Let Them Eat Steak

Baltimore sizzles with prime-time restaurants devoted to beef.

Edited by Suzanne Loudermilk. By John Farlow, Henry Hong, Suzanne Loudermilk, Karen Nitkin, and Martha Thomas.

A juicy tenderloin with crisp onion rings awaits your first cut at Christopher Daniel in Timonium. –Photo by Christopher Myers

No matter what the economy, we still like to have our steak and eat it, too. Maybe we’re channeling our inner Mad Men and need to indulge, or maybe there’s just nothing like a hunk of beef to soothe the belly. While most steakhouses adhere to a formulaic décor—you know, dark wood, leather booths, dim lighting—they carve out their own personalities with preparation, presentation, and service. So where’s the beef? We’ve been visiting local spots for several months, eating (and putting on) pounds of choice and prime cuts of steak along the way. Grab a fork and join us on our tour. (Be sure and check out our accompanying story on places for inexpensive steak.)

The Capital Grille
500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064
The luxurious dining room with mahogany wood details, rich leather banquettes, mod chandeliers, and giant manor-house paintings—in this case, portraits of Clara Barton and John Goucher on one wall—portends the wonderful meal to come. Everything is larger than life, from the generous appetizers and thick, dry-aged- in-house beef to the massive side dishes and deeply rich desserts. The restaurant shows its command of seafood, too, with the lobster-and-crab-cakes starter, lumpy with seafood, accompanied by fresh-from-the-cob corn relish. Steaks live up to expectations—slices of filet with cipollini onions and sautéed wild mushroom ($40) and a 14-ounce sirloin ($39) cooked more rare than the medium rare we ordered on one visit but so delicious we didn't care. The side dishes easily serve four. The au-gratin potatoes have finesse with cheesy layers of tender spuds topped with fried onions. The thin asparagus stalks are fine by themselves or with a nudge of hollandaise. If you can take another bite, a wedge of flourless chocolate espresso cake adds sweet density. Servers typically operate with finesse. Sadly, one night, we encountered a waiter who was much more interested in his other tables. Don't hesitate to share any concerns with the excellent managers. They want you to be happy.

The Chop House
1915 Towne Center Boulevard, Annapolis, 888-456-3463
The restaurant anchors a corner of the high-end Annapolis Towne Centre and attracts a well-dressed and mostly baby-boomer crowd. Though it has an elegant interior of soaring ceilings and lots of marble and dark wood, the prices are actually reasonable and the food is solid and drama-free. One night, we were paired with a server who made some small mistakes (taking our menus before we ordered, for one), but mostly you can count on a well-prepared meal. Appetizers are typical starters, like shrimp cocktail and fried calamari. Entrees, ranging from $15-75, include excellent steaks, lamb chops, salmon, and lobster tail. The house salad and an appetizer of chicken and beef satay are pleasant. We especially like the grilled pineapple ring under the satay's skewered meat. Even though there's Kobe flank steak ($28.95) on the menu, go for the more flavorful bone-in strip steak ($37.95).

Christopher Daniel
106 W. Padonia Road, 410-308-1800
While there are only three cuts on offer, steak options take up a good half of the menu's entree page. All but the 14-ounce rib-eye ($24) can be ordered in different sizes, and each steak comes with a choice of both a sauce and a "topper"—ranging from caramelized onions to a heap of fois gras—thus introducing a range of possibilities that could become downright dizzying. There's even a surf-and-turf option (crab cake or lobster tail) with the tenderloin ($25 solo). Of course, instinct can help you sort things out. The bourbon sauce, for example, is a nice match with the bourbon-mushroom topping on the New York strip. And while we wouldn't be inclined to mix béarnaise with blue cheese and toasted almonds, it's just right when placed gently alongside a miniature tenderloin. The concise wine list is arranged by grape, and most bottles are well under $60.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
720 Aliceanna Street, 410-332-1666
Fleming's offers just what you'd expect at a proper steakhouse—handsome wood, comfortable seating, gentle lighting, crisp, white tablecloths, and a list of steaks, chops, and seafood to impress. The aged USDA prime beef translates into lush cuts, seasoned with just enough kosher salt and pepper to draw out the flavor. The light filet mignon ($29.95) is a fork-tender charmer, while the heftier peppercorn steak ($38.95)—a New York strip encrusted in cracked white and black pepper—tends toward chewiness. To start, a shrimp cocktail transcends tradition with a tangy vegetable salsa; the Caesar salad delivers chilled, fresh components but lacks distinctive flavor. Service is not as polished as we'd like at these prices. And we're still trying to figure out why our waiter kept calling the female members of our party "m'lady"!

