Is this steak made of gold?
Chefs talk us through what $70—or $140—cuts of red meat are doing on otherwise reasonable menus.
Wed Sep 12 2012
Back when NoMI Kitchen was just NoMI, it served New Zealand venison, Colorado rack of lamb, risotto with roasted squab—but not steak. This got the restaurant into a little trouble. “[Not offering steak] is like denying your guests,” says Ryan LaRoche, who was promoted to executive chef when NoMI morphed into NoMI Kitchen. “I mean, we’re here based on supply and demand.”
So LaRoche’s opening menu at NoMI Kitchen had two of them: one, a $34 Wagyu hanger steak (now a $37 rib eye); the second, a $140 bone-in prime-beef rib eye for two, now offered as a special.
So, people demand a $140 steak?
It sounds unfathomable anywhere outside a high-end steakhouse. (And with a surplus of high-end steakhouses in town, you’d think those on the hunt for triple-digit beef would have their fill.) And it is, until you go to RPM, where you can have spaghetti-and-meatballs for $16 or slow-roasted pork for $24 or a 38-ounce prime dry-aged steak for…$118. (It serves two to four.) And then there you are at Balena, and there it is among the $26 swordfish and the $19 chicken thighs: a $69, 36-ounce steak. (Contains two-to-four servings.)
Is this the dawn of the enormous, shareable steak? Not exactly: Both RPM and Balena take inspiration from the tradition of the Italian bistecca, a famously large, thick-cut steak that’s commonly shared. But until now, the tendency of most Italian restaurants in America has been to downsize the concept—a 16-ounce “bistecca” for $30, say. Because it would be ridiculous for a particular protein to be priced not double but triple—even quadruple—all others, right? Who would buy that?
“[Steak is] something that resonates across a lot of different cultures and classes,” says RPM chef Doug Psaltis. It’s that rare food that’s priced for the one percent but bears none of its pretensions (as caviar or lobster might). “If you were paying $13 for a piece of otoro [the prized tuna belly], and it’s a half-ounce slice, yes, it’s delicious, but no one can really see the value in that if they’re looking at it just from a price-per-portion basis,” says Chris Pandel, the chef of the Bristol and Balena. Yet: “If you have a 36-ounce steak that lands in front of you,” Pandel says, “and it looks like John Candy just came out of The Great Outdoors…it’s a whole different situation.” Psaltis echoes the sentiment: “If I were to buy a great chicken that would cost the restaurant $25…and put [it] on the menu for $45 or $50? People would think I was crazy. Same thing with pork.” And yet, when it comes to steak, the people will pay.
And for what exactly? Balena’s bistecca is a porterhouse from a co-op in Montana for which the restaurant pays about $13 per pound. RPM’s is a porterhouse as well, though it’s been dry-aged for 28 days by “an old-time butcher shop in the Bronx,” Psaltis says, creating “a beautiful, tender texture” and aroma. (It costs about $30/pound.) “There’s only three [porterhouses] per cow,” Pandel explains, “so it’s a pretty valuable cut of meat.” NoMI Kitchen’s is the highest end, a roughly $35/pound whole rib eye from Four Story Hill in Pennsylvania—“the most beautiful dry-aged piece of meat you can imagine,” LaRoche says. “When that arrives at your door, it’s not like you just cut off a piece,” he says, hence the 28-ounce portion. Size is key for the porterhouses, too. As Psaltis explains: “To get the great char and to have a good rosy center of rare or medium-rare, we have to have a certain thickness.” RPM cuts its steak two inches thick.
As strange as it sounds, these flagrantly expensive menu items may just be the best deal on the menu, at least from a food-cost perspective. Diners’ willingness to pay large sums of money for steak allows restaurants to purchase a more expensive product or serve a larger portion of it—but because high-quality beef is so expensive to begin with, it hits the mark-up ceiling more quickly than other proteins. “If we marked it up the same way we marked up everything else,” Pandel says of the bistecca, “it would be a lot more expensive.” Psaltis, who says he’s marking up his steak 20–30 percent less than his other dishes, swears that “we’re pricing it as cheap as we can and still not suffocate.”
That might not be for long, however. “The price of meat is going up,” says Psaltis, who’s been eating the recent 10–15 percent cost increase. Though the effect might not be imminent, “the drought that we went through is going to hit the cattle industry,” LaRoche adds. “All those prices will go up.” And if the current trend is any indication, diners will continue to pay for it.