Steak Chic

The new crop of steakhouses is hipper, but how's the meat?

The decor is striking and punishingly modern. The lighting is lemony; the banquettes are streamlined and low-slung. The side dishes are fussy. The gender split in the room approaches 50-50. The amuse-bouche is ambitious. That it is ultrarich and amply portioned is the sole giveaway that you're in a steakhouse.

It's the 21st century, and restaurateurs realize there's money in toning down the traditional steakhouse's Y chromosomes. New entries backed by star chefs such as Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, with branches in New York and Las Vegas, and Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak and BLT Prime mini-empire (outposts in New York, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico) epitomize the breed, as do New York's Quality Meats and San Francisco's Lark Creek Steak. These typically ply sharp looks, expansive menus, pricey wagyu options, and nouveau takes on dessert. (Hello, Craftsteak's red velvet cake—colored with beet juice, sandwiched around vanilla mousse, and accompanied by sour cherries. We're thinking of you. Wishing you were here.)

These joints are provenance-obsessed, eager to disclose that the salmon is organic and that the beef hails from Hawaii. They don't deliver a rush of pure bovine savor as satisfying as, say, Brooklyn's century-old Peter Luger. But they do amp up nonbeef offerings well enough to be excellent ways to put the hurt on an expense account.

Just prepare for highs and lows. The amuse-bouche at BLT Prime—a rich, rosy chicken liver spread—made me regret all the terrible things I've ever said about liver. So it was strange when a gorgeous-looking bone-in double sirloin proved so meek and flavorless.

It took repeated visits to Craftsteak in Vegas and New York to find a winning strategy: Choose the most expensive options. As the finickiest of its school, Craftsteak offers multiple tiers of aging for its steaks, from 28 days to 56 days. Only the 56-day option delivered the mineral tang, toothsomeness, and texture that seasoned steak freaks crave. At a price topping $50—a premium on Craftsteak's already-pricey options—it had better. Craftsteak also purveys grass-fed steaks. They won't be mistaken for the corn-fed beef Americans grow up on. They're gamier, with a different flavored char and a less consistent chewiness. I enjoyed it, but it's not a given everyone will.

The most winning side dish: BLT Prime's broccoli rabe with white anchovies. Craftsteak's most outré offering—thinly scalloped potatoes browned in veal stock—was rich enough to resemble meat-flavored tarte tatin. You decide if that's good or bad; I was done in three bites.

Quality Meats proved the most reliable of the new breed: solid steaks, an industrial setting far cooler than the classic cow palaces, and a menu least prone to flights of fancy. It's not that the others won't make for a fine, well-wined night out, and it's great that their trimmings are terrific. But shouldn't the steak still be the thing?

By Jon Fine

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.