Great steak It's all in the fat.

Steakhouses are often criticized as being one-dimensional, cookie-cutter establishments devoid of creativity. Their critics have a point.

But top steakhouses have one big advantage in the exclusivity of their product. You can send a top French chef to a supermarket and unleash him in your home kitchen and you’ll get a similar result as in his restaurant. By and large, however, you can’t find the quality of beef served in steakhouses at any retail location.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef as Select, Choice or Prime.

Yet even Prime steak from a butcher is not up to the level of most steakhouse beef. That’s because producers in the Midwest and elsewhere reserve only their best product for the wholesalers who serve high-end steakhouses.

What makes the best steaks so is the amount of interior marbling of fat. That fat — usually tiny tendrils, rather than long, gristly strips — bastes a steak from its interior during cooking to ensure juiciness and the satisfyingly familiar taste and texture of top beef.

“We’re looking for flavor, texture and marbling of the meat, a good ratio of fat to meat,” said Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak.

What this means is you’re going to pay dearly for it, so you better know what you’re getting when you’re about to drop $30-$40 for your protein.

The steaks you’re likely to get at our local temples of beef are so atypically extraordinary in their marbling and tenderness that you’re often hard-pressed to discern any differences in the raw product from one restaurant to the next.

“Most of the steakhouses in the city are serving the same steak,” said one top steakhouse manager in town, who wished to remain anonymous.

That is, most of the beef is high-grade Choice and Prime, cut much thicker and aged far longer than most retail beef, butchered into individual portions on premises and cooked at volcanic temperatures.

Still, there are subtle, yet important, differences in what lands on your plate from one to the next.

Some, such as Charlie Palmer Steak, serve Certified Angus Beef. The coat of an Angus cow is at least 51 percent black. In practical terms that makes little difference, but thanks to its regimen of care and feeding of its well-bred cattle, Certified Angus is recognized as among the top brands for marbling and quality.

Of course, some consumers now balk at the types of feed used on many large farms. Responding to their demand, purveyors of grass-fed, naturally raised or Certified Humane beef have stepped into the breach.

Michael Sternberg, who owns Harry’s Tap Room and Harry’s Essential Grille in Northern Virginia, serves only beef from naturally raised cattle that subsist on a vegetarian diet of grass from three to six months and grain afterward. They are given no antibiotics or steroids.

“The best flavored beef in the world is still a USDA Prime,” he said, “but there’s a lot of antibiotics in it, and I just don’t think it’s worth the trade off.”

After the beef is slaughtered (we won’t talk about that) comes the aging process.

“An aged cut is more flavorful, just like a bottle of wine,” said Dan Festa, general manager of Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue.

After slaughter, the cow is butchered into its “cuts,” each containing several steaks’ worth of meat. It then ages for a period of weeks.

Some restaurants, like the Capital Grille, dry age their beef. The restaurant does so on premises in a room that’s kept at 35-38 degrees, with 75 percent humidity and consistent airflow.

Why? “There’s a natural enzyme reaction in the beef, which tenderizes it,” said Bryan Thomas, executive chef at the steakhouse.

“Dry aging is controlled rotting,” explains Voltaggio. “The idea is to create moisture loss. What you’re doing is concentrating the flavor of the meat.”

The alternative to dry aging is known, unsurprisingly, as wet aging. Here, the meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic, where it ages and becomes tender in its own blood and juices.

The end difference between wet and dry aging is in the flavor. Dry-aged beef is often described as gamey, livery, earthy and nutty, among other adjectives. Wet aging imparts a mellower flavor to the meat.

“It’s a personal choice,” Festa said.

Top steakhouses butcher their steaks thicker than most retail locations. That’s to ensure moisture retention.

“If you have a half-inch piece of meat, by the time you get to medium rare there’s not going to be any juice in it,” said Festa, who recommends a minimum 2-inch cut.

But how to cook such a pristine, thick cut of meat?

Most top steakhouses boast custom-designed flame broilers that generate 1,200 to 1,800 degrees of heat. Even the best home grills are lucky to generate half of that.

The broilers apply heat to the steaks from the top down. A large, open space under the meat allows the heat to circulate and cook the beef from all angles. This intense heat caramelizes the exterior of the meat into a brown crust and seals in its juices.

Then the trick is reducing the heat to avoid burning the exterior while still cooking the interior.

Morton’s finishes the meat in a 600-degree oven after achieving the sear. At the Capital Grille, the broiler man moves the beef to a cooler part of the contraption, toward the front, to finish the cooking.

