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Incentives aside, good-quality steak—we’re talking 24-ounce porterhouse, 18-ounce rib-eye, 11-ounce filet—is not cheap.
When it comes to food costs, the chains have an advantage. “We have enormous buying power,” says Ferreira. Fleming’s is owned by OSI restaurant group, which also owns Outback Steakhouse and several other restaurant chains. Fleming’s serves USDA Prime beef (the top 2-to-4-percent of beef in the country), wet-aged four weeks. “It allows us to pass the savings on to our customers,” he says. “Our most expensive steak is the prime bone-in rib-eye. It’s $43.95.”
Capital Grille in Stamford is one of 44 of the steak houses owned by Darden, which also owns and operates LongHorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze—1,800 restaurants in all. Capital Grille’s signature coffee-crusted sirloin with caramelized shallot butter is made from what managing partner Greg Varna calls “choice or higher” beef that is dry-aged 14 days in-house. It costs $42. Ruth’s Chris in Newington, a locally owned franchise, gets its wet-aged prime through two Midwestern meat vendors approved by the corporate office for sales to all 130 restaurants.
The independent restaurants can’t compete on purchasing power, but find other ways to cut costs. Carmen Vacalebre, whose restaurant group includes three Carmen Anthony Fishhouses, speaks plainly: “I can’t purchase as well as they can, but I’ve been using Statewide Meat in New Haven since I started—I’m his biggest buyer. He ensures that I get the best certified-Angus beef, wet-aged a minimum of 21 days.”
At Central Steakhouse, chef Jeff Ghazali found savings by switching from buying precut steaks to whole carcasses, which he butchers himself. “The key is to have no waste,” he says of the “high choice” beef he gets from Stockyard in Chicago. High choice, the top 10 percent of choice, is less expensive than prime and, because the chains buy up the best prime, it’s a better bet for this small-scale chef-owner. “It’s better than prime that isn’t really prime,” he says with a knowing laugh. Butchering the meat himself allows him to create new cuts like the “strip loin” (the top of the loin), a 7-ounce steak he serves in Central’s surf-and-turf dish. (He makes gravy from the bones and trimmings.) On weekdays, he sells smaller, less expensive boneless steaks. “College students want a nice place to take a date,” he says, “and I hope they’ll come back when their parents are in town.” On weekends, when the restaurant is busiest, he offers bigger bone-in steaks and his new specialty: house dry-aged (14-day) rib-eyes. “That’s what the real steak eater wants,” he says. “It’s so beefy.”
David Burke Prime Steakhouse also distinguishes itself by air-drying Creekstone Farms (Ky.) prime natural, hormone-free beef on-site. Chef Chris Shea believes that the panel of Himalayan rock salt in the humidity-controlled refrigerated locker draws out moisture from the air and imparts an almost imperceptible saltiness to the meat. Looking around at the shelves stocked with whole portions of air-drying beef labeled with their dates, Shea smiles, “I can tell you with pride, it doesn’t get better than this.” They offer 30-, 40- and 55-day aged steaks. The cooks use the trimmings and bones to make a sauce they call “The Love,” which is brushed on the meat after grilling and served on the side. It’s also the base of their “Parisienne-style” onion soup. Meat trimmings go into the dry-aged burger.
Considering that dry-aging reduces the weight of the meat by about 25 percent, the cost of one of David Burke Prime’s signature 40-day rib-eye steaks (ranging from 14 to 18 ounces) is a good value at $49.
Over the last 15 years, steak houses have become more and more popular, the recent economic slump notwithstanding. When Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse opened in Newington 23 years ago, it was the first high-end national chain in the state and the 19th Ruth’s Chris to open. Today there are 130 worldwide. Vacalabre, a local businessman, steak lover and New York City steak house habitué (Smith & Wollensky till about 10 years ago, Del Frisco’s since then), opened his first steak house in Waterbury in 1996. “There weren’t a whole lot of them,” he says. “It was the hottest concept at the time.” He opened his second Carmen Anthony’s Steakhouse in New Haven six years ago. The first Morton’s opened in Stamford 12 years ago, and in Hartford two years later. In 2000, Joseph Kustra, who had worked at the fabled Peter Lugar Steakhouse in Brooklyn for 15 years, opened Joseph’s Steakhouse in downtown Bridgeport, where he serves 21-day dry-aged USDA prime steaks. In 2002, Jeff Ghazali and his business partner opened Central Steakhouse after noticing that steak was the most popular dish on their Malaysian restaurant Bentara’s menu.