Steaking a claim

Food writers and restaurateurs have been saying for years now that beef is back. The stock boom of the ’90s put lots of disposable income in the pockets of the topmost 20 percent of the population; that prompted many of those lucky ones to adopt an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” spending pattern, all to the benefit of steakhouses.

At the same time, baby boomers either abandoned their previous fascination with fitness — or they latched on to new, more gratifying theories of what’s healthy: fat good, carbs bad.

The economy’s no longer in shape, but local corporate restaurateur par excellence Matt Prentice is betting that there are still enough high rollers around to keep a pricey new steakhouse in business. Since its Oct. 10 opening, satisfied customers like those at Prentice’s other upscale Unique Restaurant Corporation ventures (Morels, Duet, No. VI) are filling the seats at Shiraz.

They’ll find steaks of one grade only — prime, the most expensive and fattiest — plus beef in other forms, like short ribs, veal chops and calf’s liver, and lots of lobster. Chicken with french fries is $18, and it goes up from there, to $39 for a porterhouse or $20 per pound for a live lobster.

What they won’t find is dry-aged beef, which some, though not all, steak connoisseurs consider the most superb. I received an interesting lesson in why not from corporate chef Jim Barnett.

In dry aging, the beef is hung, unwrapped, in a cold locker for two to four weeks. The connective tissue deteriorates, which makes the beef more tender, but moisture also evaporates, leaving both a firmer texture and a more concentrated flavor. A green mold develops on the outside, Barnett explained, which is (of course) cut away. That and the shrinkage means there’s less beef to sell.

Wet-aged beef, used at Shiraz, is held in plastic for four to five weeks. Less moisture is lost with this method. Barnett prefers dry-aged beef himself, because of the more intense flavor; “it’s a different beast,” he says. But if a customer orders his dry-aged steak medium-well or well-done, Barnett says, “it comes out like beef jerky.” Even though only a quarter or so of customers fall into this incomprehensible category, economics dictates that they rule.

However they’re aged, it’s hard to find fault with the steaks at Shiraz. I say this in particular about the 20-ounce porterhouse, which serves two easily. That rich, primal flavor is why America maintains a beef addiction, each of us averaging more than 60 pounds a year. (OK, a lot of that is purchased under the golden arches.) It comes with a choice of sauces: port wine veal essence, béarnaise, morel, horseradish cream or Detroit zip. The hearty port sauce complements the flavorful steak perfectly.

The filet mignon is less flavorful but more tender, and I liked it with a very thyme-y béarnaise.

Short ribs are also prime beef, and my companion was enthusiastic, though I thought they were a bit too much like pot roast. Some specials include a melt-in-your-mouth lamb loin, rare and arranged in a circle of bite-sized medallions, and caramelized salmon. The latter could have done without the splotches of blueberry oil (I’d been warned), and the accompanying crab-asparagus risotto was on the bland side.

The entrées are served with a vegetable, but if you want anything else, you’ll have to pay extra: whipped potatoes for $3, fries or baked for $4 (that latter has to be the biggest markup, percentage-wise, since bottled water). I found all the sides and appetizers (mostly seafood) to be perfectly prepared, especially a pale green, slightly sweet asparagus bisque, suitable for a vegetarian who’s been shanghaied along.

Shiraz features a selection of mushroom dishes, which is not surprising given that it shares a prep kitchen with its neighbor Morels. The wild mushroom sauté with morel sauce, sweet and smoky, drew raves from our party, even the men.

The restaurant takes its name from its featured family of wines, syrahs and shirazes. Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls shiraz “an all-purpose wine, more of a chameleon,” that falls between pinots and cabernets in intensity. I’ll vouch for the RockBare shiraz from South Australia, $7 the glass, $30 the bottle.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].