How long it stays on the broiler is up to you. It may depend on the cut. Bryan Thomas, of the Capital Grille, advises nothing beyond medium rare for a filet mignon. But for a fattier steak, like their Delmonico, he says, “Rare gives you too much raw fat. Medium is best.”

One thing all steak chefs agree on: never cook Prime beef well-done. You’re wasting your money.


A cut apart: how to tell one steak from another

So now you’ve taken your pick of dry-aged versus wet-aged beef, lightly seasoned versus well-seasoned, naturally fed versus not.

So what cut do you order? There is one rule to remember: bone and fat equals more flavor.

Rib-eye: A boneless cut from the eye of the prime rib with excellent marbling and a one-quarter- to three-quarter-inch ribbon of fat running through it. Typically, rib-eye is the most flavorful steak. For an extra punch of flavor, look for a bone-in rib-eye (called the Delmonico at the Capital Grille).

New York strip (sometimes called sirloin): A dense, slightly chewy cut, it boasts more tenderness than the rib-eye but maintains a good deal of flavor. The bone-in version is sometimes called a Kansas City strip. This is the most popular steak at the Palm, which also offers a 36-ounce double cut for two.

Filet mignon or tenderloin: The most tender, least marbled and mildest flavored steak. Steakhouse sources say it’s most popular among women and steak novices. At Capital Grille, however, they serve a couple of filets per month completely raw. These guests are not novices. There is also some debate as to whether there is even such a thing as a Prime filet: Because of the limited marbling, many filets don’t rate beyond Choice. If it’s available, opt for the hard-to-find, bone-in filet.

T-bone or porterhouse: A T-bone offers the filet on one side of the bone and the New York strip on the other. In the case of a Porterhouse, the filet portion must be at least 2 by 2 inches. Most local steakhouses serve double porterhouses for two, which are carved tableside.


What they serve and how they serve it

Bobby Van’s
Serves Prime beef, dry aged for three weeks. Steaks are charbroiled and brushed with a flavored butter glaze the chef refers to as “beef love.”
809 15th St. N.W.
(202) 589-0060

Capital Grille
Serves Certified Angus Beef from Colorado and Kansas, Choice and Prime grade, most of which is wet-aged 21 days and then dry-aged on premises an additional 14 days. Steaks are dusted with a proprietary blend of seasonings and broiled at 1,200-1,400 degrees.
601 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
(202) 737-6200
(additional location in Tysons Corner)

Caucus Room
Serves Midwestern, corn-fed, USDA Prime beef, wet aged 21-28 days. Cooked on an infrared broiler at 1,800 degrees, seasoned with only salt and pepper.
401 9th St. N.W.
(202) 393-1300

Charlie Palmer Steak
Serves Certified Angus Beef, graded at Choice or better; most is wet-aged 21 days, but some specialty menu items are dry-aged.
101 Constitution Ave. N.W.
(202) 547-8100

Morton’s
Serves Midwestern beef via the Chicago stockyards, wet-aged at least three weeks and cooked at 1,200 to 1,400 degrees.
1050 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
(202) 355-5997
(five additional locations in the metro area)

The Palm
Serves Midwestern Prime beef via Chicago, wet aged for 35 days and air dried overnight. Meat is seasoned with only olive oil and kosher salt before being broiled at 1,200-1,500 degrees.
1225 19th St. N.W.
(202) 293-9091

The Prime Rib
Serves all Prime beef from Iowa via Chicago, dry aged two to three weeks. Steaks are broiled at 1,500 degrees in special ovens.
2020 K St. N.W.
(202) 466-8811

Ruth’s Chris
Always serves Prime steak, except the filet mignon, which is best available quality. After being wet aged, the meat is seasoned with salt, black pepper and a touch of parsley, broiled in a custom-designed 1,800-degree oven and served with sizzling butter.
1801 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
(202) 797-0033
(three additional locations in metro area)

Sam & Harry’s
Serves Midwestern, corn-fed, USDA Prime beef, wet aged 21-28 days. Cooked on an infrared broiler at 1,800 degrees, seasoned with only salt and pepper.
1200 19th St. N.W.
(202) 296-4333

Smith & Wollensky
Serves Prime beef, dry aged and butchered on premises. Beef is then broiled at 1,800 degrees.
1112 19th St. N.W.
(202) 466-1100

For naturally fed and raised beef, try this restaurant in Northern Virginia:

Harry’s Essential Grill
8521 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, Va.
(703) 752-1111