The Meat of the Matter

We’re on a tear of beefy steaks, buttery potatoes, and crisp, deep-fried onion rings. Don’t tell PETA—and pass those pointy knives our way.

BLT’s Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Miailo holds a prized bone-in sirloin.

Steakhouses, like haikus, succeed within an established set of rules. All steakhouses have luscious beefsteaks, obviously. And flanking those, you’ll find the usual suspects in sides: sautéed mushrooms, stacks of onion rings, and mashed, gratinéed, and French-fried potatoes. Caesar salads traditionally whet the appetite, along with oysters and snappy shrimp cocktails. And as a bone thrown to your already at-risk health, you’ll probably find some richly sauced veggies, like creamed spinach, rounding out the spread.

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True, the steakhouse menu is predictable, but when has that ever been a problem for comfort food? Just as when we return to a beloved bistro, we go to a steakhouse for familiarity. We want the mouthwatering aroma of searing beef; a clubby, welcoming vibe; and big, deep glasses of resonant reds. It’s like sinking into an easy chair.

Comfort aside, it’s important to remember that steakhouses always have been progressive. Before even Chez Panisse, steakhouses offered “ingredient-driven” menus, where prime grades, heritage breeds, nut-and-bolts aging methods, and farm-to-table provenance were as joyously celebrated as sauce Béarnaise. Plus, in anticipation of the relaxed tone in chic restaurants, steakhouses have always been low key. They’re the places to loosen your tie and kick back, even with a heritage-breed steak and fine wine.

Here in Westchester, we’re lucky. While other suburbanites have to travel to the City, we’re loaded with destination steakhouses within our borders. We toured the best of the bunch and on the following pages tell you what we found.

BLT’s well-lit interior—just look at those shades—attracts a buzzing crowd on weekends.

BLT Steak
221 Main St, White Plains
(914) 467-5500; bltsteak.com

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One plus one equals more than two at BLT, which brought a whole lot of culinary-world brand power to the already buzzy towers of the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester. The soaring space is lit by two-story windows (and, at night, water-tower-sized cylinder shades). Visible from the street and sidewalk, its transparency acts like a beacon to Westchester’s carnivores. Once summoned, BLT’s diners are not disappointed—bright lighting and cheery blackboard specials makes this dramatic spot as welcoming as it looks.

Not-to-miss starters include a changing roster of East and West Coast oysters, or Chef Tourandel’s sexy plate of tuna tartare, where jade avocado makes the perfect backdrop for firm, ruby-hued bluefin. Meanwhile, BLT’s signature starter, grill-striped, double-cut bacon, makes an even better beginning: here, a crisp, smoky sear leads to a soft and lushly juicy bite.

BLT serves up a mouthwatering, bone-in sirloin.

 

BLT is known for its elite steaks, like the American Wagyu which comes in melting rib-eye, top cap, and skirt (see our glossary on page 65). Even so, it’s wise to check the blackboard for specials. On our last visit, Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Miailo came up with an 18-ounce organic, grass-fed-and-finished New York strip steak, whose old-fashioned, brawny beefiness made us regret all the grain-fed meat we’ve eaten. Also spotted: Miailo’s sage-roasted Ossabaw pork, the holy grail in boutique, heritage-breed pork products. (In fact, Ossabaw pork is much rarer than Kobe beef.)

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And while most of the restaurants in this roundup offer fish, few can compare with BLT’s—not a surprise, since Executive Chef Laurent Tourondel is equally famous for his seafood.

 

The Willett House’s interior recalls our industrial past.

 

 

The Willett House
20 Willett Ave, Port Chester
(914) 939-7500; thewilletthouse.com

While BLT garners more buzz than any steakhouse in our roundup, Port Chester’s Willett House remains Westchester’s standby. This glorious red-brick remnant of the Byram River’s industrial past (complete with a pressed-tin ceiling and wide-plank floors) was built as the Westchester Grain Company factory in the 1880s. The Byram offered a convenient shipping path to the Long Island Sound and Manhattan. The building’s current incarnation as a steakhouse couldn’t be more ideal; it bears the same gaslit patina that gives Brooklyn’s Peter Luger’s its old-timey vibe.

The Willett House’s porterhouse for two comes sliced so you can immediately see its juicy insides.

 

Unlike Luger’s, though, the Willett House offers wet-aged steaks, which sacrifices some beefy intensity for buttery tenderness and mouthwatering juiciness. We’re not complaining: the classic Willett House steak is a massive porterhouse for two, which arrives on the bone, but chevron-sliced, and it coasts onto the table like a great white shark, flanks slashed to show rosy beef perfection. Meanwhile, the steak’s platter is slightly tipped on a tabletop saucer to display a well of juice, crackling with aromatic beefiness. It’s the best-case sauce for the Willett House’s gorgeous, rich mashed potatoes because, as at Peter Luger’s, there are few fancy sauces on offer. At the Willett House, it’s all about the peppery house-made steak sauce, or nature’s own sauce—the steak’s natural drippings.

