Dry-aged beef being a meaty trend at San Diego steakhouses. But could I handle its funky reputation?
This might be a first: I was disappointed that my food wasn’t too funky.
In February, I joined the in-house butchering team at the Gaslamp Quarter’s Lou & Mickey’s, led by executive chef Nathan Mantyla, on a quest to compare the flavor and texture of beef that’s been dry-aged for 30, 45 and 60 days.
Dry-aged beef is one of the meatiest trends at San Diego steakhouses today, with the costly, tender and beefier steaks considered to be a premium experience. It’s a rarity that a restaurant has the resources to invest in its own dry-aging room; among the few places in town to have one are Little Italy’s Born & Raised, Sycuan Casino Resort’s new Bull and Bourbon steakhouse and Barona Resort & Casino’s Barona Oaks Steakhouse.
For meat eaters, dry-aged beef is supposed to be a foray into funkitude. Akin to pungent, washed-rind French cheeses (we’re holding our noses at you, Époisses de Bourgogne) that have a brine-induced bacteria-laden outer coating, what gives dry-aged beef its signature scent is the nasty-sounding moldy crust that forms on the exterior during the aging process. Essentially, the meat is decomposing.
Yes, actually. Dry aging in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room draws moisture from the beef and breaks down the meat’s collagen, leaving it more tender and with a more concentrated flavor. The fat only gets richer. And that fungal crust? Forget the unappetizing images in your head: It’s cut off before cooking.
Yet, the rap on dry-aged beef smelling like a barnyard or dirty gym socks persists. One friend loves to tell the story of being in a private dining room at a steakhouse when his party became overcome with stank after six people were served their dry-aged steaks.
Because of its cost, I haven’t had that much dry-aged beef, but I’d certainly remember an awful olfactory experience like that. So it was with a little trepidation that I accepted Lou & Mickey’s invitation to taste and compare cuts at various stages in the aging process.
I steeled myself for full-on funk. But, sniff sniff, my dread wasn’t warranted. Here’s how my tasting went, from one pleasant smelling visit to the next, including some standout starters, sides and desserts.
Time to “tag” my steak — that is, attach a tag with my name on it to a massive slab of bone-in ribeye. From that, my steaks would be cut. Mantyla gives me a tour of Lou & Mickey’s newly built, pink Himalayan salt-lined dry-aging room. There, Washington State Double R Ranch porterhouse, T-bone, bone-in ribeye and bone-in New York “primals,” or sections, hang out at temperatures set around freezing, and between 75 percent to 85 percent humidity, for 30, 45 and 60 days. (Steaks are cut to order by one of the restaurant’s three in-house butchers.) The dry-aging room is carved into the dining room but only accessible through the kitchen. It looks — and smells — pristine. Nothing like my Uncle Tony’s old-style Bronx butcher shop, with the sawdust on the floor to absorb the blood and who knows what else. I don’t get aroma of popcorn, nuts or butter like I’m told I would. I just get clean and cold, a little science lab-like.
A table facing the dry-aging room was the perfect setting for my first tasting. After my initial shock at the sheer size of my medium rare steak, I leaned in and breathed in. Nothing but beefy goodness. The only hint of dry-aged earthiness I detect is in the first bite, from an end piece. It’s so mild and fleeting, in fact, that I begin to think I might have imagined it.
Meal highlights: Soul-satisfying braised meatballs stuffed with Gouda and topped with a savory brown gravy; tender, nutty roasted butternut squash; a bright-as-sunshine King’s Key Lime Pie. (Lou & Mickey’s is part of the King’s Seafood Company, of Water Grill and King’s Fish House fame.)
The trip to funkytown is still on hold. Like its younger 30-day dry-aged ribeye, the 45-day beef has the most earthy flavor in the end pieces, but it doesn’t smell or taste particularly funky. But I can tell the difference in how much more tender the meat is and how concentrated the slightly nutty beef flavor has become. And — scoff, if you must — the steak’s unctuously rich, lightly crisped fat was required eating.
Meal highlights: A brimming tower of fresh seafood; gooey-good mac and cheese; the Rosen’s New York Style Cheesecake, which is light, creamy and not too sweet. Tastes like New York, even if though it’s from Petaluma. Frank Sinatra was a big fan, but don’t hold that against it.
Last chance to find the funk. My sliced, perfectly medium rare 60-day steak comes to the table with a surprising char on the exterior. I wondered if it was burned mold crust but our waiter reminds me that the fungal coating is sliced off before cooking. The explanation is simple: in the dry-aging process, the steak shrinks down from losing its water weight but the fat remains; there’s actually more fat by proportion. And as the fat becomes more concentrated, it’s burns more readily. The steak has perceptible dry-age musky notes and tastes moderately gamey. It’s closer to the funky stage, but in an appealing way.
Meal highlights: The salt-crusted baked potato is one of the best versions of this steakhouse classic in town; the Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake, when heated up, is a fudgey delight.
My leftovers smelled — finally! — a little funky. It wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to get a whiff of in the fridge first thing in the morning, but by lunch, I was up for its potent meatiness.
I’m a Goldilocks kind of fan of dry-aged steak — the 30-day steak was a little too mild; the 60 day, perhaps a little too pungent. For me, the 45-day dry-aged ribeye was just right.
Lou & Mickey’s
Address: 224 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter.
Phone: (619) 237-4900