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Pleasures of the Flesh SMH 2.11.10

November 2, 2010

Pleasures of the flesh
Scott Bolles
November 2, 2010

Succulent steak at Porteno in Surry Hills.

Succulent steak at Porteno in Surry Hills. Photo: Marco Del Grande
With Sydney experiencing its biggest steakhouse boom in 40 years, the meatiest question is: why? Is there something special on the grill or is the city that built a global reputation for cutting-edge food losing its edge?

”I don’t know how to answer a question like that,” says Craig Macindoe, the chef who swapped the edgy culinary environment of The Tasting Room in Kings Cross to open Mumu Grill at Crows Nest.

”I suppose it depends if you see molecular gastronomy as a step forward or back. I see it [the steakhouse boom] as a step forward for good, honest flavours.”

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The meat movement’s biggest recruit is Neil Perry, a chef with an internationally recognised restaurant at The Rocks and who is rolling out steak-led Rockpool Bar & Grills from Sydney to Perth. Has he picked the trend for Australians’ inner food conservatism?

”No, not at all. I think it is people wanting to eat great produce and drink good wine,” Perry says. ”Steakhouses are great for wine matching. And it shows there has been a need for them.”

Perry, whose father and three brothers followed careers as butchers, says meat has long been in the family blood and he was just waiting for Australian meat to come up to standard.

A Sydney wholesaler and meat exporter, Clayton Wright, agrees. ”The steakhouse revival is very much product driven,” he says. ”Fifteen years ago we were recognised as a country that produced manufacturing meat that ended up in hamburgers in the US.

”But there are now a lot of really good local producers. Wagyu has made a major impact and everyone is talking about grass- versus grain-fed.”

It didn’t stop the previous generation having a fair crack at steak. But it’s a mixed history, with serious players such as Johnnie Walker’s and The San Francisco Grill pioneering alongside the Black Stump chain.

Sydney restaurateur Kingsley Smith was one of the first to attempt a revival, opening a steakhouse in the city in 1994. ”I remember a friend saying, ‘Don’t call it a steakhouse, it’s such an out-of-fashion name,”’ he says.

Sixteen years later, Smith is still reluctant to use the word but for an entirely different reason. While Perry says half the steaks he serves at Rockpool Bar & Grill are to women and Mumu’s database skews towards females, experience has taught Smith steak is still more popular with men than women. Consequently, for his new venture, he has chosen the name Smith’s Butcher & Wine Merchant, which opens this month at the old Bayswater Brasserie, in part to reach a broader gender market.

”One of the big differences between a lot of the older-style steakhouses and the new generation is the ratio of steak to other dishes,” Smith says. ”Three-quarters of the mains on my first menus were steak. Now there’s a lot more choice and interesting salads. It’s something Neil [Perry] has done a good job with at Rockpool Bar & Grill.”

In addition to the development of boutique beef brands and a proper industry grading system, Smith argues the stronger Australian dollar has also fuelled the local steakhouses. ”A lot of those premium products used to be exported,” he says.

New steakhouses are also keen to differentiate themselves from each other. At Mumu Grill, the emphasis is on grass-fed meat and at Smith’s Butcher & Wine Merchant, meat will be on display, with diners selecting a piece and determining the size the steak is cut.

The newly opened $2.3 million restaurant at The Rocks, The Cut, is the realisation of owner John Szangolies’s dream for an American-style, high-theatre steakhouse with a ”touch of French bistro chic”. Names such as Chophouse also compete for the Sydney steak dollar. Porteno in Surry Hills is the latest in Sydney’s Argentinian grill boom that includes new players such as Boca in Darlinghurst.

While Prime at GPO ushered in upmarket steak glamour during the Sydney Olympics boom, it’s only in recent years the swell has turned into a king tide.

Macindoe says the economic downturn persuaded him a steakhouse was the way to go. ”When people are driven by financial toughness, they flee to the things they know,” he says. ”They didn’t want to spend 20 or 30 bucks and not be full.”

Some jumped in for other reasons. Perry, who isn’t afraid to charge for premium products, waited for the quality-produce boom. ”In 2005, when I committed to Melbourne, I knew it was time to unleash the Grill,” he says.

”The revival seems to coincide with RB&GM setting a benchmark and people like the Hemmes [Merivale group owners] loving it and wanting to have a similar thing [Mad Cow restaurant at Ivy].”

The influential New York City scene and its successful steakhouses certainly helped fuel the Sydney revival. Local operators are also drawn to the longevity of steakhouses in an industry where restaurant shelf life isn’t always long life.

”The majority just open a steakhouse as they think it is a winner,” Perry says. He believes restaurateurs need to deeply care who grows their beef and have control of it from the time it leaves the slaughterhouse. Only then will the trend become an ongoing Sydney winner.

One Comment leave one →
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