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Steaks are high

By Ronald Holden

Clubby and dark, with stiff drinks and even stiffer prices, the traditional American steakhouse is a fail-safe choice for corporate first dates. In recent years the number of purely local steakhouses has grown apace as well. The demand for showy, expensive dinners is expanding, thanks to Seattle's frenzied business climate.

The Metropolitan Grill, with 370 plush seats and a reputation as Seattle's premier steakhouse, reopened in August after a two-month shutdown for renovations. Costs a lot, these days, to do it right, somewhere north of $2 million. A new kitchen, for starters, with room for an extra line cook's position, because those steaks don't grill themselves. Things you don't see, like the remote-controlled lighting system, or all new sub-flooring. Guests may not notice the new carpet, but will recognize the familiar mahogany paneling and brass fixtures.

Robert Nokes still stands guard behind the bar, surrounded by the familiar faces of waitresses who've made The Met their life's work. Then come the steaks: rib-eye, filet mignon, porterhouse, strip loin, sirloin, prime Delmonico, prime rib, and chateaubriand carved tableside. The bone-in rib-eye (called a tomahawk) looks like a prop from Game of Thrones.

Wagyu sample at Metropolitan Grill

And now a limited supply of A-5 Wagyu "olive beef" from Shodoshima Island in Japan's Kagawa Prefecture, which has been growing olives for the past century. The remains of pressed olives after they are made into olive oil are fed to the cattle. With an abundance of oleic acid, antioxidants and glutamic acid, the dried olive fruit imparts remarkable umami and sweetness with smooth fat and tenderness into the beef. It's so rich that you can't grill it over coals; in fact, it will melt if left at room temperature. Instead, it must be seared with a cast iron griddle.

A five-ounce cut of Sanuki Wagyu is $135, making it the single most expensive serving, ounce for ounce, in town. Corporate Executive Chef Eric Hellner sent out a couple of slices for me to taste. And it tastes amazing, like beefy foie gras. You could top it with béarnaise or maìtre d'hôtel butter, but that would be gilding the lily. Salt and pepper, nothing else. Metropolitan Grill-thanks to Chef Hellner's personal relationships all along the supply chain-is one of only two restaurants in the U.S. to serve it.

Seattle has lost several chain steakhouses over the past year: Sullivan's, McCormick's, Morton's. National, all. (Ruth's Chris and The Capital Grille remain.) Locally owned stalwarts, in addition to The Met: El Gaucho, Daniel's Broiler, the Brooklyn, and John Howie Steak. Newcomers include Bateau, 7 Beef, Miller's Guild, Butcher's Table, and Carnivore. No, the steakhouse is far from dead.

But let's say you're not up for the full-on, full-meal-deal steak experience. Two options: a steak-frites order from any number of charming spots (Le Pichet, Loulay, Black Bottle) and Happy Hours (Red Cow in Madrona, for example).

At Red Cow, there's a gorgeous patio for warm afternoons, and, regardless of external temperatures, an energetic kitchen crew. Sous chef Matt Wilson (ex-Russell's) serves up a meltingly tender brochette of hanger steak that gets two hours of sous-vide treatment, then salt, pepper, and the hot grill (photo). The best fries I've had all year came courtesy of line cook Natosha Warnack (ex WAC). Her secret: frozen product from Idaho (counter-intuitive, but more consistent).

The centerpiece of Miller's Guild in the Hotel Max is a nine-foot, custom-built grill called "Inferno." It comes from a company in Michigan called Grillworks, founded 30 years ago by Charles Eisendrath, a former foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, who was Inspired by the open-fire cooking techniques of Argentina. Chef Jason Wilson, winner of the James Beard award as best chef in the Northwest, has the honor of driving this contraption, which costs as much as a luxury sports car. It has a central fire station, as it's called, that puts out 1,100 degrees. It feeds two side grills that you can adjust for height, and the hearth baking platform. At dinner, there's a very reasonable bavette steak for $33 ($21 at happy hour), moving all the way up to a (market price) tomahawk.

Nothing classier, you'll agree, than tableside service, and El Gaucho is the master of the art. You're likely to spot a franchise athlete in the next booth, if they were to turn up the lights, but that would spoil the classic atmosphere. The 20-ounce, Niman Ranch chateaubriand for two is $129, and they throw in a baked potato and asparagus.

I could have gone to Le Pichet, of course, where the Steak Frites (a bavette) is $25. Down by the stadium, Girin serves an 8-ounce Wagyu two ways: as a NY Strip for $65, or as a hanger steak (that's the bavette again) for $23. The main courses at Girin are served ssam-style, with lettuce wraps.

Celebrity chef Renee Erickson is known for her sure touch with seafood, but Bateau, her acclaimed full-service restaurant (four-star review from Seattle Times) is focused on beef. The deal at Bateau is a five-course, $85 steak tasting, for the whole table only. Frites on the side, extra.

Not on the happy menu, but not outrageously priced, either, at $17: the hanger steak at Black Bottle. Meltingly tender, as we've come to expect of our hanger steaks in Seattle. Did I miss the fries? Not really.  Photo: Black Bottle steak.

At 7 Beef, meanwhile, the steak (a six-ounce cut of teres major) on the happy hour menu is a reasonable $14, served with fries. The in-house butcher offers smaller cuts like Coulotte ($23) and Zabuton ($28), but serious carnivores can also opt for a 37-ounce, dry-aged Côte de Boeuf ($108). Another route entirely would be to go as a group and enjoy the traditional Vietnamese banquet special, Bò 7 Món, at $40 per person.

Down in South Lake Union, Kurt Beecher Dammeier's new steak house, The Butcher's Table (photo), offers serious eaters the opportunity to do some unusual tastings. For example, four-ounce portions of Rib Eye, New York, Cap of Ribeye, and Filet Mignon run into the three figures but are meant to be shared. Or you can just order the tomahawk.

FlintCreek Cattle Company in Greenwood is the latest venture from Eric and Christy Donnelly, whose Rock Creek in Fremont, drew on his experience as exec chef at Oceanaire. Now he heads to the grasslands of Montana for inspiration. One good idea; $7 food items at happy hour, including an unbeatable blue cheese burger. Downside: only 12 available per service.

One last newcomer: Carnivore in Ballard. The beef is from Carman Ranch, in eastern Oregon, and offers a choice of 10-ounce cuts: bavette ($26), NY strip ($31) and rib-eye ($36).

October 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.

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