Several decades ago I was the wine steward for a swank and bustling Boston steakhouse.
How swank? In addition to routinely recommending and serving $200 wines all night, after dinner I used to go around the tables with a selection of twenty-dollar cigars and ceremoniously clip and light them for the guests. Though public smoking is no longer permitted, this revered bastion of the Back Bay has survived COVID and is still going strong. And it is significantly pricier than when I worked there… here’s what a celebratory feast for two might cost at their current prices.
Let’s say a couple excitedly gets dressed to the nines and travels in from the suburbs for a Valentine’s Day date. As befits the elegance of their attire and the occasion, they begin their evening with two of the signature house martinis, served shimmering cold in oversized glasses. They sip these with a half-dozen raw oysters and a shrimp cocktail. They share a house salad, and then comes filet mignon for the lady and a ribeye for the gent, along with a shared side of asparagus. With this main course, they enjoy the cheapest half-bottle of Champagne on the award-winning wine list. Having foregone all available carbs thus far, for dessert our couple indulges in a shared slice of the famous and exquisite Chocolate Layer Cake. Their total tab for food and drink? A cool three hundred bucks before tax, tip, and transportation. The whole evening will likely run them close to four hundred… more if they have a babysitter to compensate.
I estimate that anyone with halfway decent kitchen chops could closely replicate this roster of food and drink for perhaps one-quarter of that price. (For me the hardest part would be the cake… which I could certainly outsource and still keep comfortably within my budget.) So where does the extra $$$ go?
Whether a fancy steakhouse or a humble diner, restaurants are just plain expensive to operate— rent, utilities, ingredients, and payroll must all be covered by the profit margin, with enough left over to incentivize continued operation. And why are we willing to so generously keep them in business? For several different reasons.
Some high-powered big-city professionals— like, say, the heart surgeons and fund managers whom we regularly fed— actually find it cost-effective to dine out rather than shorten their highly remunerative workday to shop and cook. For others, like our hypothetical Valentine’s couple, spending big money on a big night out can be a self-fulfilling romantic adventure, the magnitude of the evening’s enjoyment a direct function of its price tag. Other customers might treasure the ritual of gathering in public with loved ones, happy to pay the restaurant tariff in order to enjoy uninterrupted time with their tribe instead of cooking and doing dishes. And finally, some people simply hate to cook, or at least consider it a tedious chore.
I sympathize— albeit to a limited degree— with those whose kitchens are their least favorite rooms. Indeed, I’ve known otherwise rational people who literally eat every meal away from home. But make no mistake— restaurants are lousy places to enjoy great food and wine. Fortunately, however, it is easier than ever to shop for good ingredients and make healthy and delicious food at home no matter what one’s skill level.
Let’s say we want to replicate at home that couple’s big night out in the swanky steakhouse.
Try as bartenders might to make it appear otherwise, there is nothing magical about making a great martini— simply mix quality gin or vodka with a few molecules of dry vermouth, keeping the liquids as cold as possible throughout the process. (“Shaken or stirred?” That this is even a question suggests that it doesn’t really matter that much.) So… just watch a professional bartender make a martini, and then acquire the necessary glassware and bar equipment for doing it yourself. Pro-tip: keep the booze in the fridge and the glasses in the freezer for a spell before using.
(As for the Champagne, please see our in-depth essay on the topic.)
Most any decent fish market will carry live oysters. Invest in an oyster knife and have someone at the fish counter show you how to use it without impaling your own hand. My bride and I often sidestep this point, steaming them open and eating them warm and drizzled with melted French butter. If you are, like most, having them raw, a squeeze of lemon is a good enough accompaniment, but I recommend making classic mignonette sauce, a simple preparation of sherry vinegar, cracked pepper, and chopped shallots.
When buying shrimp, you need to be particularly vigilant about its origins. A lot of restaurants use inexpensive Asian “tiger” shrimp that are often farmed in unhealthy conditions, i.e., raw sewage. Look instead for wild-caught gulf shrimp from American firms, processed without chemicals. Getting them pre-cooked saves you the trouble of peeling, de-veining, and properly cooking them; getting them raw gives you some shells for making a fabulous stock for later use in, say, bouillabaisse or gumbo. Cocktail sauce is easy to come by… no need to make your own, but you can easily doctor a commercial product to your liking with lemon juice or additional horseradish.
(Not all farmed seafood is patently evil; some aqua farms are diligently run to high and healthy standards. Just do your homework and shop carefully, particularly for farmed salmon. There are plenty of excellent, ethically-farmed options available.)
If you can’t prepare a freakin’ salad, then maybe you SHOULD be eating in restaurants all the time. But if you can, this is an opportunity to make a vinaigrette with higher-quality olive oil than you will ever encounter in a restaurant. Organic greens are worth the money for their superior flavor. For best results, invest in a salad spinner and get your greens thoroughly dry by refrigerating them between layers of paper towels.
