These restaurants serve up beef in a whole new way.
Think steakhouse. The mind may conjure up a Mad Men-esque tableau of dark woods, formal dress, martinis, Frank Sinatra and cigars.
This model, in the glorious tradition of meat-loving Americana, is alive and well. Is there another way to enjoy steak in a restaurant though? You bet. Here are three great examples of delicious variations on a classic Alberta meaty theme.
Photography by Ingrid Kuenzel
The Hardware Grill, Edmonton
Calgary has steakhouses. Edmonton? Not so much. Since the demise of the Steak Loft in the mid 1980s, our city cannot claim an independent steakhouse paying homage to red meat in the last century.
But don’t let that stop you. You can get a great steak in this city. The Marc turns out a top-notch Paris bistro-style steak et frites; Cibo Bistro, a toothsome bone-in bistecca Fiorentina available occasionally, and currently an 18-ounce 45-day wet aged rib-eye.
Then there’s Hardware Grill.
“Two things people ask: ‘What’s a good Canadian wine and do you have a steak?’” says Larry Stewart, owner of Hardware Grill with his wife Melinda.
Talking to Stewart about beef is like taking a short course. He has been paying attention to beef for a very long time.
‘When I was 18 years old I worked for a German guy. His philosophy was, you can’t cook on the broiler until you could cut meat. It was all dry-aged, hung for 21 to 28 days, which develops a distinctive flavour. We would love to dry age our own beef here, but right now we wet age up to four weeks,” he explains.
Hardware Grill has had various cuts on the menu over their 20 years: Wagu carpaccio, short ribs, a Kobe beef burger at lunch, flank and flat iron, filet, a really big New York (“It was popular, but we couldn’t find consistent quality,” says Stewart). Strip loin is always popular, and he estimates that half the diners ordering strip loin are women.
“Our number one menu item is the sea bass, number two is steak. Steaks sells all the time, but prices from the suppliers go up in the summer,” he says.
Modern Steak, Calgary
Walk into Modern Steak in the former Muse space in Kensington. You’ll find casually dressed servers, energetic music, a welcoming lounge space and more formal dining upstairs. After 10:00 p.m., it’s a party. What is going on here?
“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says owner Stephen Deere. “But we are reinterpreting it with our menu and the atmosphere. We want our guests to come as they are, dress as they wish.”
The focus is the beef. Modern works with several southern Alberta ranchers to access the beef they desire: Brant Lake for Wagyu; Pine Haven for grassfed strip loins and filets; Ben’s Beef for both dry and wet-aged Angus beef.
“We buy smaller cattle because we want a three to four inch rib-eye that is at least an inch thick. Our burger is 50 per cent Wagyu trim, and 50 per cent dry-aged rib-eye Angus,” he says.
Modern’s menu straddles old school and new wave with oysters, Caesar and wedge salads, surf and turf, various potato and vegetable sides, sloppy joe’s, braised short ribs, spring rolls and their knock-out tartare bar.
“Our tartare bar was born out of necessity, we had so much filet trim to use up. Now it’s so popular we bring in whole loins just for tartare,” Deere says.
The menu is informative, discussing cuts of beef, their recommended done-ness and the all-important Steak Ordering Guide.
“No one says I’m going to whip up some confit duck tonight, but everybody in Calgary thinks they know steak. We have found that not to be true. Most people can’t tell a rib eye from a strip loin from a filet. We needed to put that information on the menu to help people have a great experience,” Deere explains.
“We have tried to sell lamb and pork or veal. Our customer wants steak.”
Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, Edmonton and Calgary
You won’t find a strip loin on the menu at Pampa. You won’t find what North Americans regard as a steak at all at Pampa. What you will find is a new way to enjoy various cuts of beef (and pork and chicken) served tableside from large skewers.
The wide-open spaces and grasslands of the pampa of southern Brazil look like Canadian prairie. The cowboys (gauchos) tending cattle on the pampa cooked their meats on large skewers over open fires. This style of cooking, called churrasco, became the classic Brazilian steakhouse experience.
Owners Oscar Lopez and João Dachery made a promise to themselves that they would create an experience similar to what you could have in São Paulo or Rio.
“We decided to bring an authentic grill from Brazil, and cook the local meats churrasco-style. The beef we buy here is Angus. In Brazil the popular cattle for grazing in the south is the Brangus (5/8 Angus and 3/8 Brahman). The way we season and prep the meats, and the flavour profiles of the desserts and salads, are Brazilian,” they explain.
Consider the rump, lean with a large fat cap, not considered a prime cut in Canada. In Brazil, however, it’s more expensive than filet because it’s ideal for churrasco. During the slow cooking process over hardwood lump charcoal at Pampa, the meat bastes in the large fat cap, creating tenderness and flavour.
As servers roam the dining room with appetizing-looking skewers, diners signal by way of an individual disc, green on one side for more please and red on the other for enough! It’s a fun and interactive way to dine, especially after a few caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail.
“We hope with our restaurant we can bring the flavour of Brazil’s culture here. Life there is more communal; we’ll make one large caipirinha and share it. There is a nice sense of neighbourliness and friendliness,” they say.