The Steak Frites
The three elements of a great Steak Frites are the steak, the pommes frites, and the sauce. To serve it perfectly, each of the three elements must be perfect.
Our sauce recipe is secret, we do not discuss it other than to respond to guests’ yes/no questions regarding allergies.
Though we each have our favorite cut of steak, it is generally agreed that we look for a combination of flavor and tenderness. On this side of the Atlantic, we tend to judge a good steak by the amount of marbling in the meat, i.e. the streaks of fat contained within the muscle tissue, giving the steak flavor, juiciness, and tenderness. This is achieved by raising the cattle on a fattening diet and keeping the animal confined with little or no exercise. The greater the amount of marbling the higher it is considered in quality.
By contrast, the European approach, in particular the French, favors leaner beef while obtaining the flavoring of their beef dishes from a variety of sauces – Bordelaise, Au Poivre, Bearnaise, etc. The cut of steak we serve at L’Assiette is a rather uncommon one in North America, this for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the fact that there is very little of it — about 1½ lbs per animal. It’s called the Coulotte cut, sometimes referred to as the Sirloin Cap, a misleading term because it is not part of the sirloin at all, rather it sits on top of the sirloin, covering it, and separated from it by a layer of fat, hence the name Sirloin Cap. Once the fat layer is removed it is almost perfectly lean, with little or no marbling and not a trace of grizzle, but it is naturally jam-packed with flavor and surprisingly tender for such a lean cut. It is the most flavorful of all the cuts of steak without the necessity of marbling. (Traditionally, before mass production days, this is the cut of beef that butchers took home to their families.)
In South America, especially in Brazil where they call it the Picanha, it is the most coveted cut, considered superior to all others.
The Sous-Vide Cooking Process
As any good steak chef knows, the proper way to cook a steak is to start the cooking process with the steak at room temperature. This is done because cooking a steak to the proper cooking preference means it needs to be cooked up to a given temperature. For example, if we want to cook the steak to a medium-rare point, that actually means we need to get it to 135° F – that’s what medium-rare actually means. If we start cooking it right out of the refrigerator, the steak will start at 42° F and it will take longer to get the interior of the steak to 135° F, overcooking the outer part of the steak in the process, which will tend to dry out the meat and lose much of its flavor. However, if we start the steak at room temperature – say 75° F to 85° F — before beginning to cook it, then it requires less cooking time and more of the juiciness and flavor is retained in the meat. But of course, allowing the steak to reach room temperature in the first place takes hours and that is too restrictive a practice for a restaurant environment that cannot know in advance how many of each cut of steak will be ordered in the course of a meal. The sous-vide process takes this methodology to the logical optimum extent. Sous-vide, French for “under vacuum,” is a method of cooking a steak, vacuum sealed, in airtight plastic bags in a water bath for longer than normal cooking times at an accurately regulated temperature that is equal to the desired ending temperature, in this case 135° F for 4-4 ½ hours. The steak itself never comes into contact with the water, but in its vacuum environment, it receives an accurate, invariable conductivity of heat at the exact desired temperature. (Water has great heat conductivity properties. For example, one can place one’s hand in a 350° F oven without harm, but we would never think of placing our hand in 350° F water.)
The intention is to cook the steak evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked to a perfect medium-rare temperature without overcooking the outside. (The steak cannot possibly overcook as 135° F is the exact medium-rare temperature, and this temperature is never exceeded.) In the process, the steak reaches desired tenderness while retaining all of its juices and flavor by virtue of being vacuum sealed and cooking slowly over a four-hour period or longer.
When ready to serve, it is quickly seared to form an outer crust at a very high temperature for just a few seconds on each side before slicing it and bringing it to the table.
Of course, the same process is followed for preparing a steak at different temperatures, i.e, rare at 130° F, Medium at 140° F, etc. In our case, at L’Assiette, since we only use one cut of steak, we are able to prepare several steaks in advance at each temperature, from rare to well done, so our guests invariable always get their steak exactly the way they ordered it, perfectly cooked, perfectly tenderized from the slow cooking process, with all juices and flavor still packed in.