Love me tender

The city is once again in the throes of a steakhouse obsession, writesCharley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 5:50pm


Carnevino, Mario Batali's new Italian steakhouse, has opened its doors in Central. Batali says he wants to introduce Hong Kong to the "pungent steaks that Americans love and the Chinese will dig". He may be surprised to find the style has a long history in the city.

Steak has always been an integral part of Hong Kong's culinary scene and the chef is likely to encounter a population of discerning carnivores, whose taste for red meat rivals that of New Yorkers. Not only are Western-style steakhouses thriving, the competition over exclusive beef suppliers and dry ageing has become extreme.

So, what is it that accounts for Hongkongers' insatiable appetite for steak?

There is some debate over whether the steakhouse originated in America or France. Either way, the archetypal steakhouse we know today is undoubtedly an American invention. America grew up with the beef industry and grilling meat has become a vital part of American culture.

For many Americans, such as Blue Butcher executive chef Daniel Chaney, cooking and eating steaks is their first culinary experience. "That's the first thing you do. You grill a steak with your dad. I learned to cook a steak when I was 10," says Chaney.

It was the steakhouses of Chicago and New York that gave rise to the image many have today - a dark lush interior serving slabs of meat with simple side dishes and perhaps a salad bar. These steakhouses were the habitat of rich men of influence, bankers, traders and policy makers. These were places where new clients were courted and the close of a big deal was celebrated.

Like so much else, once the steakhouse arrived on Hong Kong's shores it evolved and adapted to the tastes of the locals.

Hong Kong's traditional steakhouses now bear almost no resemblance to their Western counterparts. Goldfinch in Causeway Bay or the Golden Phoenix Restaurant in Prince Edward have become institutions on the backs of generations of Hongkongers visiting for special occasions. Goldfinch manager Sze-To Wing Hing, who started work as a busboy in 1974, remembers "people used to come here on dates, then they'd bring their children and their children would start to come here".

Traditional steakhouses serve cuts of meat vigorously tenderised (you can cut them with a fork), often served over French fries on a hot metal plate with a side of borscht. The server pours gravy over the sizzling steak and patrons shield their faces with the table cloth from the smoke and splatter.

Today, some old steakhouses are closing, under pressure from the usual suspects of rising rents and changing tastes. Says Sze-To: "It's hard to say whether the Western steakhouse trend will be good or bad for business, but I do know that when our regular customers try Western steakhouses, they always come back here."

In recent years, steakhouses with a modern twist have opened with great success.

Dining Concepts, the restaurant group behind Carnevino, already represents six separate steakhouses, including American, Argentinian and Italian concepts. Ultra-high-end steakhouses at the Intercontinental and Grand Hyatt have become fine-dining institutions, and the recent opening of Blue Butcher, a meat-centric New York-inspired restaurant in Sheung Wan, and Strip, Harlan Goldstein's new outlet, have shown just how insatiable Hong Kong's taste for meat is.

These names join an already impressive roster of steakhouses, from the French-inspired W's Entrecote to the big American names Ruth's Chris and Morton's, and the popular Aussie Wooloomooloo Prime and the Outback Steakhouse.

In these wine-conscious times, Dining Concepts' founder, Sandeep Sekhri, says it would be difficult to find a cuisine more suited to go with red wine than steak.

Despite their differences, one common denominator unites the new generation of steak restaurants. "A steakhouse must have the best meat," says gourmet Cassam Gooljarry. In fact, according to Blue Butcher founder Malcolm Wood, preparation and technique count for only 10 per cent of a good steak; the rest is the quality of the meat.

Of late, the competition between different restaurants for the best meat has been taken to extremes. The apocryphal stories about Kobe cows being fed beer and massaged are well known, but the cattle pampering doesn't end there. A line of meat Blue Butcher is preparing to debut comes from a small herd of virgin female cows that graze exclusively in a limestone canyon, meaning they grow up drinking only mineral water.

Cows are bred and manipulated to yield the richest, fattiest meats, and tastes are beginning to change. Whereas the filet mignon used to be the most sought-after cut of beef, today the king of steaks is the much fattier rib-eye.

While Japanese Kobe beef still commands the highest reputation and prices, Gooljarry insists that if you want a real steak, "I highly recommend buying meat from the US".

Steakhouses are also beginning to embrace the American tradition of dry ageing, when beef is usually hung for a few weeks at between two and four degrees Celsius.

The dry-ageing process breaks down the meat's connective tissue and intensifies and distributes the natural flavours of the beef. It makes for a more gamey, strongly flavoured steak that Americans love and Hongkongers are taking to with a passion. The smell of a drying room is sweet and meaty and something akin to a very good, mild cheese.

The highest-end steakhouses have long offered dry-aged steaks but now competition has intensified. Blue Butcher, which offers steaks aged up to six weeks, has installed a glassed-in ageing area in the middle of its restaurant. The walls of the drying chamber are lined with pink Himalayan salt, which it is claimed helps regulate the moisture of the meat and offset Hong Kong's natural humidity.

Soon diners will be able to buy a bone-in tomahawk cut and allow it to age for as long as they want.

Carnevino will offer meats aged for a whopping 200 days.

Although steak is still a special occasion meal, or in the words of Wood, "a trophy meal", more and more diners from all walks of life are enjoying steaks: families, couples on a date, or friends celebrating special occasions. "If a Chinese person wants to take someone out, they won't go for Chinese food as they have Chinese food every day. They'll come to a steakhouse," Gooljarry explains.

Wilson Kwok, the founder of W's Entrecote, says: "On occasions such as Valentine's Day and all the Western festivals and holidays, people tend to think of going to a Western restaurant, like a steakhouse, instead of an Asian one."

It seems Hongkongers are seeking simplicity. "Hong Kong people work like ants and they make hundreds of decisions a day. They like it if a restaurant serves one dish well," Kwok says.