Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Steak 44

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PHM0714Flash-1-5Attention, meat lovers: Another Mastro family miracle.

Do we really need another high-end steakhouse in the Valley? Based on how tricky it is to snag a prime-time dining reservation at Steak 44, the hottest table in town, I say: “Evidently so.” Even with a few dozen shrines to bovinity in our midst, we are insatiable. Steakhouses are primal magnets and we are drawn to their altar of sizzling beef, stiff bourbon and service bordering on excess.

Steak 44, the new, more casual and contemporary sibling to the Mastro family’s Dominick’s Steakhouse, delivers the goods. The family sold the Mastro collection of steakhouses in 2007, and once their non-compete expired, they opened the glitzy Dominick’s at the Scottsdale Quarter in 2011.

By casual, I mean less opulent, not radically less expensive. Located in the entirely remodeled space of the former Cork ‘N Cleaver, Steak 44 is positioned as an elegantly understated modern eatery with an “approachable” menu, “lower prices” and “smaller portions” than Dominick’s. True, but it’s no bargain steakhouse. Dinner for two, including drinks and dessert, can easily push 200 clams.

Menus between the two steakhouses are almost identical, but this could change as Steak 44’s chef Geoff Baumberger cuts his apron strings from Dominick’s veteran chef, Marc Lupino. Keeping with the “casual” theme, Steak 44’s menu boasts broiled chicken, meatloaf (both $24) and short ribs ($29). Who are they kidding? Give us steak – and they do, at marginally lower prices. Some steaks come in both small and large cuts, like the New York strip, available as a boneless, 12-ounce steak ($36) or a 16-ounce, bone-in number ($43) with purportedly more flavor. (I don’t taste it, personally.) Either way, it’s my favorite cut thanks to a prominent meaty flavor and substantial chew.

All steaks are USDA grade Prime, butchered in-house and wet-aged for 28 days. All are gilded in a proprietary spice rub (including paprika, hence the orange tint on the plate), cooked to precise temperatures with a slightly charred crust, and finished with clarified butter and parsley. Delivered on 400-degree platters, the steaks initially look bereft, until servers dish out à la carte sides, each designed to feed one or two diners, with the exception of the mound of wispy Vidalia onion strings ($8), which a table of four can’t possibly finish.

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Choosing a steak isn’t hard. There isn’t a dud in the bunch – although, much to my chagrin, Baumberger applies a lighter hand with seasoning than Lupino. Servers, clad in navy gingham shirts and vests, are well-versed in the virtues of the menu. Want a tender steak? Choose filet mignon (8 ounces, $38; bone-in 12-ounce, $42; bone-in 18-ounce, $54). Rib-eye (22-ounce bone-in, $44, or Delmonico cut, $31/$37) translates as juicy, rich and gloriously marbled. Most sides are hits, too. Dominick’s ridiculously caloric, insanely good gratin potatoes with caramelized onions ($7) made the trek across town, as did the old-school creamed spinach ($6). Mac and cheese ($7) is stratospherically delicious – wide, hollow tubes bathed in tangy, melted goo with buttered, toasted bread crumbs. Next time I’ll order an extra one just for me, but I’ll skip the not-crispy-enough crispy asparagus fries ($7). Don’t be ashamed to order the flawlessly executed “loaded” baked potatoes ($9), with two petite spuds per order.

Before you get to the steaks, there are libations and appetizers. The compact cocktail list is classic. A double Maker’s Manhattan ($12) might as well be straight bourbon. I’d order the steakhouse sangria ($9) again, a potent, slightly sweet mixture of red wine, brandy and limoncello. Wines by the glass number 44 (cute), priced from the low teens to more than $20. As you’d expect, there is no shortage of storied California cabernets to choose from, thanks to a 3,000-bottle-strong cellar.

The server asks if the table would like to start with a complimentary skillet of butter-brushed dinner rolls. The only reason to say yes is to save money, but if you’re pinching pennies, skip Steak 44 altogether. Splurge on the raw bar, on full display in front of the exhibition kitchen in the back of the restaurant: fresh-shucked oysters (market price), colossal shrimp cocktail ($5 for each jumbo shrimp), lobster (MP) and Dungeness crab cocktail ($25), or Alaskan king crab legs ($25). If money is no object, let the server create a customized seafood tower for the table.

Appetizers are safe, crowd-pleasing fillers – not that you need fillers with fantastic steaks waiting in the wings. I love the tingly flavors of crispy shrimp ($8/$12): lightly battered and plump, they get a dunk in the deep fryer before a final tumble in spicy aioli. Addictive little suckers. Fried deviled eggs ($6/$9) are fine, but skip the Sriracha aioli if you want to taste that deviled flavor. Don’t let the server sell you on the crab and avocado stack ($14), which should be renamed avocado and crab, for lack of the latter. Salads are much more appealing. The heirloom tomato and feta salad ($9) is simple and stunning. The steakhouse Caesar ($7) gets upgraded with a poached egg, and it’s hard to knock a baby iceberg “wedge” ($7) with creamy blue cheese and bacon.

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New Bedford sea scallops; S’mores in a jar and strawberry butter cake

Seafood and fish entrées aren’t an afterthought, but the chef’s shyness with seasoning keeps me firmly in the red meat column. This is Steak 44, not Fish 44. Perfectly cooked Chilean sea bass ($39), topped with a smattering of bread crumbs, is so bland a squeeze of lemon barely registers. Sea scallops ($36) are far better – plump and silky, with golden seared edges. Reasonably portioned desserts leave a pleasant sugar high, especially the rich, warm butter cake ($6) served with vanilla ice cream and strawberries, and s’mores in a jar ($6), with layers of graham cracker crumbs, chocolate syrup and light-as-a-feather marshmallow cream, brûléed tableside with a hand-held torch.

Where to sit is just as important as what to order. Steak 44 is a labyrinth of different rooms, each with its own personality. The 100-seat, sunken bar is rollicking fun, but conversation is challenging over the blaring pop music. The most intimate – and coveted – seats are the few, mottled glass-lined booths, not too far from the fish bowl kitchen.

Steak 44 is more casual than Dominick’s – though “casual” never applies when you’re getting warm hand towels between dinner and dessert. At the end of the day, we want our steak, our cocktails, our pampering, but we don’t always want to dress to the nines or feel like we’ve spent a bloody fortune to get it. And now, thanks to Steak 44, we don’t have to.

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DETAILS
Steak 44
Cuisine: Steakhouse
Contact: 5101 N. 44th St., Phoenix, 602-271-4400, steak44.com
Hours: Dinner 5 p.m.-midnight, daily; bar opens at 4 p.m. daily, and 3 p.m. Friday.
Highlights: Crispy shrimp ($8/$12); heirloom tomato salad ($9); bone-in New York strip ($43); Delmonico ($31/$37); sea scallops ($36); mac and cheese ($7); s’mores in a jar ($6)

 

 

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