $235 — is a miracle of pure beef flavor.
Our joy was tempered, however, at our next stop, Michael Mina’s Seablue, when my father-in-law’s BlackBerry picked up an e-mail from his cardiologist, answering his query about the possibility of a dangerous cholesterol spike in a single piquant word: “Yes.” And we truly began to disintegrate at the stop after that, Craftsteak, where we confronted those four filet mignons — American prime, American wagyu, Australian wagyu, and A5 Kobe — and tried to sort out whether those 13 trashy-looking women were porn stars or prostitutes (porn stars, we finally agreed, for complicated reasons). The problem was that two pounds of world-class filet, even when they push your marathon total to 18 pounds, is still two pounds of world-class filet, and it’s physiologically impossible not to eat them. So we did, every bite, along with most of the sides, and even though I felt certain I was killing myself, I was still shoving wild mushrooms and spinach soufflé into my mouth when we waddled off toward the Palazzo for what we would later come to call the Last Supper.
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.
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