Fogo de Chao
600 E. Pratt Street., 410-528-9292
The reason for being here is the constant and unrelenting flow of meat ($46.50 a person, includes the salad bar): juicy lamb, sausage, salty chicken legs, beef in every imaginable cut (including the juicy sirloin bottom). You'll want to pace yourself. The Brazilian Churrasco style of barbecue is exuberantly interpreted by "gaucho chefs," who parade throughout the spacious restaurant, clad in flapping trousers and knee-high boots to proffer skewers of succulent meat. The place is bustling with couples, businesspeople, and tourists enjoying the steady stream of food. To stop the bombardment of meat, flip the cardboard coin on your table from green to the red side. Meantime, there's an extensive wine selection—bottles are stacked in intermittent racks about the dining room—with a strong South American focus. For dessert, there's a flan drenched in caramelized syrup, a creamy papaya crème, or a molten chocolate cake—if you have room, that is.

Lewnes' Steakhouse
401 Fourth Street, Annapolis, 410-263-1617
Lewnes has long been a thriving stalwart of the area steakhouse scene, and we adore it. The atmosphere is comfortably clubby but avoids feeling contrived or leaving one with the sense of having trespassed into an enormous business meeting. Service is polite and deferential, the wine list acknowledges a world beyond Cabernet Sauvignon, and the steaks, ahh, the steaks. Delicate, decadent tenderloin (8 ounces, $29.95); savory, flavor-packed rib-eye ($31.95); formidable, juicy porterhouse ($40.95)—all prime aged beef, cooked exactly to order. Super-sized sides are de rigueur at a steakhouse, and the ones at Lewnes' are no exception. Not afterthoughts, though, as one companion declared the mashed potatoes the "best ever" and another swooned over the satisfying snap of sautéed asparagus.

The Mill Steakhouse Tavern
1520 Clipper Road, 410-366-3267
The restaurant, a Hampden newcomer that seems to have emerged from the rubble of construction along Clipper Road, is tucked into a historic stone building once a residence for mill workers, more recently Kolpers Restaurant and Lounge. Along with such standard bar noshes as buffalo wings, crab cakes, and burgers, the casual, neighborhood place earns its steakhouse designation with five different cuts. The steak au poivre ($24.95), a pair of mini tenderloins, is short on peppercorns and served with a mild-mannered demi-glaze, while the eight-ounce rib-eye ($13.95), hatch-marked from the grill, is delightfully salty. The roasted prime rib ($13.95), a preparation more tender than the rib-eye, is sprinkled with dry thyme, which seems a bit of an afterthought. For sides, go with the creamed spinach, baked with breadcrumbs in a ramekin and not overly runny. The simple wine list won't overwhelm you, but you'll find a decent match—and, on Sundays, bottles are half-price.

Morton's The Steakhouse
300 S. Charles Street, 410-547-8255
The steakhouse belongs to a chain of more than 75 restaurants capturing the I-deserve-to-be-indulged satisfaction of a more prosperous time. Diners cozy up to leather banquettes as servers turn ordering a meal into an event, reeling off the entire menu by memory, aided by props, including massive cuts of raw meat, a still-blinking lobster, and, oddly, broccoli stalks. Thankfully, nobody attempts to recite the wine list of several hundred choices, which includes many by the glass. The pomp works because the food deserves it. The fat filet mignon ($40) boasts a satisfying mineral taste. And the New York strip ($44)—more robust but still tender—might be even better. The menu sticks mostly to red meat, lobster, and classic salads. Even simple offerings are elevated, like a beefsteak tomato salad with a tart vinaigrette or blue-cheese dressing that unites its humble ingredients.

