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Chef on Call

The Roast Is Like Buttah

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; Page F01

There is no getting around it: Poaching a prime rib of beef in eight pounds of butter is extravagant. In this economy, spending $125 on just the entree of a dinner for 12 had better lead to spectacular results.

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In San Francisco chef Michael Mina's hands, it certainly can. Mina devised the butter-poaching method at his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco 4 1/2 years ago and now uses it as the focal point for his Bourbon Steak concept, coming this week to Georgetown.

But could it work for a home cook, particularly one interested in pulling out all the stops for Christmas dinner? Chef on Call started with what we hoped would be a solution and then went to look for the problem.

Victoria Marquez, 30, a social science analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services, charmed us. Her mother, Toni, is a terrific cook who puts out a Martha Stewart-like standing-rib repast at the family home in Gaithersburg every year and even clips rose petals for a dessert garnish. But Toni thinks it's nearing time to pass the torch.

"I would love to wow the Christmas gang with an amazing meal," Victoria wrote in an e-mail. "The best compliment I could receive would be, 'You're just like your mother.' "

Someone who actually aspires to be like her mother deserves a reward. So for Marquez, Christmas occurred Nov. 6, when Mina and his 27-year-old executive chef, David Varley, showed up at her Connecticut Avenue one-bedroom, unloaded groceries and presented a menu: toasted chestnut soup, butter-poached standing rib roast, side dishes of fingerling potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots, and kabocha squash sticky toffee puddings for dessert.

Mina, 40, could not have been more amiable. Six feet tall, dark and boyish, he is also soft-spoken, but that doesn't mean he lacks drive. Twenty years after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., his Mina Group (Andre Agassi is a partner) owns 15 restaurants, six of which opened in the past year.

Mina's two signature concepts are trios (interpreting one ingredient three ways) and butter-poaching. At Bourbon Steak, he applies the technique to porterhouses, rib-eyes and the like, but for Christmas at home with his wife and two young sons, he has poached the more celebratory cut of prime rib. In Marquez's kitchen, he demonstrated by heating a deep pan of clarified butter to 165 degrees before submerging a four-pound rib roast in it and baking it in a 300-degree oven for about 90 minutes until it reached an internal temperature of 127, just under medium-rare.

"The butter seals the prime rib," said Mina, wearing a black chef's coat, black pants and black Prada loafers. "You can look in the pan when it's done; there's not a drop of juice in there, and that's the trick." If the butter is too hot, the juice will run out and the meat will be ruined. That's why Bourbon Steak uses "immersion circulators" to maintain pans of clarified butter (or olive oil for lamb, bacon fat for pork, duck fat for chicken) at constant temperatures.

Varley says the technique has redefined expectations about cooking protein.

"This is edge-to-edge cooking," he said, meaning that when you slice into the meat, the doneness of the cross-section is uniform. (That also occurs in sous vide, the technique of cooking in vacuum-pack bags in carefully controlled water baths, but Mina finds butter a sexier sell than plastic.) "Gone are the days where you see a gray margin around the outside; a bull's-eye, blood-red center; and a no man's land in between. The entire eye is rare."

Indeed, when the roast came out of the oven, very little juice had been released, and it was quite plump. Still, something was missing.


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