Americans never give up on beef.
Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in Sarasota
|A Side of Beef
Buying the right beef at the right price is a daily challenge. Some brag on a breed (Hereford), suppliers (Buckhead Beef, Niman Ranch, Allen Bros.) ranchers (Rosas Farms) or USDA grade (prime). Others seek top quality anywhere in the market.
» Aging: Beef gains flavor and tenderness with time. Connoisseurs say dry-aging in coolers concentrates flavor.
» Feeding: Many ranchers use corn and grain; others let cattle graze on grass, seen as more healthful and more expensive.
» Local: Florida cattle ranches breed Brahman, Angus, Hereford, Simmentals and others but ship most calves to the Midwest. A few now sell range-fed beef to local chefs.
» Kobe: The Japanese prefecture where the most expensive beef is raised in indulgent tradition. The same Wagyu cattle raised in the U.S. and Australia cost less than Kobe.
» USDA Grades: When graded for marbling and maturity, less than 3% is prime; a little more than half is choice. Much variety occurs within each grade.
» Certified Angus Beef: The first brand created for a breed, may be choice or prime.
During a recent visit to Houston’s, my valet took my car keys then handed me an electronic device. “Just press it a few minutes before you need the car,” the valet told me. I had always thought that valets in parking lots were redundant, but I admit to a sense of privilege from this click-and-call service.
No surprise to find a service like that at Houston’s, a big success in the latest generation of stylish chains invading the high-end steak trade.
The Houston’s in Winter Park was surprisingly handsome and artful, a warm lofty lodge with 200 feet of two-story windows, big comfy booths and framed postcards of the old ’50s motels that once lined U.S. 17/92.
Today, diners look out on a hidden lake, herb garden and wide greensward. At 12:30 on a Wednesday, the place was packed with a smart lunch crowd. There was a 20-minute wait to buy a $15 lunch, but I found the last seat at a big island bar. It sat about 35, and most were eating, not drinking; at least half were women.
The open kitchen was vast, three bays deep and generously staffed with a young army of savvy staff.
At night, the wait is longer, and entrée prices hit $35; again it’s no big-shot boys club; it’s so girl-friendly that locals call it “cougar town.”
There are sushi salads, of course, but the menu’s still beefy. I can vouch for the Hawaiian rib eye, glazed with pineapple and soy but thick-charred and marbled, a true meat-eaters meal. For vitamins, I had fresh maple-glazed carrots, not a medley. Imagine that.
The new formula of upscale steak houses relies on the persistent appeal of red meat, red wine and deep-in-the-red checks — but with substantial updates. They add prime cuts, serious seafood (not just $100 lobsters), fresh salads and sides, wine by the glass and frites as well as overstuffed baked potatoes. Chefs are pros who prize quality if not nouvelle; familiar comforting dishes are made with modern detail.
Diver scallops served with green beans and mustard cream at Ocean Prime in Tampa
They plate these old favorites in stunning buildings, $3-million to $5-million stand-alones or elaborate build-outs in pricey malls and sophisticated bars with servers as young and smart as their target market. These are the same stylish hallmarks that make Darden’s Seasons 52 a hit across the state, but with more and bigger hunks of meat.
They have become the most popular big-bucks restaurants in almost every market. Houston’s now has five locations in Florida plus Palm Beach Grill, a near identical twin from the Hillstone Restaurant Group from Los Angeles.
III Forks (Three Forks) of Dallas now has four in Florida, from Jacksonville to Hallandale; Truluck’s from Austin has three in Florida; Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse of Cleveland is in Sarasota and Daytona Beach; Primebar from Denver has opened in Wiregrass Mall north of Tampa; Abe & Louie’s of Boston is now a star in Boca Raton. Ocean Prime, from Cameron Mitchell of Columbus, Ohio, has three Florida locations.
The Capital Grille’s Filet Oscar [Photo: The Capital Grille]
Despite the pretense of gourmets and dieters, Americans never gave up on beef. In a recession, a big steak may be the only meal for which a big spender will pay more than $25.