The Oregon Grille
1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505
This is the little black dress of Baltimore-area steakhouses. It's chic and effortless and looks good without showing off. It has a rustic yet easy-to-reach location and an interior of dark woods and horsey accents. The wine list includes hundreds of choices and was recognized by Wine Spectator magazine in 2009 and 2010. Demure and understated are the watchwords here, with good ingredients given minimal treatment so they can shine. A salad with wilted romaine is topped with a just-garlicky-enough dressing. Steak au poivre ($49) provides just the right amount of black pepper to counter the luxuriant meat, napped with a velvety demi-glace. Filet mignon (12 ounces, $43) is tender, with distinct, meaty flavor. Sides, ordered a la carte, include mashed potatoes, broccoli, and creamed spinach. Desserts hew to standards like Key lime pie, but a berry slump, a special one night, combines fruit and warm dough to magical effect.

The Prime Rib
1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804
It's hard to find fault with The Prime Rib, Baltimore's doyenne of steakhouses. The leopard-pattern carpet, the tufted black-leather chairs that remind us of a Chanel handbag, the opulent flower arrangements, and the piano player tickling out standards signal special-occasion dining any night of the week. You can just imagine Mad Men's Don Draper and Roger Sterling stopping by for a meal if they were in town. The filet Oscar ($49.95), piled with teardrop-shaped lumps of crab and blanketed in béarnaise, can be cut with a fork, while the New York strip ($39.95), labeled "the steaklover's steak," is just that, dense and full of flavor. The wine list will take you from a $800 Harlan Estate Cabernet to a youthful $28 Beaujolais.

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse Pier 5
711 Eastern Avenue, 410-230-0033
Thanks to the handsome, expansive outdoor seating area of the Pier 5 outpost of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (other locations include Water Street and Pikesville), a finer al-fresco steak dinner experience simply cannot be found in Baltimore. You'll do well inside, too. All the beef (except for the filet mignon) is USDA prime. The thick cuts—from a T-bone ($43.95) to a cowboy rib-eye ($42.95)—exude intense beefiness, enhanced by a background chorus of sizzling butter and sporting an excellent crust with no bitter char (unless charring is requested). Sides are unfussed-with standards, and executed extremely well—au-gratin potatoes are a mantle of golden, bubbly cheese concealing garlicky spuds beneath, while sautéed mushrooms are a paragon of earthy savoriness, rich but not overly so. A comprehensive wine list is a plus.

Stoney River Legendary Steaks
Towson Town Center, 825 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, 410-583-5250
The mall location doesn't detract from this well-bred dining room that resembles a mountain lodge with chalet-soaring ceilings, a hulky stone fireplace, and life-sized red canoe on the wall. You almost start to believe that there's a pristine lake outside waiting for your rowing skills. The service here is impeccable from check-in at the host stand to the server's prompt attention and manager's inquiry about your meal, which, by the way, is very good. We love the seven-ounce plump filet ($24.99) for its plush, ruby meat (premium, grain-fed, aged Midwestern beef)—but we recommend forgoing the kitchen-applied salty seasoning (you can opt out of it), which overpowered our rib-eye ($25.99) on one visit. Steaks come with a choice of potatoes (definitely try the caramelized onion mashed). Add a veggie for two (sautéed spinach is a winner) and finish with an almond-laced "Top Hat" for dessert: two tuile-like cookies with vanilla ice cream and berries. The mostly all-American wine list adds pizzazz to whatever you choose.

Sullivan's Steakhouse
1 E. Pratt Street, 410-962-5503
To evoke the greatness of early 20th century steakhouses, Sullivan's employs standard tactics such as an Art Deco-style interior design, a live jazz pianist in the tony lounge area, and even female employees donned in black-lace stockings (though the effectiveness of that last bit is a bit dubious). The menu, however, is more modern, offering items like horseradish mashed potatoes, crab fried rice, and blue-cheese meatloaf along with a roster of traditional steaks and chops. (Prime rib is inexplicably only offered on Sundays.) Steaks are crusted with considerable char, moist, and satisfying. All the beef—including a 24-ounce porterhouse ($39) and cowboy rib-eye ($37)—is choice, but is treated to wet-aging, with quite tender results. Nightly prix fixe specials are a good value. Service is gang-style, which can result in some problems with pacing and communication, but, overall, the staff is knowledgeable and responsive.

