Marc Hennessy wants you to eat less beef. This should run contrary to his role as the executive chef of Rare Steakhouse & Tavern, but to hear him explain it over a three hour lunch during a private class in his Eye Street dining room, eating less beef isn’t just environmentally responsible- when you’re talking grass-fed, dry-aged, local beef, it’s fiscally and gustatorily the right thing to do.
The class, Rare’s second of the year, focused on the process of dry aging: the change in flavor and texture of beef left in a humidity controlled cooler for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time. But a point Hennessy returned to frequently was a frank discussion of the economics of serving meat, and how the cost to the consumer often dictates the quality of the beef served. Writ short, a menu with better beef, even in smaller portions, is a better choice for the consumer. A system in which customers are incentivized (in this case, by flavor) to eat less meat is both environmentally responsible and more fiscally stable.
For those unaware, when you sit down to eat at a restaurant, the cost of the plate of food factors in everything from the cost of the plate itself to the cost of fixing the air conditioning in the restaurant. Specific to the meat you eat, every hand that touches it, every knife cut increases the price, from breaking down the carcass to a tableside carving of your porterhouse for two. This often leads to a discussion in which the middlemen are demonized, as though the situation could be remedied by farmers walking whole live steer into the back of a restaurant, straight into the meat locker.
Even in this fantasy world wherein steer walk themselves into the back of a K Street-adjacent restaurant only to be carried by waiters the last 10 yards to your table, what of the inedibles like hide and hooves? Of offal and off cuts? Of the trim, the chain, the deckel? Does this restaurant have a tannery in-house? A gelatin factory? A willing customer base for hundreds of pounds of ground beef that aren’t steaks or roasts? There is a limit to how many burgers anyone can eat (much to my chagrin).
In fact, I was thinking of sticking around the restaurant to try the burger after the first course, a few bites each of rillettes with toast and chicharrones with cheddar. The rillettes were made of Autumn Farms rose veal aged for 14 days, chopped and slow cooked, then shredded and cooled with a layer of fat over top, in this case a butter made of foraged, wild spring onions. The rillettes were good, but the butter and the kumquat mostardo served atop them were spectacular. Likewise, the chicharrones were decent, if a bit under-seasoned. The chili-spiced pork skin, boiled, scraped clean, and then fried to puff up was made of Autumn Olive Farms pork skin. Given how frequently my lunch is pork rinds and cheese, I was looking forward to this pairing. The cheese, a bandaged cheddar, was deep and slightly sweet the way I think of a gruyere as sweet, born of the funk of the cheese and the deep, complex flavor of aging. I know they were amuse bouche, but I was hungry, and a few bites weren’t cutting it.
Fortunately, our second course was far more substantial. A pair of kafta was served with a delicious salad of spicy greens and a yogurt vinaigrette that tasted as though it had torshi mixed into it. The perfectly flavored bites of aged beef hindquarters chopped and formed into logs were roasted, almost charred on the outside and rare on the inside. The use of hindquarters, in this case Highland Orchard Farms beef, was deliberate. Hennessy pointed out that in buying whole animals, the restaurant could obtain a higher quality of beef, but that every piece had to be used. Grass fed beef is healthier than corn finished beef, but not as sweet. The flavor is less what we’ve come to think beef should taste like, more minerally, and what we perceive as gamier.
To that end, dry-aging beef makes flavors more complex, beefier. Grass-fed beef especially becomes more delicious as it ages. The process is simple: subprimals (what gets broken down into steaks) are left in a humidity controlled cooler. A bark only a few millimeters thick forms as the outer layer of meat dries quickly, creating a moisture barrier (what’s referred to when making salamis as case hardening.) The meat inside the bark then begins to age, a controlled decomposition. Proteins break down into complex sugars, which we experience as flavor and aroma. Those same proteins unwind a bit, no longer burdened by the immediate efficacy of stress hormones, making the meat more tender. A thin layer of mostly innocuous mold may form on the outside- often strains of white or blue-green penicillium (nalgiovense and roqueforti, respectively) or aspergillus (often a dusky yellow.) The molds typically come from the biome of the region in which the meat is aged, but can be transplanted as long as they’re given an environment in which they flourish. They help control moisture, and their byproducts (ammonia for example) can raise the pH of the meat, making it sweeter, funkier, or less tart.
But as with all meat, dry-aged beef has to be cut. Portions need to be uniform, for the customers, for the kitchen and for the bottom line. Trim can be used for dry-aged burgers, but when working with a whole animal, even dry-aged, you can’t necessarily cut 96oz steaks from hindquarters and bet diners can’t finish them. Fat doesn’t break down the way meat does, so intramuscular fats, the marbling, is more pronounced, making you feel fuller faster. Smaller portions of tastier meat means you need to eat less of it. And eating less meat is the goal- fewer animals, raised sustainably, is the environmentally responsible thing to do.
