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The drab industrial decor at Greenbriar Chophouse blends in perfectly with its office-building location next door to Kinko's, but it doesn't inspire much confidence in the steaks. Neither do the waiter's answers to my questions.
"Are the steaks USDA Prime?" I ask.
"Yes, they are all prime steaks, the very highest quality available," he says. He has an odd, disengaged way of speaking, as if he were talking to the wall just behind my head.
18-ounce T-bone: $24
18-ounce bone-in rib eye: $22
Eight-ounce filet: $19
"That's not what I asked. Are they USDA Prime?" I repeat.
"Yes, sir," he says.
"All of them?" I ask.
"Absolutely," he says.
"Even the filet?" I persist.
"Yes, sir," he says.
I conclude the waiter is either lying or clueless. Nobody serves USDA Prime filet anymore. It's practically impossible to come by, and not really all that desirable anyway. Only about 2 percent of beef makes the USDA Prime grade, and meat packers can make much more money by including the tenderloin (from which the filet comes) in T-bone and porterhouse cuts. Besides, a USDA Prime filet would be so tender it'd taste downright mushy.
I've been using this trick question for many years to gauge the scruples of steak houses and the training of the waitstaff. It may sound cynical, but I have learned the hard way that it's easy to get burned in a steak house. Employees are sometimes taught to play word games when customers ask about meat grades. The misleading statement "All of our steaks are prime" seems to answer the question, but in reality it means little more than "All of our steaks are just swell."
If your waitperson says something like "The porterhouse, strip, rib eye and T-bone are USDA Prime, and the filet is Black Angus," he probably knows his stuff. In which case you can proceed to the next question: "How is the meat aged?"
Dry-aging is the old-fashioned process. In this process, carcasses are hung for up to five weeks in a cool, well-ventilated meat locker at 85 percent relative humidity. During aging, natural enzymes break down proteins in the muscle fibers, resulting in improved tenderness. The meat also acquires a unique flavor. But dry-aging is costly, as the meat loses something like 6 percent of its weight every week.
In the last 20 years, wet-aging has replaced dry-aging. In wet-aging, the meat is simply sealed in Cryovac and set aside for a while. The same enzymes break down the same proteins, but without any loss in weight. Wet-aged steaks are often just as tender, and because they retain more water, they're juicer than dry-aged steaks. But when the steaks are sampled side by side, most people describe the taste of wet-aged steaks as "bloody" or "metallic," compared to the "dry" and "nutty" flavor of dry-aged beef.
The T-bone at Greenbriar Chophouse turns out to be simultaneously nutty and juicy. Owner Robert Martinez explains the pleasant paradox when I call him the next day. Martinez acknowledges that the filets at Greenbriar are not USDA Prime, and he apologizes for his waiter's misstatements. "I'm going to have to have a talk with the staff," he says.
"The rest of our steaks are USDA Prime. The meat is dry-aged for 30 days and then marinated and sealed in a Cryovac bag for an additional 15 days of wet-aging," Martinez tells me. I had never heard of both dry- and wet-aging before, but it's a clever idea. After picking up that nutty flavor during 30 days of dry-aging, the meat is sealed with a marinade containing salt and other spices. "The meat reabsorbs the liquid," according to Martinez. It becomes juicier, without the bloody taste, and absorbs the salt and spices deep into the steak.
The dry-wet aging technique used by Martinez's butcher in Nebraska is one of many innovations hitting the beef business lately. Consumer complaints about declining quality in the high-end steak market have triggered a push for higher standards. This is a major change in the cattle industry.
At the 1996 National Cattlemen's Beef Association convention in San Antonio, cattlemen were shell-shocked by the public's continuing aversion to beef. "According to the latest consumer research, 56 percent of Americans say they are eating less red meat," past president Bob Drake told attendees. "We simply must unite in our efforts to regain market share and improve our profit opportunities." Producing leaner beef was their focus at that time. It was also the focus of the USDA, which had changed the name of its USDA Good, the third grade after Prime and Choice, to USDA Select. (See "A Matter of Fat," August 2.)
The change in philosophy brought on a change in ranching techniques. To produce more USDA Select to meet consumer demand for leaner meat, ranchers began to feed their cattle differently. "We felt the [USDA] changes were positive," says Dr. Dan Hale, extension meat specialist at the Texas A&M Meat Science Center. "But they brought on the demise of the higher grades of beef -- well, not directly, but the demand for leaner beef put pressure on cattlemen."
