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R&IEditorial Archives2003July 1 — Food

High Steaks
Top steakhouses are expanding menus to broaden their appeal

Many steakhouses, such as Berns in Tampa, Fla., promote high quality with items such as a bone-in prime New York strip, dry-aged in house as a point of difference.

When Minneapolis-based restaurant developer Hospitality Management Services (HMS) was formed, its partners tossed around a number of concepts. With no signs of the American appetite for red meat waning, an idea for a steakhouse landed on the front burner.

Inspired by the South American churrascaria and popular Brazilian import Fogo de Cho, Pat Weber and his partners created Mojito. An exhibition kitchen with steaks broiled over open flames would anchor the restaurant, but they needed more, says Weber, to match their creative energy and to distinguish the concept from growing competition. So HMS augmented the churrascaria with pizza, pasta and Latin American specialties, popular foods that fit nicely with flame-grilled meats.

The HMS partners are among many restaurateurs staking their claim in the steakhouse segment with more than red meat. Feeling the heat from chophouses and other restaurants expanding their meat choices, operators are firing up a new sizzle, giving the venerable category a modern take on steak.

Tampa, Fla.-based newcomer Flemings Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar has emerged from the chain crowd by offering fine fare and an extensive wine program including 100 wines by the glass. Tuscan (originally Tuscan Steak) in New York City draws diners with a festive atmosphere, quality meats and authentic Italian leanings. Long-timer Ruths Chris Steak House, based in Metairie, La., builds on a signature mix of exemplary service, prime meat and nonsteak dishes influenced by flavors of the bayou.

Tampa is littered with steakhouses and we are all busy, says Jeannie Pierola, executive chef at Berns Steak House, a fixture in the Florida city since 1956. But if you want to be the busiest, there has to be something about your steakhouse that makes it stand out.

Increasingly, that means offering distinctive menu items in addition to great steak.

The menu at 230-seat Mojito is structured to appeal to all diners, says Weber. Like a traditional steakhouse, customers can dine la carte, selecting from the best-selling picahna (garlic-and-thyme-rubbed top sirloin) to the 21-day-aged bone-in New York strip steak. Guests also can eat family style, allowing them to sample many kinds of churassco-inspired grilled meats and side dishes such as fried plantains and sweet corn mash reminiscent of a homey casserole. The menu also features Latin specialties such as feijoada, a classic Brazilian stew of smoked pork and sausages served with collard greens and orange slices, as well as Cuban beef short ribs.

Including South American cuisine broadened our scope, says Weber. Our chef de cuisine has a Cuban background, and we tap the expertise of our staff. Mojito employs cooks from Buenos Aires and Mexico, and our pastry chef is from Brazil.

Nonetheless, including pizza and pasta may seem a stretch for a concept predicated on authentic inspiration. But Weber says he tasted some of the best pizza and pasta in all of his global eating excursions in Argentina.

In fact, Midwesterners are embracing the restaurants authentic preparations, including french fries topped with a sunny-side-up egg and grilled Chilean salmon served on caramelized onions.

Though the menu at Berns Steak House had evolved over the years, its first major overhaul took place last year after nearly four years of planning. The goal was to modernize the dining experience and offer more choices. Changes were deliberate and thorough at a restaurant where house-aged steaks are cut to order and potatoes are baked according to the rate of guest arrivals so that the spuds are never held. The kitchen was reorganized for efficiency, the staff retrained for better service and the menu revamped to reflect modern dining trends and customer preferences.

Among the 95 new menu elements are 14 sauces to accompany steak (such as soy armagnac, truffle jus, cabernet sauvignon vinaigrette), la carte vegetables (roasted fingerling potatoes with truffled crme fraîche, Hawaiian red salt-baked Okinawan sweet potatoes), white-truffle macaroni and cheese and 24 choices of caviar.

Two types of pork (tenderloin and center-cut chops) with balsamic-onion sauce were added as were four cuts of veal (strip, T-bone, porterhouse and filet mignon) with porcini-port sauce. Pierola also offers veal Châteaubriand and enhanced seafood choices, including charcoal-grilled salmon with hash browns, asparagus and lobster vinaigrette, and jumbo shrimp scampi with tropical fruit-macadamia fricassee and curry-mango butter.

To compete with restaurants outside the steakhouse segment, Pierola added weekly specials featuring food and wine pairings, vegetarian dishes, composed seafood entrées and surf-and-turf offerings. The revamped menu has resulted in higher check averages, leading to an 11% sales increase while maintaining food costs of 35%, says Pierola.

To attract a wider pool of guests, steakhouses are beefing up menus with more choice and modern flavors.

At the Mountainside, N.J.-based Charlie Browns Steakhouse chain, which opened its first restaurant in 1966, recent menu additions include lemongrass salmon. An 8-ounce center-cut portion is seasoned with sesame-lemongrass breadcrumbs, baked and served over Asian slaw with ginger butter. Bolder dishes and more enticing flavors also are reflected in such additions as the wild mushrooms sautéed with garlic and wine that top prime rib, and Baja steak, a 12-ounce center-cut sirloin marinated in onion-herb vinaigrette and served with crispy blue-and-red-corn tortilla strips.

With 19 units and more on the way, Flemings Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar recently rolled out a roster of menu additions. Breaded Brie is served with jalapeo jelly, and tenderloin carpaccio is paired with caper-Creole mustard sauce. Flemings also added a bone-in New York strip steak along with the trendy flavors of seared curry scallops wrapped in bacon served over sautéed spinach and drizzled with a citrus butter sauce.

Dark, wood-paneled steakhouses have given way to modern, sleeker, less masculine chophouses. Following the path taken by other contemporary operations, the second Charlie Palmer Steak (in Washington, D.C.) was designed to appeal to women. My theory is that women make most of the reservations and the guy goes along, says Palmer, the New York City-based chef-owner.

At the Washington, D.C., unit, half of the main courses are steaks, featuring prime cuts of beef such as dry-aged rib-eye, bone-in New York shell steak, and grilled beef filet mignon with roasted shallot-and-cabernet sauce. To augment the steaks, Palmer offers 15 side dishessome familiar steakhouse standbys, others more representative of his fine-dining concepts (including New York Citys Aureole). Fava beans with pecorino cheese, braised artichokes, summer-truffle risotto and roasted morels are among the options. Diners also can choose asparagus, gold-potato purée, sautéed mushrooms or frites with garlic aioli.

Seafood and other protein entrées also are kept simple, requiring a dalliance with a side dish to round out the plate. They include smoked squab with chipotle glaze, roasted East Coast halibut and seared diver scallops with potato crme frâiche foam.

First courses are a convergence of classic and contemporary. Palmers take on shrimp cocktail is cold poached prawns with caper rémoulade and spicy cocktail sauce, while a tasting of raw East Coast oysters is accompanied by cucumber jelly and black tobiko caviar. First courses are rounded out by Chesapeake blue-crab gratin with shellfish emulsion, saffron-braised octopus with tiny celery and bouillabaisse jelly, and escabche of rouget with tiny basil and tomato confit.

Palmers steakhouse shares a philosophy and business model with those of other noted chefs, including Tom Colicchios Craftsteak and Jean-Georges Vongerichtens Prime, both in Las Vegas, to Terrance Brennans eponymous steakhouse in New York City.

Chefs are attracted to the concept of a steakhouse because at the heart of it is simplicity, says Palmer. We also recognize that the restaurant has to be unique not just with its food but with everything from the way the waiters are dressed to the presentation of the menu.

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