Wise diners take advantage of the Willett House’s 900-bottle-deep cellar, which offers well-chosen, California-centered (though world-spanning) vintages at many price points. And, if that’s not enough to send you home reeling, all of the Willett House’s desserts are house-made—even its oddball (and addictive) layered crème brûlée-slash-cheesecake.

The decor at Frankie and Johnnie’s appeals to its loyal crowd of power players.

 

Frankie and Johnnie’s Steakhouse
77 Purchase St, Rye
(914) 925-3900; frankieandjohnnies.com

While not as historic as its original and still operational 1926 location in Manhattan (whose speakeasy origins linger on in a subterranean dining room and Jazz Age memorabilia), Frankie and Johnnie’s in Rye is certainly loaded with swagger. Jammed to its soaring balcony with tie-loosening power diners, it’s the see-and-be-seen hotspot among politicos and financial machers—the sort of steakhouse at which you can almost smell money along with your dinner.

Yet to slap this spot with the slur of “power scene” is to disguise its subtlety, found in a 650-label, California-focused wine list; a cozy, hearth-warmed bar; and regiments of tapers that create flattering golden light. In all, this steakhouse appeals to more than beef-and-brawn diners. Plus, at Frankie and Johnnie’s, welcomes are warm and personal—which may account for this cheerful joint’s following.

Frankie and Johnnie’s rib-eye steak is dry-aged in-house.

 

It could also be the beef, which is hand-picked from the newly catch-all grading “prime,” and then dry aged in-house. This process, in which the initial cut shrinks as much as 20 percent through evaporation, concentrates the steak’s beefy flavors, while rendering its flesh buttery-textured and moist. Look for massive, delectable rib-eye steaks, made more perfect with mounds of salty, lightly crispy fried onions—though, we admit, the uptown splurge of a “surf and turf” is perfect for Frankie and Johnnie’s. Here, a generous, crosshatched hunk of juicy sirloin is matched by the extravagant, scarlet curl of a lobster tail. All that’s missing here are bathroom attendants and a requisite three martinis.

 

 

 

 

 

Morton’s filet mignon can also come bone-in, a rarity.

 

Morton’s The Steakhouse
9 Maple Ave, White Plains
(914) 683-6101; mortons.com

Before every restaurant meal was accompanied by paeans to ingredient provenance, there was Morton’s The Steakhouse, whose mature, tux-clad waiters have been entertaining diners—fully armed with visual aids—since 1979. Expect Saran-wrapped silver trays bearing hunks of well-marbled raw meat; frisky, Godzilla-esque live lobsters; mammoth beefsteak tomatoes, and football-sized Idaho potatoes, all passed before your eyes for your visual delectation. Like it or not, the Morton’s presentation is an evocative scene-setter; after it, you know exactly what you’re in for. Plus, the performance offers tableside entertainment as you tuck into warm loaves of soft, onion-studded bread and maybe even a big-boy cocktail like a Manhattan. White napkins are exchanged for black to keep diners’ dark-clothed laps free from lint, which is a considerate touch in this democratic dining room.

Morton’s staff offers a preview of all their meats, raw.

 

Befitting a chain that originates in the stockyard city of Chicago, you’ll find massive cuts of tender, wet-aged prime beef. While porterhouse is the classic Morton’s cut, you’ll find the less common bone-in filet mignon at its White Plains location, where the mildly flavored, buttery loin is improved by proximity to the porterhouse’s T-shaped bone. All of Morton’s steaks are carefully seared in super-hot grill drawers, and—if conversation should lag—there’s always Morton’s open kitchen, which is our idea of dinner theater. Safely ensconced at our table in this clubby, tunnel-like space, we can enjoy the cheery sounds of searing meat, see the bustle, and participate in the action—all from a safe, clean distance. For refreshment, Morton’s also offers 300 globe-trotting labels, earning this chain a Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence.”

 

Flames’s cowboy rib-eye steaks are raised in the Waygu tradition.

Flames Steakhouse
533 N State Rd, Briarcliff Manor
(914) 923-3100; flamessteakhouse.com

One of the markers of a great steakhouse is that your mouth waters before you even step in the door—because, after all, eating steak is a primitive act, as are most pleasurable things. At Flames, where the parking lot is enveloped in the seductive aromas of searing beef, anticipation starts as soon as your toes hit the tarmac.

This Briarcliff Manor steak standby, which has been open since 1992, has received ovations in both Crain’s magazine and Wine Spectator, who note the beefy intensity of its monolithic, two-and-one-half-inch thick porterhouse steaks. Even Westchester’s culinary celebrity (and competing restaurateur) Chef Peter Kelly of X20, has to agree. “I’m a huge fan of Flames,” he says. “I think it’s the suburban equivalent of Peter Luger’s—only better, since the single great thing at Peter Luger’s is the steak, but at Flames, everything on the menu is terrific. Not fancy…just great.”