The satiety of properly-aged meat cannot be underestimated. Our third course, really the crux of the course, was a tasting of five different pieces of meat- two beef, one veal, one bison, and a dry aged pork. Each piece was no more than two or three ounces, seasoned simply with salt, pepper, a bit of garlic and butter, and accompanied by a sauteed morel with wild onions. First up was the Highland Orchard ribeye, aged for 60 days. The meat was tender to the point of verging on soft, despite being cooked to medium rare. The muscles looked more relaxed than I’ve ever been, and the flavor was, not to belabor the point, intensely steak-y. This is the Platonic ideal of steak (though as the chef stressed throughout the class, the quality of the steak is dependent on so many factors. There is no one ideal.) Next on the plate was Autumn Orchard’s 80 day aged strip loin, which I somehow preferred. The meat was a deep, saturated red, carmine or ruby, even cooked it had the texture of a perfect tartare. The world sparkled a little in eating it, and I found myself cutting it into increasingly smaller bites to prolong the experience.
The rose veal sirloin, also from Autumn Olive, which followed was only aged for 14 days. Veal is calf meat, typically still on a milk diet. The muscle tissue is still young and hasn’t yet developed a toughness that comes from work like standing, thus the meat doesn’t need to age as long. In this case, the calves are milk fed from cows grazing at pasture, making the milk they eat high in the same fatty acids and minerals. The flavor of the grass eaten by the milk cow directly impacts the final flavor of the veal, so the aging process intensifies the same flavors as grass-fed beef. The one interesting quirk about eating dry-aged veal is the prominence of the flavor of cream in each bite. It starts as a mouthfeel, almost an aftertaste, and each bite reinforces the flavor. I had expected this to be the mildest piece of meat, but the flavor lingered longer than the other two steaks.
The last of the red meat was a piece of New Frontier buffalo. Pasture raised in Virginia, this strip loin was aged for 90 days. It makes sense, tougher, leaner meat benefits from a longer aging. What I hadn’t expected was the cheese. Bison tends to taste like a more mineral heavy beef, a supercharged grass-fed flavor. After aging, it takes on the same sweet, funky flavors of the bandaged cheddar served in the first course. Often people joke about good cheese smelling, and perhaps tasting, like old meat, as though that’s an unpleasant comparison. Instead this meat, with a thin strip of fat on the side had a pleasant muskiness.
The final piece, added to the plate after the beef, was a dry-aged pork, also from Autumn Olive. Pork, like beef can be aged, but often isn’t intentionally aged. People are alarmed by the risk of trichinosis, despite the ease of killing the trichinae worms (either by freezing or cooking for a prescribed length of time). Like the buffalo, the pork had a slightly cheesy quality, well-rounded, unlike flat, supermarket pork chops. This particular pig was a Berkabaw, a cross between a Berkshire and an Ossabaw Island pig. Berkshire, or Kurobuta pork, is one of the more common breeds of heritage pig in the United States. The meat tends to be rich, and highly marbled. The cross with an Ossabaw, a feral breed with deep red meat, makes sense given the richness of the Berkshire and the complexity of the Ossabaw. While I like Duroc pork more, this was an exceptional piece of pork, as porky as Autumn Olive’s beef was beefy.
I expected to need a burger after a small meal drawn out over three hours. Or a steak. Or a few dozen oysters. Or all of the above. Instead I was pleasantly full, owing to the richness of the steaks and pork, and the deep flavor of the fat in each bite. More surprising was the dessert. Steakhouse desserts are often an afterthought, literally meant to gild an already heavy meal. The menu for the course simply described it as “donuts with dipping sauces.” It was as descriptive as calling a dry-aged, grass-fed, locally-raised short loin “beef.” Dessert was a zeppole, an Italian donut, glazed in vanilla, topped with lime zest and coconut shavings and stuffed with a vanilla zabaglione cream, served with lemon curd and coconut cream for dipping. This donut was a good example of why this steakhouse keeps their dessert menu separate from the rest of the menu: it’s justified.
Chef Hennessy was kind enough to take the class into his meat locker, and even spent an hour after the class continuing the discussion about the financial restraints of raising cattle locally. His awareness of the system in which animals become food was heartening, if a bit unexpected. Rare is the steakhouse that concerns itself so much with the quality of beef it serves, it suggests you eat less of it. Given the quality of the beef, I certainly didn’t concern myself with the quantity proffered.