Venegas Prime Filet
8191 Maple Lawn Boulevard., Fulton, 301-490-2290
Few experiences compare to the pleasure of sitting in a fine leather seat at Venegas, tucking into a $85 Wagyu steak, while Jim, a serious contender for Most Charming Waiter Ever, hovers nearby, asking if you'd like the plate reheated halfway through, so you're not eating meat that has cooled. The Howard County restaurant, which occupies a soaring and stylish space, is truly ambitious. Wines, offered by the glass or bottle, are sumptuous complements to the bacchanal of the experience. Though that Wagyu beef is eye-poppingly pricey (the meat, which is from Australia, is so pliant that it's almost baby food ), a meal here doesn't have to hit triple digits. Choose entrees such as the tournedos of filet mignon ($38), plated with garlicky shrimp and wilted spinach, maybe with a salad and glass of the soft Malbec, and you're good to go. A dessert of warm berry cobbler, with plenty of butter and brown sugar, is worth the extra bucks—and the calories.


Extras! Extras!
Side dishes you just have to order 

Chocolate Melt Cake, The Chop House
This rich cake, served warm, would be fine all by itself, but is even more indulgent with a pillow of vanilla gelato. 

Shrimp Cocktail, Sullivan’s Steakhouse
This steakhouse classic is served properly in a chilled, stemmed vessel with crushed ice, enormous shrimp, and a kicky cocktail sauce.

Fleming's Potatoes, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
The restaurant’s eponymous potatoes—a house specialty—are a luxe version of scalloped potatoes with cream, jalapeños, and cheddar.

Tuna Tartare, Morton’s The Steakhouse
The divine appetizer layers sweet raw fish with avocado and tomato and balances the richness with a sinus-clearing Thai cream sauce.

Chopped Salad, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Pier 5
This version is an assemblage of seemingly incongruent parts like mushrooms, green olives, and bacon that form an exceptionally tasty sum.

Lobster Corn Cake, The Oregon Grille
This flavorful patty, similar to a crab cake, is a moist amalgam of flavors, with just the right amount of seafood.


Steak Primer
All the terms you need to be a bona fide beefologist.
By Henry Hong

Cuts
A “steak” is generally defined as being cut perpendicular to muscle fibers. In steakhouses, however, a triumvirate of the most tender cuts usually dominate the offerings.

1. Rib-Eye (aka Delmonico): A large, roundish cut that is actually two cuts in one—the inner “eye” section is connected by a layer of fat to the surrounding “cap” portion. The eye is tender and rich, while the thin cap is prized by some as the finest cut of the cow, tender yet resilient and very flavorful.

2. Strip (aka New York or Kansas City strip): Oblong with a cap of fat along one side, strip steaks have a slightly dense texture and clean beefy flavor. They have very uniform marbling, and thus prime grading can make a big difference in this cut.

3. filet mignon (aka Tenderloin): Unlike other cuts, a filet’s texture is attributable to its lack of use rather than marbling. Thus, while it’s the most tender, it is also the leanest and mildest in flavor. Many restaurants that serve prime-grade beef will often serve choice-grade filet, as the difference is less marked.

Other Cuts: A porterhouse steak is actually a strip on one side and a filet on the other, still attached to the bone, while a T-bone is simply a porterhouse with a smallish filet portion. Prime rib is rib-eye that has been slow roasted whole and sliced. “Prime” does not indicate grade; it probably relates to the “primal” or large cut from which it is made.

Grades
Beef is graded by the USDA based primarily on marbling.

Higher amounts of marbling are associated with better moisture retention and tenderness. The focus on marbling is a primary force behind the dominance of feeding cattle grain, as the practice produces fatter animals quickly. There are eight grades in total, but the top two, prime and choice, are generally available at restaurants.

Prime: Prime has the highest amount of marbling and represents the top two percent of graded beef.

Choice: The most common grade, comprising more than half of all graded beef, choice has moderate to high marbling.

Special cases: Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner than grain fed; since USDA grading focuses on fat content, it is often left ungraded. (Grading is a voluntary procedure.) Conversely, some types of beef contain marbling surpassing  prime grade, usually as a result of a breed and feeding practices. Wagyu, sometimes referred to as Kobe beef, is an example. Wagyu is the breed, while Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan. 

Aging
Quality beef is usually either dry or wet aged. Wet aging is very popular, as it is almost a byproduct of modern meat-packing practices. In this process, the beef is sealed in plastic and aged for one or two weeks, improving tenderness. Dry aging requires beef to be hung in a climate-controlled environment for upwards of a month, and results in an appreciable loss of product due to evaporation, making it extremely expensive. But dry-aged beef is considered by many to have an unmatched complexity of flavor and a buttery, tender texture.