Flames’s steak is dry-aged in a special aging room.

 

The Flames steak starts in its on-site aging room, where the fresh cuts of beef are allowed a roomy, 28-day dry-aging period (see sidebar on Ageism, page 66). The result is a powerful, inescapably carnal flavor that’ll never be found in your grocery store butcher’s case. The Flames porterhouse, available in slabs for one, two, three and four, is the classic showcase for this treatment, where even the filet portion of your steak will fill your mouth with beefy intensity. And, as Kelly notes, the story doesn’t end with steaks: look for delectable versions of steakhouse traditions, like crisp-topped clams oreganata where parsely-studded breadcrumbs yield to tender, bright-as-the-ocean clams. And, as one might guess from its inclusion in the pages of Wine Spectator, Flames sports a 300-label, 6,200-bottle cellar that’ll satisfy even the staunchest oenophile.

 

Marc Charles’s dining room may be hard to find but worth the trip.

Marc Charles Steakhouse
94 Business Park Dr, Armonk
(914) 273-2700; marccharlessteakhouse.com

Though not easy to find (Marc Charles Steakhouse is located ’round the back of the Armonk La Quinta hotel), this modest little steakhouse headed by the chef behind Opus 465 is worth the effort. Aside from their takes on the classic steakhouse fare, there are other innovative selections like the Pacific wrap (ahi tuna, crab meat, and avocado wrapped in nori with panko crust finished with garlic and sesame glaze). This cozy, under-the-radar nook is a good option for a carnivorous evening. Plus, if your group feels confined by the tunnel vision of beef-centric menus, Marc Charles Steakhouse offers a wide diversity of choice.

At Marc Charles Steakhouse, seafood can be added to any steak and even the potatoes are customized.

 

While you’ll find all usual cuts at Marc Charles Steakhouse, each plate can be customized. Look for the “Every Steak Can Surf” option, where lobster tails, shrimp, and King crab legs can be added to your steak, or the phalanx of rubs, melted cheeses, compound butters, and sauces that can be ordered singly or in combination for a totally personalized dinner. In fact, not even mashed potatoes escape the Marc Charles treatment: they’re available either plain, or with a selection of seasoned butters, truffle oil, bacon and Gorgonzola, etc.

Of course, none of this should distract from the simple beauty of these well-marbled, luscious steaks, which arrive at Marc Charles bearing the textbook chain-link of perfect grill marks. It’s your choice—geometric minimalism or a Baroque profusion of ornament.

Ruth’s Chris’s filet mignon has a perfect balance of a seared outside and a juicy inside.

 

Ruth’s Chris Steak House
670 White Plains Rd, Tarrytown
(914) 631-3311; ruthschris.com

As with many of the restaurants in New Orleans, the beginnings of Ruth’s Chris were humble. It was born in 1965 when a woman (Ruth Fertel) with a chemistry degree and insufficient alimony bought a modest corner steakhouse in the Big Easy. While extending her perky hospitality to the Chris Steakhouse’s established customers, Fertel also modified the restaurant’s cooking equipment, helping to design grills that reach temperatures of 1800ËšF. Her innovation leaves steaks perfectly seared outside and running with juice inside.

There are two markers to a Ruth’s Chris steak. Wet aging produces a nearly fork-tender steak, while a generous topper of butter (added as the steak is whisked into the dining room) crackles and browns as it hits the volcanically hot plate. It’s a lethal one-two punch, in which the seductive aroma of butter joins the primal, mouthwatering scent of seared steak.

Ruth’s Chris has had 40 years to perfect its side dishes.

 

While colossal cuts like Ruth’s Chris’s buttery cowboy rib-eye (see glossary, page 65) are the draw—and no wonder, when it arrives looking like a fat, edible paycheck—this casual chain also stocks a massive, California-heavy wine list. Its rooms are liberally lined with cozy wood finishes, and always jammed with cheerful, masculine-tending groups. And while restaurant chains are out of fashion among foodies, they do have their merits: at Ruth’s Chris, they’ve had 40 years (and 145 worldwide outlets) to carve a market and satisfy its demands. Ruth’s Chris’s continuing expansion speaks to its success.

When not throttling grass-fed steer on the hoof, Julia Sexton, guilt-free carnivore, is a restaurant critic and food blogger for Westchester Magazine: check out her CRMA-winning blog “Eater”.

