The greatest generation’s idea of luxury dining
In a very 20th-century way, steak connotes adulthood. A turning point for me was a visit to one of those cook-it-yourself steak restaurants with my extended family when I was 12. I aspired to be a grownup at the time, and so I determined to take steak-eating seriously. I chose a big hunk of meat and grilled it until the outside was totally charred and the inside was thoroughly gray. The whole thing seemed very manly.
Meanwhile, I watched my uncle Charlie take a different approach. He examined the raw steaks carefully and selected a filet mignon that seemed especially tender and juicy. He timed his cooking by his watch, flipping the steak at just the right moment and removing it when it was a fraction on the rare side of medium rare. When I was halfway through eating my Neanderthal dinner, feeling big and strong, he cut me a bite from the center of his filet and said, “Try this.”
I hadn’t asked him for a bite, and I didn’t particularly want one, and I had no reason to think that his steak was different from my own, except that it was smaller and thus less powerful. I could see the bite of meat he offered me in cross-section. Most of it was a vivid pink, which was frightening for some reason that I couldn’t articulate. And then I put it in my mouth and realized that my attitude toward steak had been childish and unsophisticated, and likewise my ideas about adulthood itself. Real maturity, it turns out, is not about being big and tough but about being tender and true.
There’s maybe a half-dozen reputable steakhouses in San Francisco, and I would have liked to order a filet mignon, medium rare, in each one of them, then compared them in detail and presented the results here, but financial considerations ruled that out. (Any dot-com millionaires who would like a thorough survey of the available steak options: e-mail me.) I picked Harris’ on Van Ness, because it’s not a chain, and because I’ve never understood the name “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.”
You can tell Harris’ is a traditional steakhouse by checking out the clientele: I have been in San Francisco for eight years, and this was the least hip crowd I have ever been a part of, including jury duty. It was kind of relaxing. The dining room has a high ceiling and padded banquettes and seems to have been designed to minimize ambient noise. This is not a space for young movers and shakers governed by the need to imagine they’re at the center of a vibrant social world at every moment. It’s a space for people who are losing their hearing.
The steakhouse is a relic, a vestige of an age with different ideas from our own about what constituted good eating. The steakhouse is the greatest generation’s idea of luxury dining, a restaurant where quality consists of the time-tested, the tried-and-true, a nice cut of beef with a baked potato. When we want to describe something as unostentatious and essential and without fripperies or pointless ornamentation, we compare it to meat and potatoes.
It’s the exact antithesis of current ideas about restaurants. Cooking today is a branch of the fine arts. We expect chefs not only to please us but to surprise us with some as-yet-untried combination of the limited number of edible objects that exist in nature. It’s a school of dining that offers great pleasure, as anyone who eats out in San Francisco can attest. But after years watching San Francisco chefs work their magic on ever more exotic cuisines, conjuring ever bolder combinations of disparate flavors, there’s something appealing about going to a steakhouse. You know before you arrive what will be on the menu. The choices you’ll be faced with—New York, porterhouse, sirloin, filet; medium or medium rare—will be so similar as to barely constitute a choice at all. You’ll pay a lot of money, but there will be no gambling involved, no risk. The cooking of your steak will not afford the chef an opportunity for self-expression, but it isn’t about the chef. It’s about you and your hunger and your desire to eat a steak.
So it’s hard to review a steak, because the dish is predicated on familiarity and quality rather than creativity. Unless something is badly wrong, a $40 filet is going to taste delicious, and the words that describe it are going to be words like “tender” and “moist” and “juicy,” and I can report that those are exactly the adjectives brought to mind by the filet at Harris’. I had the filet mignon Rossini, where for just $2 more than a regular filet mignon you get a slice of foie gras on top and black truffle sauce. This is the kind of thing that passes for variation at a steakhouse. The sauce was thick and rich and couldn’t possibly dent the impact of a perfect piece of lean beef, charred and salty on the outside and basically raw on the inside. Plus, hey, foie gras. But I was a bit saddened by the presentation: three halved cherry tomatoes and six green beans arranged in a circle around the filet. San Francisco, it seems, has made its mark even here. The baked potato, on the other hand, was reassuringly identical to every other baked potato ever.