Fine dining may be on life support in Atlanta, but steak houses are thriving like never before. Why, during this recession, are people choosing to spend their money on high-end steaks but not other kinds of equally expensive dining?
To explore this question, I’ve decided to visit three influential steak houses and look at what they serve and what this says about the state of dining in Atlanta today.
Today, I’ll look at the first one: Kevin Rathbun Steak — a local eatery that seems to redefine what people look for in a cow palace. Tomorrow I’ll visit BLT Steak, a local branch of a high-end New York chain that has been peddling an interesting mash-up of French bistro cookery with great American grain-fed beef and other ingredients. I’ll end this mini-series with a trip to Bone’s — the Atlanta classic that has tinkered little with its formula during three decades on the scene.
As I’ve been an abiding fan of chef Kevin Rathbun’s first namesake restaurant, Rathbun’s, I always figured that Kevin Rathbun Steak would be just the chophouse for me. The long, eclectic menu here lists all kinds of hot and cold appetizers, non-steak options and creative side dishes. One could, for instance, start with oysters on the half shell and a chopped salad, and then go on a porterhouse steak and an elbow macaroni and cheese tart for a slightly updated steak house menu.
Then again, one could totally ignore convention and make a meal of lobster fritters, tuna sashimi, a bowl of butternut squash soup and a plate of seared diver scallops with farro stew.
Barbecued pork shoulder, a shellfish tamale, a bowl of groovy grits, a beet salad with goat cheese and candied pecans. It’s all there. You can eat small plate, big plates, huge plates, massive hunks of cow for two — yours for the taking.
And this all should be like crack for me, not being a meat-and-potatoes guy. Seriously. Real meat-and-potatoes guys could mop me up with their french fries. While they’re pounding down their New York strips and martinis, I’d be the one sniffing a shellfish tamale and scouring the wine list for an appropriate chardonnay.
But no. I assume the title of honorary steak-and-potatoes guy in a steak house, and I’m not sure Kevin Rathbun Steak quite delivers that experience I’m looking for. This restaurant offers myriad pleasures, but is it a steak house?
I take the most carnivorous of my three daughters one evening, and we are shown to a table in the quiet downstairs “library” (i.e., a cozy room with some bookshelves along one wall). We sit under this portrait of Rathbun wearing latex gloves and a sniffing a chunk of meat. I guess it’s nice to know the chef has personally smelled your food.
First we look over the long menu, then we hear all about the daily specials, which include a whole fish, a scallop sashimi with persimmon vinaigrette and a roasted red pepper soup.
After much discussion of options, we decide what we really came for was a steak, pure and simple, and we want to save both our appetite and attention for it. So we make a first course of the bread and butter — a strange assortment of dried fruit and nut bread, onion rolls and lavender butter.
Our steak is a beauty — a 22-ounce dry-aged ribeye ($54) that’s a perfect example of form. It has a large and well-defined “eye,” a thin layer of fat opposite the bone and a thick, well defined cap beyond the fat.
I ask to have the steak whole so I can give my daughter a yummy anatomy lesson. I carve off the ribeye cap — a distinct muscle that’s properly called the spinalis dorsi — the flavor is funkier and the texture juicy with broad, stripey grains. It it a piece of meat to stop you in your tracks, to make you pause and appreciate the sensation of eating.
But it’s just a bite. Next comes the ribeye proper, which I carve into fat ribbons. To me, the most noticeable benefit of dry aging is that the meat absorbs its juices during its lockdown, so the texture is both firmer and more tender than wet aged beef, and the steak doesn’t bleed when cut. The beefy flavor seems to stay in the meat.
We really like our steak, though it comes out a little too rare for our taste (we order medium rare, but find the center too red, cool and floppy). So after carving off half, we send it back for another spin on the broiler. Excellent: fresh, hot steak for round two.
We’re a little less thrilled with our sides. There’s no basic baked potato (Chorizo-stuffed twice baked potatoes? No thanks.). So we order herbed steak fries with blue cheese fondue — thick, house-fried sticks that turn soft and floppy after a few minutes. But a special side dish – brussels sprouts with chestnuts, bacon and parmesan cheese — is very nice.
It is also typical of Kevin Rathbun Steak. American steak houses first came of age by offering simplicity. They served as a rejoinder to the fussiness of Continental cuisine by bringing the attention squarely to fine American ingredients. This place, like other modern steak houses, is all about indulgence.