Alexander’s Steakhouse (San Francisco, CA)

Alexander’s Steakhouse
448 Brannan St
San Francisco, CA 94107
Dining date: 11/25/12

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I’ve wanted to try Alexander’s Steakhouse for some time. I love a good steak and Alexander’s is one of the more highly regarded steakhouses on the West Coast (and perhaps country). The original location, in Cupertino, garnered a Michelin star in the inaugural Bay Area guide and has maintained it ever since. A San Francisco location opened up in 2010 serving up the same American steakhouse fare with a bunch of Japanese influences. I tend to think my favorite steakhouse is Beverly Hills’ CUT, but figured Alexander’s would be a strong competitor to that.

It took a couple of years, but my family and I finally dined at the restaurant for my grandmother’s (surprise!) birthday. Over the years, this birthday dinner has become a bit of a tradition with previous birthday dinners at The French Laundry, Masa’s, Quince, Murray Circle, Cyrus, and The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton. Alexander’s seemed to be the ideal choice for our carnivorous family, and the large restaurant was able to accommodate a private party for our extended family and friends.

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Kaika (Tokyo, Japan)

Kaika
Kojun Building 4F
6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/13/12

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Teppanyaki is a style of Japanese cuisine centered around an iron griddle, where chefs prepare a number of courses right in front of the diner. It’s not exactly a style steeped in tradition (it began in the 20th century), often incorporating a number of Western ingredients into the cooking. The most famous teppanyaki restaurant in America has to be Benihana, which introduced the style; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve been to a teppanyaki meal outside of Benihana. Well, until now.

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Often nicknamed “Japanese steakhouses,” a teppanyaki restaurant was an ideal place for me to get my hands on some wagyu – Japanese beef. The super-marbled breed of beef has been almost impossible to get in America, given it was banned from U.S. imports almost three years ago (though the ban was recently lifted!). I’ve only had true Japanese wagyu a handful of times (the most memorable being at CUT on my college graduation day), and it’s unmistakable richness really differentiates it from high-grade USDA Prime or even cross-bred American wagyu beef.

Kaika was selected by a few Tokyo locals for a dinner in Ginza. Expectantly, a meal centered around this type of beef wasn’t cheap with set menus ranging from ¥12,600 to ¥25,200. I would’ve been content with some steaks and a bowl of rice, though the prix-fixe menus didn’t really allow that. I went on the low-end of the range and elected to upgrade my beef option to the highest one available – a sirloin from Kagoshima.

madai (red snapper) sashimi

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The first course was a sashimi course of red snapper marinated in kombu (kelp). It had a very mild flavor, complemented by seaweed and the earthiness and texture of small kernels of popcorn, still on the stem.

At this point, the raw beef came out to be displayed at the counter. It was quite a sight, displaying the rich veins of marbling characteristic of the breed. Even the filet (on the right) had fantastic marbling.

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sweet potato puree

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A sweet and creamy sweet potato soup arrived next, nicely displaying the in-season root vegetable.

A seafood course was next.

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tiger prawn in brain sauce; suzuki (sea bass) with tomato and couscous

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I enjoyed the prawn with the crunchy head, though found the brain sauce to not be as flavorful as expected. The dense, meaty sea bass was cooked pretty well, and I enjoyed the tomatoes and what I think was Israeli couscous that came along with it.

onion chawanmushi

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The delicate sweetness of the onion came through in the light custard.

Awaiting the next course, we could see the meat being cooked on the teppan.

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salad of cherry tomato, burdock root, lotus root

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Refreshing cherry tomatoes, romanesco and some root vegetables came with a sesame dressing, plain and simple.

wagyu sirloin with sauteed vegetables

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Finally, the pièce de résistance. The meat was as I remembered from years ago, exceedingly fatty and rich though still with a good beefy flavor. It was kind of ridiculous how rich it was; I could only eat this in relatively small portions and definitely not a big steak of it. Marbling-wise, it was truly a step up from New Zealand wagyu or any of the American wagyu found domestically. Texture-wise, it was similar to a seared foie gras in its succulent melt-in-your-mouth richness.

fried rice with fish; japanese pickles

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The final savory course was an under-seasoned fried rice with tiny dried fish served with miso soup.

azuki bean ice cream, black sesame chiffon cake

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Lastly, we enjoyed a pretty solid dessert with a subtle sesame flavor in a light and airy chiffon cake. The ice cream was a little overly icy, but had good red bean flavor. The fruits were pretty tasty too.