So, I ask Hale, if a simple diet alteration created more Select cuts, why couldn't cattlemen simply switch back to old feeding styles to produce more USDA Prime?
Things aren't quite that simple, the Aggie scientist explains. "Cattle breeding has been leaning away from the Prime tendency," Hale says. Hereford and Angus, which are prone to high marbling, have been crossed with leaner European cart-oxen strains like Limousin and Charolais to reduce the fat. The nation's cattle now have a leaner genetic makeup, and that's not something you can change overnight.
But Hale rejects the notion that a USDA grade accurately measures the quality of beef. They measure quality meat by three "palatability attributes" -- tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Those may not sound like scientific terms to you, but they are to the scientists at A&M. And what they have concluded, after countless studies, is that tenderness is the key to quality. The A&M Meat Science Center's quest is to find the holy grail of beef -- meat that is both high in quality and low in fat.
I had always assumed that marbling ensured tenderness. But in tests employing both objective instruments and human taste testers, scientists have proved that marbling is not a reliable indicator. Other factors, including genetics and the animal's stress level, both during its lifetime and at the time of slaughter, have an effect on tenderness that is not apparent to the eye of the grader or the consumer.
It also has been discovered that tenderness can be enhanced after the slaughter. Calcium-chloride injections speed up aging, as does high-voltage electrical stimulation. It is conceivable that through high-tech methods, lean beef could be rendered as soft and buttery as USDA Prime used to be.
Charlie Bradbury, chief executive of Beefmaster Cattlemen LP in Huntsville, is one of the high-tech pioneers. He heads up a project for Beefmaster Breeders United, an organization that promotes Beefmaster cattle, a breed of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman that's native to South Texas. The cattle are slaughtered at a plant in Corpus Christi, where the sides of beef are then shocked with 400 volts and evaluated with a digital apparatus called the BeefCam, which rates the color of the rib eye and gives the beef a tenderness score. The top scorers qualify for Beefmaster's premium label, which they have contracted Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to help pitch. Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef brand can now be found at Houston grocery stores.
Ryan's beef does not carry a USDA grade, and meat experts are betting that consumers won't care. "Improving palatability is the point," Hale says. That's why meat scientists in Texas are now more focused on reducing animal stress, isolating the "tenderness genes" through DNA testing, and using electric shock and chemicals to accelerate aging than they are on USDA grades.
It's easy to see that while dry-aging holds nostalgic appeal, it probably won't be making a comeback anytime soon. It's more likely that scientists will find a chemical or a high-tech treatment that imparts the same nutty flavor without the loss of weight. The dry-wet aging process used at Greenbriar Chophouse has already started down this path.
On my second visit to Greenbriar, I got the same waiter. I asked him if all the steaks were USDA Prime. Yes, he assured me, all of them were prime. Had Martinez forgotten to talk to the staff, or was this company policy all along? I ordered the bone-in rib eye.
My steaks came with a puny skewer of grilled vegetables and some mashed sweet potatoes. The sides were okay, but I dreamed of crispy potatoes and creamed spinach. Five little cups of "signature sauces" also were served with my rib eye (they're served, in fact, with every steak): béarnaise, Creole mustard demi-glace, peppercorn cream, raspberry port demi-glace and zinfandel mushroom sauce. The sauces were fine, but in the dimly lit dining room, it was impossible to keep them straight. I ended up dunking a bite in a mystery sauce and wondering what I was tasting. I poured a dollop of béarnaise on my plate and called it a day.
The rib eye was slicker and bloodier than the T-bone had been. Perhaps it came from a different butcher or was aged differently. Clearly there was no point in asking the waiter about it. The sad fact is that while Greenbriar pioneers a new concept in aging, the waitstaff -- or, at the very least, my waiter -- remains ignorant of it. Combine that with a dull atmosphere and lackluster side dishes, and you have a second-tier steak house at best.
You'd think that quality meat would be the sole criterion by which to judge a steak house, but Greenbriar Chophouse proves that isn't always the case. The place lacks personality; eating steaks there is boring, no matter how good they are. Maybe the A&M Meat Science Center needs to add atmosphere to its palatability attributes.