Suddenly Seattle is booming with beef. This year, three steakhouses opened in the city, with a fourth coming soon. Girin came first, cool and glass-walled, occupying almost an entire quarter block on the ground floor of a new apartment tower in Pioneer Square. Loft-like Seven Beef and elegant Bateau opened next, on First Hill and Capitol Hill in October. In February Flint Creek Cattle Co. will open in Greenwood.
It used to be that options for the traditional steakhouse experience were limited to carpet-floored national chains like Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, and local strongholds of conspicuous consumption—El Gaucho, Metropolitan Grill and Daniel’s Broiler. They’re still here, representing a swanky formality that’s either classic or passé, depending on your point of view.
Two years ago, a wave of artisanal seafood restaurants minted several new icons; focused on local products, places like the Walrus and the Carpenter and Westward are showrooms of local ecology as much as they are places to eat. Now Seattle’s restaurateurs are now looking to Northwest purveyors to provide locally sourced beef inside sleek, modern spaces. In the same way Seattle chefs deepened our understanding of aquaculture, they’re hoping to progress our consumption of red meat.
Seafood, especially the type native to coastal Washington, is generally considered an ecologically sound source of protein. But beef is mostly a resource-heavy ecological nightmare, with its ravenous, waste-spewing heifers crammed into sprawling lots and its less-than-ethical processing.
So how do we reconcile eating beef in 2015? Ask the minds behind the steakhouse boom and they’ll tell you it’s a matter of mindfulness.
Both Bateau’s Renee Erickson and Seven Beef’s Eric Banh are choosing grass-fed, grass-finished cows for their source of beef. These au naturale bovines grow to full-size in two years—twice as long as regular “commodity cows,” which are typically fed a corn-based diet to which they’re partly allergic, necessitating heavy antibiotics. Grass-fed cows are said to be healthier and “happier.” They’re also more ethical to eat and, objectively speaking, more delicious.
Erickson is right now raising young French heritage breeds on a Whidbey Island farm where she has an ownership stake. Banh sources quarter-carcasses from Heritage Meats, a family-run butcher 20 miles east of Olympia. Both say their connection to their cows is the prime inspiration for their newest endeavors. (Erickson also owns the Whale Wins and the Walrus and the Carpenter; Banh, Monsoon and Ba Bar.) For the first time in their decades-long careers, they have the time, money and space to control every step of the process, from birth to butchering to cooking to plating.
“This is the opportunity to be able to be proud of the beef that we get,” Banh says. “I’m sure a vegetarian would roll their eyes and say, ‘Then don’t eat meat!’ but it’s not one way or the other. It’s how you integrate and be respectful of the whole environment, whether human beings, earth or trees. It truly is a lifestyle.”
Banh expects to go through two cows a week at Seven Beef. He says only 35 percent of an 800-lb. cow becomes prime cuts like New York, ribeye and tenderloin. That leaves hundreds of pounds of lesser parts and trimmings, most of which ends up as ground beef; what to do with all that ground beef has long been a problem for restaurateurs who want to go whole-cow.
When Banh realized that up to five of the seven courses of a traditional Vietnamese beef dinner are various types of ground beef, his latest concept was born. Order the seven-course dinner at Seven Beef and you’ll be served beef salad made with eye round; la lot, ground beef wrapped in a special leaf and grilled; four types of Vietnamese beef sausage, grilled or steamed; and beef congee.
Banh insists that Seven Beef isn’t a Vietnamese steakhouse, however—it’s a Northwest steakhouse run by Vietnamese-Canadian siblings (he and his sister Sophie). The menu boasts standard cuts as well as unusual specials like zabuton, which is a hind-quarter cut famous in Japan. Everything is cooked over a wood fire—which burns through $40 of firewood a night and required an expensive ventilation system for eliminating smoke. If Banh goes through all of his prime rib for the week by Friday, it comes off the menu until the next shipment arrives.
“I wouldn’t have the nerve to open this restaurant 20 years ago,” Banh says. “People weren’t ready for it.”
Like Erickson’s other establishments, Bateau leans toward traditional French but is also deeply rooted in Northwest-grown ingredients. In its impeccable service and extensive wine list, it’s as close to fine dining as exists on Capitol Hill. The place is urbane and spare, white-on-wine walls offset by an interior window that gives a view inside the cold-storage case, wherein hulking cow quarters, butchered and raw, hang from steel hooks. Somewhere in there is a band saw used for butchering. With her space smaller and more intimate than Seven Beef’s, Erickson expects to go through a single cow a week.
“To know the environment they’re living in and that they’re cared for and healthy and to be able to sell that to your customers is pretty special,” she says.
The experience of eating steak should be, in the most fraught and privileged way, complex. And so it was during dinner at Bateau on a recent Thursday night.
Bateau’s menu is refined to maybe a dozen total options; steaks are priced according to size and degree of dry aging, and not everything was available during my visit. I ordered the 16-oz., dry-aged ribeye and my friend chose the 8 oz. New York strip.
Both were pan-seared and oven-finished and as vegetal with earthen flavors as a slice of muscle can be. Mine was exceedingly tender and, after only a few cuts, wading in its own ruddy juices. A leaner cut, the strip didn’t drip—it was almost confectionary its density, with a dollop of marrow butter elevating the overall richness.
In both cases, the taste was decadent, with hints of guilty pleasure and self-justification. It was the taste of gentrification and it has haunted me since.
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