I’m glad I was able to experience the over-the-top fatty richness of the beef; food-wise this was one of the highlights of my trip in Japan. The rest of the courses were pretty decent though nothing special (not that I was expecting them to be). Similar to the sushi/kaiseki/tempura meals I had, the counter experience was exciting. It was fun to be able to watch everything in action, and the chef spoke pretty good English allowing us to have some dialogue.

Lawry’s (Beverly Hills, CA)

Lawry’s The Prime Rib
100 N La Cienega Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Dining date: 8/12/12

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Lawry’s an institution in L.A., nestled in the middle of La Cienega’s ‘restaurant row’ since 1938. That location was the first of many for the chain, which now has restaurants internationally. Growing up in San Francisco, I visited the House of Prime Rib a number of times and always heard comparisons when I moved to Los Angeles. I first came while in college with my dad and found the restaurant eerily similar to my S.F. comparison. For what it’s worth, Lawry’s opened first.

The food at Lawry’s is not complicated or fussy. Sure there are some fish and other meat options, but most people opt for a slice of prime rib (sizing varies from a petite boneless cut to an almost obscene bone-in chunk of meat), served with horseradish, Yorkshire pudding, and mashed potatoes. Sides such as creamed spinach, creamed corn, sauteed mushrooms, baked potatoes, and asparagus are extra.

One of my favorite parts about Lawry’s is waiting for a table (imagine that!). In the waiting room are meatballs in a marinara sauce and house-fried potato chips. I must say they’re pretty tasty and it’s always a struggle not to eat too much. I always end up with a couple of small plates, though.

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Famous Original Spinning Bowl Salad crisp romaine and iceberg lettuce, baby spinach, shredded beets, chopped eggs and croutons, tossed with exclusive vintage dressing

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A large salad bowl is put on ice and literally spun, as dressing is poured into the bowl from high above.

Whipped Cream Horseradish grated fresh horseradish and seasoned whipped cream

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When it’s time for the main course, large silver carts are wheeled around filled with racks of prime rib. Yes, please.

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Five ‘sizes’ of prime rib are available ($35-$53); below are the three largest.

The Lawry Cut traditional and most popular cut

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The Diamond Jim Brady Cut an extra-thick portion that includes the rib bone

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The Beef Bowl Cut a double-sized cut with the rib bone

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A large slab of beef is put on each plate, topped with au jus, and served with the sides of choice. It’s quite a sight, for sure. I think the cooking temperatures were pretty spot-on and consistent (easier to do with prime rib than steaks), and I found the prime rib to be tender and juicy. There was a good beefy flavor and I particularly liked their au jus (ask for extra on the side). Total comfort food for me, particularly with the creamy mashed potatoes and gravy.

Lobster tails were available to add to the meal – $16 for one and $24 for two.

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While I thought the lobster tails were reasonably priced, I didn’t think they were anything special. You get what you pay for, I suppose. Save the money and upgrade for a larger cut of beef.

Similar to previous visits, I left my meal at Lawry’s content and full. Prime rib and mashed potatoes happen to be two of my favorite foods, so it’s hard to go wrong. However, prime rib is a relatively easy thing to make at home and I wouldn’t say the beef here is that much better than what a typical home cook can do. But hey, it’s still pretty delicious, good for large groups and has a sense of timeless nostalgia; for that, I’ll be returning here for many years.

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Sous Vide Flank Steak with Arugula Chimichurri

Dining date: 4/9/12

The latest in my experimentation with sous vide has been beef. Actually, the first thing I cooked was beef (a flat iron steak) and I moved over to chicken, pork and lately, I’ve been cooking a lot of fish. Some duck was a gateway back to red meat, and I’ve been playing with a bunch of steaks (short ribs soon to come!).

The thought came to me while I was planning what to bring to an Easter BBQ potluck. I could cook the flank steak sous vide ahead of time and bring the vacuum-sealed bags to the BBQ to be finished on the grill. I think flank steak is a good option marinated and then grilled, but I’ve heard that cooking it sous vide for a long period of time can slowly break down some of the connective tissue to yield a more tender meat. I was sold.

