I wrote in part two of this three-part series on American steaks ["Aging with Grace (and Science)," August 30] that steak houses don't serve USDA Prime filet because the cut is too tender. That remark provoked some mail. As it turns out, there are a few steak houses that serve USDA Prime filet mignon. And tasting one of these steaks provides me with a surprising insight into the relationship between marbling and meat quality.
I am dining with a rare bird, a Nebraska native who is not very fond of beef. "I guess I ate too many tough-as-leather steaks when I was a kid," he shrugs. My friend orders the well-marbled filet, and I get the T-bone, which was not featured on the platter. We also order a bottle of Gigondas from a very well put together wine list. The wine cellar here holds 15,000 bottles, and the list is the size of a phone book.
Like Greenbriar Chophouse, Lynn's Steakhouse is located in an office park. But here they have transformed the industrial space into something that feels like a French country inn. Grapevines and tiny white Christmas lights are strung from the walnut-stained rafters, and much of the wall space is covered with wine racks. Like all such manufactured atmospheres, it has a theme-park phoniness about it, but it's still a lot more pleasant than the faux Denny's decor at Greenbriar.
When our steaks come to the table, the waiter pulls out a flashlight and asks us to check them for doneness. We have both ordered medium rare. My friend's filet is raw in the middle, and my T-bone is overcooked, so we send them both back. The T-bone is a much thinner cut than I expected, maybe three-quarters of an inch. No wonder it wasn't on the platter with the two-inch-thick strips, the big round filets and the other recommended cuts, I think, as I give myself a mental smack on the forehead.
The side dishes at Lynn's include my two steak-house favorites, creamed spinach and crispy potatoes, both served family-style and both excellent. The crust on the sourdough is a little too soft, but we didn't come here for the bread. My friend's filet required only a few more minutes under the broiler, so the University of Nebraska grad kindly splits it with me while they start over on my T-bone. (I take back everything I ever said about Cornhuskers.)
Having spent his childhood chewing his beef until his jaws ached, my friend is ecstatic about the texture of the filet. While the filet cuts effortlessly and practically melts in your mouth, it is not my kind of steak. To my taste, this kind of mushy meat has all the appeal of steak-flavored mashed potatoes. But the quishy steak does bring up several interesting questions about highly marbled meat.
When the USDA grades beef, it is basically measuring marbling, or intramuscular fat. The fat melts and bastes the meat as it cooks, providing more flavor and tenderness. Ever since 1987, when the USDA reprioritized its grading system and the American cattle industry began feeding cattle differently in order to produce leaner beef, gourmets and steak lovers have been screaming in protest. By 1995 USDA Prime accounted for a mere 1.3 percent of fed beef.
Noting that USDA grading standards have been revised downward continuously since 1928, Jeff Steingarten of Vogue writes, "I have heard old-timers say that the fabled marbling of Japan's costly Kobe beef today looks just like a USDA Prime steak did 50 years ago. The downgrading of American meat is a major scandal, a venal conspiracy "
No doubt the USDA's standards have changed. But would a steak with "the fabled marbling of Japan's Kobe beef" actually be the ultimate in quality?
The black steer has a strange look about it. It's smaller than most beef cattle, and its ass end seems to be higher in the air than its shoulders. "That one is about seven-eighths Wagyu," rancher Don Lively tells me as we drive around his Georgetown spread in a pickup truck. Wagyu cattle are the source of Kobe beef. The Japanese have long classified the genetics of the breed as a national treasure, thereby preventing any export of cattle or semen.
In a madcap escapade, the details of which have never fully been disclosed, four Wagyu bulls were smuggled out of Japan aboard a jetliner bound for the United States in 1976. They eventually found their way to this Georgetown ranch, where they became the foundation of the North America Wagyu herds. In taste tests, beef from the American Wagyu cattle couldn't be differentiated from the Japanese variety. With Japanese Kobe beef selling for $128 a pound, the prospects of an American Wagyu herd electrified the cattle business. In 1991 The Wall Street Journal reported that the bull semen in Lively's storage shed was worth more than $2 million.