Nobody has to encourage me to order the rib-eye. And it's not about making a statement. ("Women order a steak to show they're one of the guys, and they don't have "food issues,'" per the Times.) It's because I love the texture, the taste of minerals and iron, the juicy bloodiness, the melting fat in short, everything there is to love about a wonderful hunk of meat. After consuming a fabulous slab of beef, I'm suffused with a sense of well-being.
Steak is having one of its moments right now: A huge rib-eye, in fact, recently graced the cover of Saveur, with an article inside highlighting nine great steakhouses. Food & Wine ran a "Best Beef" article earlier this year, with a sidebar on how to read a steakhouse menu. Even the August issue of Men's Journal has a six-page spread about meat, with two pages on steak alone. New York is still steakhouse central, with literally dozens of places, old and new, vying for the carnivore's dollar, from the venerable Peter Luger to the new BLT Steak not bacon, lettuce, and tomato, but Bistro Laurent Tourondel. Los Angeles' old favorites, such as the Pacific Dining Car and Dan Tana's, have recently been joined by such trendy destinations as Mastro's, the Lodge, and Wolfgang Puck's newest, the blindingly expensive Cut.
San Francisco, however, does not appear to be jumping on the new red-meat express. Sure, the Westfield Centre does boast the Lark Creek Steakhouse, but my fondest memory from a couple of meals there remains a panna cotta topped with caramel sauce and malted milk balls. Tom Colicchio gave S.F. a branch of his sandwich stand, 'Wichcraft, while Las Vegas got a Craftsteak and L.A. got a branch of the upscale Craft (thanks, Tom!).
The biggest scandal, from my point of view, is the disappearance of dry-aged beef. Most places that age their beef do wet aging in Cryovac, which reduces shrinkage but, in my opinion, doesn't allow the meat to achieve the heights of flavor and tenderness that dry aging does. I've been known to wish that Cryovac had never been invented.
Acting on a tip about their dry-aged prime meat, I showed up late one night, alone, at a steakhouse called Bobo's on Lombard. It occupies a small stand-alone building in front of a Travelodge, with the welcome and infrequent offer of free valet parking. The entrance was in the throes of renovation: I stepped through a frame of raw wood into a crowded little foyer, with a confusion of awkward rooms beyond it. The fussy décor was vaguely Venetian, vaguely reddish whorehouse, with tacky puppets that turned out to be boboquivaris court jesters. I was led to a singularly uncomfortable, high little table tucked in what little space was left over from a U-shaped bar. I felt close enough to touch the bar's noisy patrons, and I was more than close enough to be party to their every verbal sally. The view across the street was of another uninspiring motel.
And then my steak came and I forgot all of the above. I'd ordered the rarely seen bone-in filet mignon (even the menu warns "when available"), charred rare, and it was one superb piece of meat. I sliced through its seared crust and buttery flesh with avidity, each tender bite making me hungry for more. I sipped a Manhattan; the smokiness and the sweetness of the drink rhymed with the smokiness and sweetness of the meat. This was the best steak I'd had in a long time.
I returned for dinner, months later, with a couple of carnivores inflamed by my description of that excellent, unusually flavorful filet. We were shown to a table in a cramped little room to the right of the entrance, with a crazy-quilt of little framed pictures on the red walls and a profusion of artifacts tucked here and there. One of my friends was instantly put off by a strong scent of disinfecting cleanser, but we were soon distracted by the menu.
It was easy to choose mains there are only six steaks, a Dungeness crab roasted in garlic sauce (available in four different sizes, priced from $19 to $100), and one rather odd fish dish, a Hawaiian sunfish filet sautéed in a soy-butter glaze with seaweed. But there are more than a dozen different starters. We chose iron-skillet-roasted mussels (the most modest size Bobo's is big on offering different quantities), grilled asparagus, and a baby romaine wedge salad, but we could have tried crab crostini, curried lobster soup, tuna carpaccio, or crab cakes. The mussels, in astonishing number almost three dozen came piled high on a sizzling platter, placed on a little stand, pleasantly wafting garlic. I found them undercooked and a little flabby, but my companions had no such quibbles. The grilled asparagus bore no evidence of a grill, alas, and was cooked to a tender-crisp state that I found undercooked; it came adorned with pretty little toybox tomatoes in red, green, and yellow. The so-called romaine "wedge" wasn't a wedge at all, but a surprisingly tiny stack of romaine leaves topped with a nice thick, rich Point Reyes blue cheese dressing. I liked tearing hunks off the crisp, oily, garlic-baked sourdough olive loaf we were given.
The glory of Bobo's snapped into focus with the arrival hard upon the clearing of the first-course plates of our meat. Or, in my case, meat and shellfish: I'd ordered the surf and turf, a petite filet mignon (truly petite, about four ounces) and half a crab, a tangle of legs dripping with garlic butter. My baby filet was meltingly soft, the crab quite nice, but I was much more beguiled by my friends' bone-in New York and bone-in filet mignon, cooked in a cast-iron pan with a "hint," as Bobo's says, of garlic and rosemary and then anointed with the pan juices, deglazed with white wine and butter. What a difference four to six weeks of dry aging makes, even to well-marbled prime beef. It's like the difference between a raw-milk cheese that's perfectly é point and a chalky pasteurized one.
We also shared, from a list of seven vegetable sides, a cheesy twice-baked potato straight out of a '50s Betty Crocker cookbook, of which we only tried one spoonful each; onion rings with a dense, too-thick coating; and, just to confound us, delicately fried circles of zucchini in a thin, crisp batter, served with a lemony basil aioli. The wine list is helpfully divided by price: $29, $39, and so on, and mostly American; the French bottles are few and stratospherically priced. The list yielded a nice, soft $39 petite syrah from Ojai, which we chose ourselves after a request for help something "in the French style, non-oaky" from our kinda-clueless server yielded a suggestion of exactly what we didn't want.
After washing down the extravagant meat with good red wine, we didn't really need anything else. But we shared a confection called clown caps: four small waffle cones filled with chocolate mousse and propped on a lattice of chocolate sauce amped up with ancho chile a little silly, a little messy.
Bobo's is far from my dream steakhouse. But it does serve dreamy steaks.