I tried using three different marinade/cooking liquids, each with one pound of steak. The first was an Asian-based marinade with soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, fresh garlic and fresh ginger. The second was definitely more Western with a reduced red wine (down to almost a syrup), minced carrots, onions, celery, and both fresh thyme and rosemary. Lastly I went with a simple blend of garlic salt and pepper, allowing the meat to bathe in its own natural juices. I sealed up the bags and plopped them into a 131F water bath for 16 hours.

I brought the first two bags (the Asian and Western) to the BBQ, where they were patted dry and finished on an open flame. Given that this was my first time making it, I was a bit nervous – surely I didn’t want to bring a dud to the potluck.

As I sliced into the steak, I breathed a sigh of relief as it yielded perfect end-to-end medium rare meat.  I couldn’t resist eating one of the slices on the spot and was rewarded with pretty good beefy flavor, with each of the different steaks subtly showing off their marinades. It was more tender than usual, having a consistency akin to a slow-cooked beef brisket. I considered it a success and hey, Wolvesmouth approved!

For the last steak, I ended up making it the following day at home. I warmed the bag up in hot water, removed the meat from the bag and patted it try. Lastly I seared both sides with a blowtorch and cut it thinly across the grain, on a bias.

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Given that this one didn’t have a marinade, I didn’t want it to be one-dimensional. A sauce to accompany the steak would be ideal, and I had stumbled upon an intriguing recipe a while back. It was an arugula chimichurri, something I thought would fit in perfectly. Garlic, citrus and arugula are all wonderful accompaniments to red meat so I figured together they’d be a sure bet.

Below is the recipe, adapted from Kitchen Daily.

Ingredients:
1 cup arugula leaves, rinsed and dried
1.5 cloves garlic, peeled, or more to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as desired
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt, to taste 

Directions:
Combine the arugula with a pinch of salt, the garlic, and about half the oil in a food processor or blender. Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container if necessary, and adding the rest of the oil gradually. Add the lemon juice, then a little more oil or some water if you prefer a thinner mixture. Yields enough sauce for approx. 1 pound of meat.

The recipe was pretty flexible; it’s really about proportioning the ingredients to personal taste. Balance is key too, since the raw garlic and lemon acidity are both assertive flavors that can easily overpower.

I generously spooned the chimichurri sauce on top of the meat and was ready to dig in. I loved the colors, particularly the vibrant green of the sauce. The flavors were just as vibrant too between the peppery arugula, garlic and bright lemon flavors. It ended up being an excellent accompaniment to the flank steak! I’ll make this chimichurri again since it’s such a good pairing with a nice steak.

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CUT (Beverly Hills, CA)

CUT
Beverly Wilshire Hotel
9500 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Dining date: 9/1/11

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When asked what my favorite steakhouse is, CUT has been my answer since first dining here over 4 years ago. While it’s been years since I’ve been to CUT, I’ve been reminded of their food at each American Wine & Food Festival. They’ve always had some of the best things to eat (which is saying a lot for that festival), including last year’s American wagyu New York with Maine lobster and black truffles. Given that festival is now defunct, what better time to revisit CUT and reassess if it’s still my favorite steakhouse.

Not only do I think they have the best steak, but I’ve also found the restaurant to be surprisingly well-rounded for a steakhouse….I could see why they were awarded a Michelin star in the latest guide. The appetizer menu typically has some interesting items such as a bone marrow flan, veal tongue salad, or oxtail bouillon.

The variety of beef is also some of the best I’ve seen in an LA steakhouse.

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Various domestic USDA Prime cuts of beef are available, but what separates CUT is the American wagyu (above, left) and 100% wagyu from Australia (above, right). My last trip to CUT was actually when I got my first taste of Japanese wagyu beef. Sadly, it’s no longer available due to the disease that crippled the breed last year, but the Australian wagyu is still something special (and at $20+ per ounce, definitely a splurge).

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Breadsticks

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Gougères

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Compliments of the kitchen, these light “cheese balls” were quite nice. The cheese was somewhat subtle but present, and was just enough to whet the appetite.

Bone Marrow Flan, Mushroom Marmalade, Parsley Salad

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This sounded irresistible on the menu and it didn’t disappoint. The bone marrow flan had the savory richness of bone marrow, yet in a lighter custard form. I don’t always love bone marrow straight (too heavy), so this was an ideal vehicle for it. The mushroom sauce added extra richness and depth.

