September 2, 2014

Florida Dining

Great Steaks in Florida

Americans never give up on beef.

Chris Sherman | 7/1/2010
Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse
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.

In tough times, smart restaurants put customer service first — and make it over the top.

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
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.

Filet Oscar
The Capital Grille’s Filet Oscar [Photo: The Capital Grille]
Two pioneers of this generation are Florida-owned. OSI’s Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, founded in 1998 in Newport Beach, Calif., now has seven restaurants in Florida. It has added $5 bar food, three-course specials and at the other end, “new classics’’ by outside chefs at $36 and up. Capital Grille, which began in Providence, R.I., in 1990 is now owned by Darden in Orlando and has eight Florida locations.

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.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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