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The Raw and the Uncooked : Steak tartare: Getting to the meat of the matter

The other afternoon at 72 Market Street, my luncheon companion politely requested a partition. A stiff cardboard menu would do; she wanted to prop it up in the middle of our table. My plateful of crimson steak tartare was making her queasy. OK, so she was a vegetarian. OK, so my meat was rare in the most extreme possible sense.

Somehow I’d figured that raw is raw and if sushi--still quivering from its recent meeting with the executioner’s knife--is an acceptable sight, why not beef? Besides, the Filet Tartar ($22) was deliciously buttery-tasting, a slightly chewy circle of rough-chopped filet mignon, seasoned with finely-diced chives, white onions and capers.

My lateral logic didn’t take into account the cholesterol factor--that the aerobics-and-jogging set can cast one anxious glance at red meat and feel their arteries slowly gumming up. Or that steak tartare is one of those dishes, like escargots or coq au vin , that was once considered high-style and has since descended into the category of fare favored by those with grandiose ordering habits . . . circa 1972. Or that American carnivores tend to find reminders of their once-living food source repellent. They don’t want to believe that mooing cows and prime rib have any connection.

Why would anyone want to eat something that provokes such toxic reactions? In all honesty, I learned to like the stuff as the lesser of buffet table evils. Everyone knows that steak tartare has the shortest of shelf lives. So which would you choose: Withered celery stalks and crumbling cheese logs or something clean-tasting and freshly-prepared, regal in its chilled sterling silver bowl?

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A few rich daubs on a cracker, though, is a lot different than confronting the awesome meat pileup that is a steak tartare entree. In the last couple of weeks I’ve tried everything to clean my overheaped plate, from force-feeding my tablemates to requesting a Doggy Bag.

The latter solution was a dismal experiment in food waste management. My friend Jonathan and I toted home our squishy tinfoil packet, then attempted to cook the leftovers. Once in the frypan, the loose patty kept stubbornly exploding into smaller and smaller satellites. (“I know I saw a recipe for this on a Julia Child video,” my friend kept muttering nervously, trying to poke the disintegrating burger back into one piece.) A fiber meltdown occurred and no expert I’ve since polled seemed to know why--the fragment I tried had the slippery consistency of Dippity-Doo. Finally, I figured out the tidier alternative: just ask for half-portions. Because it’s made to order, no one seems to mind.

If steak tartare were a simpler food, here is where I would airily inform you of the ingredients, the precise proper balance of capers, shallots, salt and pepper. But traditionally the dish was prepared tableside, hand-chopped and seasoned while you watched, with the waiter pausing to let you sample, gauging the proportions by each customer’s taste buds.

A table service is virtually extinct, and tartare now comes pre-mixed. But the end result is still partially up to you. I always ask them to hold the anchovies, as the subtle flavor is muddied by their salty intrusion. There will also always be some mystery ingredients thrown in that you can neither request the exclusion of, nor identify. It just seems to be the way of chefs and steak tartare. For example, the carefully-guarded secret of Moulin de Mougin’s Roger Verge is two spoonfuls of . . . Heinz catsup.

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There were no ballpark condiments in evidence at The Grill, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were. Our sad-faced waiter presented me with a mushy hillock of top round, dripping with an overabundance of egg yolk. Actually, the flavor was fine, caper-heavy and topped with a feathery mound of parsley. But visually it bore a strong resemblance to a deli platter--some tomato slices, a few pieces of toasted rye, and three chartreuse pickle spears. The portion was so hearty that I could swear it kept rejuvenating itself, more springing back from where I’d just taken a forkful. ($11 at lunch; $9.25 and $18.50 at dinner.)

Given the cool haughtiness of DC 3, it only makes sense that this New Age chophouse would present its steak tartare appetizer as a spare, Zen composition ($10). On the left of the white plate sat a small, coarse-textured disc of lean filet mignon, studded only with a fistful of firm capers, microscopic flecks of parsley and some sweet, juicy Maui onions. On the right was balanced a halved ficelle , rubbed with olive oil and garlic so that every time you lifted the tartare-covered bread to your mouth the aroma tingled your nostrils. And the taste was so pleasantly light, it made you concentrate intently on chewing.

At Jimmy’s, perfectly-coiffed women disappear behind clam-sized compacts for quick makeup repair checks. The men, dressed in crisp-tailored suits, conspiratorially discuss their weight, as in “Right now, I’m 167, but I do better at 150 . . .” And both sexes give funny, little half-waves to each other from across the room. It’s a showbiz clubhouse with its own set of rules, an iced-tea-and-broiled-fish kind of place. When I requested the Le Steak Tartar Accompagne D’Asperges ($16), I felt as if I was the first person who had ever ventured into a heretofore unexplored part of the menu. The plump oval of beef tenderloin was as good as any other I’d tasted, only more elegantly constructed. It was threaded with long, delicate strands of hard-boiled egg white, dusted on top with slivered chives and accompanied by steamed asparagus (dressed with a sharp vinaigrette) and a few soft leaves of radicchio.

Part of the steak tartare ritual involves the bread upon which you spread it. With a no-nonsense name like Jimmy’s I expected something a little more substantial than the wimpy, crustless white toast we shoved aside. (Instead, we dove into the bread basket, spilling over with crackers and sourdough baguettes.)

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At Bistro Garden where the Steak Tartar ($17.50 at lunch, $19.50 at dinner) was a precise, dainty bundle of faintly salt-and-peppered filet mignon one expects Skinny-Slice toastettes. The illusion of calorielessness is what Bistro Gardens is all about; food there is supposed to look as if it can float.

But I think 72 Market Street had it all figured out. With the tartare they served sturdy planks of walnut-wheat toast: something that could withstand the moisture of the meaty concoction and something to be approved of by my vegetarian friend.

72 Market Street, 72 Market Street, Venice. (213) 392-8720.

The Grill, 9652 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills. (213) 276-0615.

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DC 3, 2800 Donald Douglas Loop North, Santa Monica. (213) 399-2323.

Jimmy’s Restaurant, 201 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. (213) 879-2394.

The Bistro Garden, 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 550-3900.

DR, J.T. STEINY

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