Which brings us to the steaks. Most retail beef (supermarket OR restaurant) is crap… raised in sickeningly squalid conditions emitting an eye-searing stench detectable ten miles away. The poor doomed animals are packed tightly in pens and dosed heavily with antibiotics to keep them alive as they stand a foot or two deep in their own feces. Though they’ve spent a few months eating grasses out in the open, they are “finished” (in more ways than one) on a diet of corn that cattle are biologically incapable of properly digesting. (It fattens them quickly, albeit with especially heart-unhealthy lard.) These poor suffering beasts are typically slaughtered at eleven months… in part to rush them to market, but also, perhaps, because few of them would actually survive such abusive treatment until their first birthday.
And yet despair ye not, for truly great beef is readily available online. My favorite cyber-sources for high-quality, ethically-raised, and utterly delicious meats are MEAT ’N’ BONE, HOLY GRAIL STEAK COMPANY, and SNAKE RIVER FARMS. All three of these suppliers (and several others) can provide you with better, healthier, and tastier meat than you will EVER see in a restaurant, and for less money. I am particularly fond of Holy Grail’s Grass-Fed Prime portfolio, Meat ’n’ Bone’s Wagyu-Angus crossbreed Ribeye, and Snake River’s roasts.
(Wagyu is the breed responsible for Japan’s super-deluxe Kobe beef and is known for its way-higher-than-prime fat content. American-raised Wagyu has only recently become widely available. Prime-Grade American Angus beef has long been the go-to, high-quality domestic option and costs barely half as much as American Wagyu.)
Steakhouses usually sear their steaks in 1000+ degree infrared ovens, but you can achieve a similarly delicious char with a simple iron frying pan. Rather than buying a new one— which will usually come, inexplicably, with a roughly-textured surface— I recommend scrounging garage sales and junk shops for a vintage version seasoned by generations of use to slick blackness. Just give it a thorough but gentle cleaning and cook with it a few times to get a feel for it.
Thaw your steaks (tenderloin, ribeye, NY strip, or other) the day before. Pat them dry, dust lightly with kosher salt and pepper, and let them sit for a few hours in the fridge, preferably on a rack that affords all-around air circulation. This process will contribute to a fabulous, steakhouse-like crust.
To cook them, preheat your oven to 350º. Set your exhaust fan on high and heat up some grape-seed oil in your iron pan. Sear the steaks on one side and then flip them. Sear the other side briefly, then transfer the pan to the oven until the steaks are done, as indicated on the instant-read digital thermometer you’ll need to buy. (125º for rare, 135º for medium, give or take a few; I like’em right at 130º.) Pro-tip: to spend more quality time at the dinner table and less at the stove, you can sear the steaks ahead of time and then finish them in the oven to order.
As for the dessert— yes, it would be easy to buy a slice or two of cake at an upscale bakery (gluten-free or not) for significantly less than the restaurant price. Or you can bake it yourself. If you’re not already into baking, preparing a chocolate cake can be messy and time-consuming. However, an equally decadent chocolate mousse is relatively easy to make without turning your kitchen into Chernobyl. The recipe from Julia Child’s last great opus (THE WAY TO COOK, 1989) differs from her previous versions and is by far my personal favorite. However, this recipe seems impossible to find in cyberspace, as my searches find only her older recipes. So I’ve ordered the book and I’ll add her newer recipe in the comment section when it arrives. In the meantime, I’ve found this recipe, which is nearly identical.
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The high-end steakhouse vs. home cooking comparison is but one of many possible scenarios that illustrates a smarter way to eat. While it is not a universally applicable template (e.g., I would never try to make, say, Thai or Indian food at home) it is certainly worth considering exactly where your food dollars go and how they might go farther… all while paying closer attention to exactly what we are putting into our bodies.
Although our hypothetical couple opted for Champagne, America’s lush and ripe west coast reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and others) pair especially well with charred steak. This is a perfect example of what makes a great wine & food pairing— a mixture of similarities and contrasts. The similarity is in the equal intensity of the powerful flavors, each incapable of overpowering the other. The contrast is in the tension between the intense and luscious fruit flavors of the wine and the delightful bitterness imparted by the charred edges of the steak. Each brings the other into sharper focus.
If you want to raise your home-cooked steak game to the complete swanky steakhouse level, consider investing in an Otto Grill. (You will need to operate it outdoors, as it is powered by propane.) The Otto Grill features gas-fired infra-red elements that reach 1500 degrees and give your steak a full steakhouse char in mere minutes.
And finally, if you insist on a sauce with your steak- especially filet mignon- try this quick and easy take on classic Sauce Bordelaise—
Red Wine, two good glasses
1 or 2 Shallots, finely chopped
1-2 Cloves of Garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon Demi-Glace Gold®
1/2 teaspoon Better than Bouillon®
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Briefly cook shallots in just enough butter. Add garlic and cook a little more. Add wine and slowly simmer until half gone. Add demi-glace and Better Than Bouillon®. Add pepper to taste and stir in a little butter before serving. Strain, or leave it chunky.
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