 

SteakSpeak

A Beefeater’s Glossary

➤ Marbling is the streaks and gobs of white fat visible inside the muscle of raw steaks. For beefeaters (if not dieters) more marbling is preferable, and the visible marbling at a specific point (the 12th rib) in the rib-eye provides the standard criterion for USDA beef grading.
➤ USDA Prime is the fattiest, most desirable grading, followed by USDA Choice and USDA Select. There are actually five lesser grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner), but these are seldom seen by consumers.
➤ Heritage Breed cattle differ from common commercial breeds in that they are remnants of older traditions in animal husbandry. As beef production became standardized, traditional, regional breeds became rarer—and, in fact, some became endangered. Recent efforts to re-introduce these breeds to diners have been met with appreciation by many chefs, who value heritage breeds like Chianina or Ayrshire for their specific culinary qualities.
➤ Black Angus cattle, derived from four Highland Scottish bulls that arrived in this country in 1873, are one of the first specific breeds to be marketed at the consumer level. They’re characterized by at least 51 percent black fur, and breeders must pay certification fees to market their meat as Certified Black Angus beef.
➤ Wagyu is the name of an ultra-fatty, ultra-expensive Japanese style of beef culled from a specific mix of European and Asian cattle breeds raised in a tradition that includes beer meals and massage (nice!). The extreme marbling of this beef means that it can withstand higher cooking temperatures and still remain sweet, meltingly tender, and delicious. In the last decade, owing to its trendiness, American cattlemen have been raising Wagyu-style beef.
➤ Kobe is the best known Japanese region that produces Wagyu beef.
➤ Grain-fed Beef is the most economical and common beef on the market; grain-fed cattle are placed on vast feed lots to quickly fatten on soy, corn, and a variety of other grains.
➤ Corn-fed beef, growing quickly on this high-sugar, high-starch grain, is known to bring highly marbled beef to market fastest, though nutritionists complain that this beef is less healthy for diners, with higher fat and lower Omega-3 fatty acids.
➤ Grass-fed beef is raised as it has been for millennia, with the cattle grazing on a variety of grasses in open pastures.
➤ Grass-finished beef is strictly fed on pasturage. Owing to the leaner, often stronger-tasting beef that pasturing provides, many ranchers “finish” their beef on grain for a period before slaughter.
➤ Porterhouse, tenderloin, T-Bone, New York strip According to Bruce Aidells, whose Complete Meat Cookbook is the standard reference for home meat cookery, the best and most expensive steaks come from the short-loin group, which appear around the lower waist of the steer, and area which gets little exercise. The porterhouse is the king cut, and includes a T-shaped bone with a section of tenderloin (whence filet mignon) on one side, and New York strip steak on the other. Steaks with only a small section of tenderloin are called T-bone steaks, and steaks with no tenderloin or bone at all are called New York strip steaks. Just to make it more difficult, some restaurants serve filet mignon (tenderloin) on the bone to improve its flavor.
➤ Rib-eye steaks come from slightly harder-working muscle group around the back ribcage, but still they provide some of the most delicious beef, including prime-rib roast (which is a few ribs roasted together), bone-in rib steak (with only one rib) , and rib-eye (with the bone removed). Cowboy rib-eye is a bone-in rib steak with a long extended bone.
➤ Sirloin steaks are more economical than the short-loin or rib steaks and come from below the steer’s waist, around the top of the hip.

Age-ism: Wet vs. Dry

According to Bruce Aidells, author of Complete Meat Cookbook, the average fresh steak is about four to 10 days off the cow, and any aging that occurs during that period is purely incidental to shipping. However, true aging, whether by a meat distributor or a restaurant, occurs when the meat is intentionally held at above-freezing temperatures to allow enzymes to tenderize the beef’s proteins. Among steak fanatics, how and how long meat is aged is a hotly contested debate. The argument generally comes down to wet vs. dry.

Wet Aging is the most common (and economical) technique whereby the vacuum-sealed meat is held within its plastic packaging. According to Purdue University’s Animal Sciences Department, the wet-aged steak loses no moisture during its rest, which accounts for its juiciness, and it may even absorb some ambient package juices. Meanwhile, enzymes have had a few supplemental days to break down the muscle (think of it as a controlled sort of rot), which renders the raw muscle fibers less tough.

Dry Aging is the more expensive process, whereby steaks are hung in carefully monitored refrigerators, and exposed to dry, circulating air for as long as four weeks. Simple dehydration can account for as much as 20 percent shrinkage (which connoisseurs claim intensifies the beefy flavor), while the necessity to pare off desiccated, blackened (sometimes moldy) outer edges before service contributes to further loss of bulk. Of course, since the aged beef is drastically smaller than raw, it’s more expensive to serve equally sized steaks: diners should expect to pay more for dry-aged steaks.

Dry aging is the pick for real steak snobs, since the careful aging of beef results in a concentrated, tangy beefiness. Also, since the enzymes of decay have had as long as a month to work on the muscle, dry-aged beef is counter-intuitively tender and moist.

 

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