Butter Lettuce, Avocado, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Champagne-Herb Vinaigrette

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Austrian Oxtail Bouillon, Chervil, Bone Marrow Dumplings

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This was a hearty soup with a deep flavor somewhere between beef and chicken. I don’t think it was purely an oxtail-based broth, but I’m not sure. Loved the chunks of rich oxtail meat, as well as the light bone marrow dumplings.

After much consideration, we opted not to get any wagyu and just stick to the domestic ribeyes.

Bone In Rib Eye Steak 20 Oz U.S.D.A. PRIME, Illinois Corn Fed, Aged 21 Days

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Rib Eye Steak 16 Oz U.S.D.A. PRIME, Nebraska Corn Fed, Dry Aged 35 Days

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Honestly I thought the differences between these two ribeyes were subtle. Both were excellent, displaying a wonderful crusty, charred sear as well as a juicy, pink interior. The meat was beefy for sure, succulent and tender. I enjoyed every last bite. I thought my steak was cooked just right (medium-rare, above), though one person thought their ‘medium’ was a bit underdone.

We ordered three sides to go with the steaks. These were all served family-style and portioned out at the table. I found all of them to be pretty good, but nothing special. They’re meant to be simple.

Cavatappi Pasta “Mac & Cheese” Quebec Cheddar

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At $19, this was easily the most expensive truffle-less mac & cheese dish I’ve ever had. For sure a solid mac & cheese, but not as memorable as the price tag would suggest.

Creamed Spinach with Fried Organic Egg

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I don’t really recall where the fried egg was, but it might’ve been chopped finely into the creamed spinach. Similar to the mac & cheese, it was good but I’m not in a rush to order it again.

Yukon Gold Potato Puree

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The last side order was a ‘must’ for me – a simple mashed potatoes (I just love mashed potatoes with steak). Very rich and creamy, there must’ve been a generous amount of butter and cream.

Dark Chocolate Soufflé, Whipped Crème Fraiche, Gianduja Chocolate Ice Cream

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I thought this was quite good. Served hot, the souffle had a little bit of the bitterness characteristic of dark chocolate. The gianduja ice cream (chocolate-hazelnut) added the bulk of the sweetness and, combined with the whipped creme fraiche, created some pretty rich, creamy mouthfuls.

Mignardises

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CUT reaffirmed my opinion of it being the top steakhouse in the city. The steaks at CUT were top-notch and although the sides weren’t anything special, I don’t think they were trying to be. While many debate the merits of Mastro’s steaks, I really don’t think there’s much of a comparison. The food at CUT is much more well-rounded, and the variety and quality of beef far superior. I will say that, unfortunately, it is also quite a bit more expensive though.

Wagyu Steak

Dining date: 8/27/11

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A good steak. I can’t think of any other food that is so delicious, yet so simple to cook. In terms of ingredients, salt, pepper and a good piece of meat are all you need. That’s pretty much all I used here.

I stumbled upon a steak that immediately caught my eye – a Snake River Farms wagyu (commonly known as Kobe) New York. Technically it’s not 100% wagyu, rather a cross-breed between Japanese wagyu cattle and American Black Angus (“American wagyu“). As far as I know, 100% wagyu beef from Japan is no longer available in the U.S. and will not be for a long time. A foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2010 killed much of the stock and exports are currently banned.

For me, American wagyu is probably my favorite for a steak. Pure wagyu is incredibly fatty – because of this (and the cost), it’s best enjoyed in smaller quantities. American wagyu, since it’s cross-bred, finds a happy medium between the wagyu and Black Angus, resulting in a steak that is very well-marbled and not too fatty in large portions.

Beautiful.

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I cook just about all of my steaks in a cast iron pan, searing and finishing in the oven. I get the pan as hot as I can…smoking hot (literally), sear for a couple of minutes on each side, then use a meat thermometer in the oven. Because of the quality of the meat, I was shooting for somewhere in the high range of rare, low range of medium-rare. I think I got just that at around 125 degrees.

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Served on top of a bed of garlic-sauteed spinach. Execution-wise, I thought it was spot on. I achieved a nice crusty sear, and finishing in the oven helped me get the uniformly pink meat. As expected, it was extremely tender, juicy and flavorful. Was it the best steak I’ve ever cooked? Hard to say. It’s definitely between this one and the dry-aged, bone-in ribeye from McCall’s that I made last year. I thought that one had a beefier flavor (no doubt aided by the dry aging process), but I can’t really compare a ribeye and New York strip side-by side. I would just conclude that this was a delicious steak, and I was pretty proud of it.