The steakhouse and sauce, a marriage with issues
By Victorino Matus,
In the universe of steakhouses, there’s a coverup going on. It has advanced way beyond horseradish cream and bearnaise.
The longtime owner of the Prime Rib in downtown Washington dismisses as passing fad the tendency of steakhouse restaurants to offer more and more sauces. It’s just another way for chefs to prove their value, says Buzz Beler. Nonetheless, he finds it troubling.
“Why would anyone continue purchasing USDA prime beef? You get the same flavor if you just make a ground-beef steak and then put the sauce on it.”
Steak sauces have been around, of course. Henderson William Brand created A.1. for King George IV in the 1820s, although for much of its history, the sauce was not steak-specific: “It’s A.1. Sauce — a favorite with men who love good things to eat,” proclaimed an ad in 1948.
Somewhere between the 1930s and the 1980s, the word “steak” got added to the name, and then there was a central purpose for the product, according to A.1. senior brand manager Sudheer Kosaraju. “We hear a lot of these sort of hoary conversations about A.1. not being used with the prime cuts of meat. But consumers, they use it on prime cuts of meat. That’s basically what our consumer research tells us.”
Tom Colicchio was a fan. “I grew up using A.1. The rare times we actually had steak at home, I liked it. I enjoyed it,” the celeb chef and “Top Chef” co-host admitted in a recent phone interview. When customers at his restaurants began requesting sauce, Colicchio decided to make his own. The house sauce at his Craft restaurants, he says, “is based on the original A.1., which had a lot of anchovy and tamarind and a sort of char flavor with a lot of background notes.”
It is delicious, and not inexpensive for a home cook to make. The shrewd businessman sells bottles of it via Williams-Sonoma.
Now it’s tough to find a traditional steakhouse that doesn’t offer some sauce. Besides A.1., Beler’s Prime Rib will pull out Heinz 57, Tabasco and Worcestershire upon request. Morton’s carries only A.1. and Heinz 57. One of Morton’s restaurant managers recently observed, with some attitude, that customers who ask for sauce are usually the ones who order their steaks medium-well or well-done. According to a manager at the Palm, “we get requests for all kinds of sauce, including ketchup, though more customers ask for A.1.,” which the steakhouse carries.
Ketchup, however, remains for many the final insult. Tensions over its use on steak can be traced back at least to Joseph Mitchell’s 1939 New Yorker essay on beefsteak dinners, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.”
“I don’t even know how to spell the word ‘ketchup,’ let alone want to put it on a steak,” says celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.
Cleveland-based food writer Michael Ruhlman prefers his steak with shallots and butter, offering this assessment via e-mail: “I want to taste the meat, hot-seared on the outside, bloody and raw on the inside, a little sweetness from the shallot and extra succulence from the butter, but nothing that distracts from the chewy, juicy muscle of beef.”
Great steaks don’t need much, if any, embellishment, says Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. He is not sauce-averse, however: “If a chef can whip up something that flatters a steak rather than masks its flavor, I’m game for trying it. A sauce based on mustard or butter and fresh herbs, for instance, can actually be a nice change of pace.”
And so there is beurre rouge at the Caucus Room, garlic-shallot butter sauce at the Capital Grille and brandy peppercorn at the Palm. J&G Steakhouse pours its own brand as well as soy-miso mustard and black pepper jam.
The choices expand and get edgier at Puck’s Cut steakhouse restaurants: wasabi-yuzu koshu butter and chimichurri. “I want to give people different experiences,” he says.
Michel Richard remembers the heydays of bearnaise and bordelaise. His Central downtown makes a fine hanger steak sauce with green peppercorns, mustard and concentrated veal stock. Yet the chef sees a motive in certain sauce applications.
“Ever notice how in Mexico the meat is often overdone and with a sauce?” he ponders while sitting at the Penn Quarter restaurant. “And the farther north you go, the less sauce they use, until you end up with steak tartare.”
Colicchio offers a more market-driven explanation for the sauce trend.
“Probably with the advent of chef-driven steakhouses, I think this is why it happened. I think part of it is, I do a steakhouse, Emeril does a steakhouse, Charlie Palmer does a steakhouse,” he says. “I think people are looking for just a little more than a perfectly cooked piece of meat on a plate.”
Sietsema agrees. “By itself, steak can be repetitive: Chew. Fat. Salt. Char. Repeat.”
Matus is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.