leave your inhibitions at the door
I know I’m in the minority here, but I’ve never made a big deal out of birthdays. It was only a few years ago that I made it a point to go out for a really nice dinner, but that was mostly for having something to blog about.
This year we went out for what I think an overwhelming majority of people consider the ultimate special birthday meal – dinner at a steakhouse. I think I get the attraction – fancy white tablecloths, rich mahogany woodwork, dimly lit, and eating what’s a total luxury item.
Here in Ann Arbor, that place is The Chop House. If you ask people around here for where you can go for a great dinner, most people will direct you here because it’s a) a steakhouse and b) the person celebrating their birthday gets their meal for free.
What We Ate
We started with an order of their Spicy Moroccan Shrimp
…and the Grilled Romaine Salad
Boom Boom ordered the filet mignon (no pic, sorry) and I went with the Cowboy Steak – a big bone-in ribeye, their signature dish.
Potatoes au gratin
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
All accompanied by a 2012 Frank Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Overall, not that special. The shrimp appetizer was very tasty, though it tasted suspiciously like hot wings. (Maybe Buffalo is in Morocco?!?) The salad was good, but how hard was that? The steaks were both prepared correctly and the cuts were of good quality. Not sure they were aged that long, but mine was very juicy. The sprouts were lifeless, bolstered by a sauce whose saltiness could only be exceeded by that of the au gratin potatoes. The wine was excellent and classic Napa cab – fruit forward, strong tannins, but very well balanced.
During the meal and even up until now, I kept thinking, “I can make this.” There are so many guys who don’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley that can fire up the grill and make a perfectly executed steak. It’s not hard at all. You can even make a perfect steak from a frozen cut of meat indoors.
When I go out to eat, I prefer to eat something I don’t have the ability or patience to make myself. I don’t have the skill or equipment to make ultra delicate sauces and sous vide lamb chops. Dishes with 143 exotic ingredients or curries that stink up the house fall in the “no patience” category. But farm-to-table and rustic Italian I can do with my eyes closed. So why would I pay all that extra money to someone else who more than half the time doesn’t do as good a job as me?
Which brings me to the big, giant elephant in the room when it comes to steakhouses – the colossal bill. Even with my birthday discount, dinner for two (including tip) came out to $270. The wine we chose was $106, which was probably overpriced. But even if we went with the cheapest one, our meal still would’ve been north of $200 with the discount. My cowboy steak alone was $56 and I know I can easily get the same grass-fed, Prime quality, cut for half the price.
Some people like the idea of someone else doing the cooking and cleaning. But again, how much effort is there in steak? As for dishes, you can buy new ones and throw them away instead of cleaning them.
And still come out on top.
Is it a holdover from days gone by? Half a century ago a steakhouse was the gold standard for restaurants. But that was also the era that considered Italian cuisine as exotic or the food of swarthy immigrants. I heard Jacques Pepin recently say that when he first came to America, the only way to get mushrooms was in a can.
Times have changed. The produce sections of the crappiest grocery stores have pomegranates, ginger, and even lemongrass. So imagine what the restaurants can get. As for cuisines, not only can we get dishes from around the world, we’re FUSING them and coming up with new styles and techniques.
Maybe it was because meat was harder to come by, therefore a steak dinner was reserved for the most special of occasions? But the industrialization of beef and the interstate system has made it pretty easy to get. And old school butchers will tell you that steaks back in the day were aged a long time and even the ones in restaurants these days aren’t aged as well. So exactly how good is that $50 steak?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person you’d call a cheapskate. I’m just trying to understand the allure.
What do you think? Are steakhouses still the epitome of fine dining? What’s your “special” meal?