Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Grass Fed: selling the steak, not the sizzle

Posted By on 09.04.12 at 09:24 AM

steak frites
A steak house with only one entree? It's so crazy it just might work! I mean, it has worked. Grass Fed is the new Bucktown spot that takes inspiration from the familially affiliated group of globally spread French restaurants known collectively as L'Entrecôte that serve a single prix fixe meal—steak frites with a salad. In Wicker Park the hook is that the beef is grass-fed sirloin sourced from a collective of Wisconsin farms and served in a space that looks like Martha Stewart's kitchen circa 1995, all white with avocado banquettes, the polar opposite of a traditional testosterone-soaked expense-account steakhouse.

First thing—all beef is grass-fed—even the factory-farmed CAFO meat you buy in the supermarket. It's just that those cows finish their lives fattening up on corn. The cows employed by Grass Fed live their entire lives frolicking on grass and they aren't fed hormones, antibiotics, or feed processed from other cow brains, just as C'thulu intended. They live healthier, happier lives than their factory-farmed sisters and the environmental impact isn't as grievous. What that means for you: their meat is leaner, chewier, and ideally, should result in a clean, deeply beefy flavor.

Problem is, full-time grass-fed beef is trickier to cook. Its paucity of fat means you can't fire it at high temperatures without ruining it. The kitchen crew at Grass Fed gets around this by cooking the ten-ounce strip loins sous vide—as in a long, low and slow vacuum-sealed bath in a water circulator.

That's right, boiled steak. In theory, it's a not a bad idea. The constant low temperature means the steak won't overcook and it'll take on a silky tenderness. The problem comes in when you want to impart that irresistible char you get from a properly grilled steak—you just can't do it. The strip loins they're serving at Grass Fed are finished on an open flame grill, at a much lower temperature than a steak from a traditional steakhouse, where the meat is blasted in a salamander oven emitting the heat of a thousand suns.

The grill marks look like they were painted on by a Sharpie. It's nicely pink inside, for sure, but there's no pleasurable contrast between the tender meat and a properly charred exterior.

To add insult to injury the steaks are served presliced—an infantilizing presentation that removes all the pleasure of cutting into a nice slab, and the pieces are fanned out over a dark green tarragon sauce that disguises what turns out be a pretty unmemorable flavor. Add to that the generous portions of thin, bone-dry frites and you have a pretty weak $25 steak.

On the other hand, the salad that comes with it is wonderful, large leafy greens with a big plank of heavy foccacia-esque toast made with a potato-incorporated dough. The inexpensive and generous a la carte sides are pretty good too, almost all veggie—with the odd exception of a steak tartare—and designed to enhance your sense of virtuousness for eating in such nobly concepted endeavor; say, green beans and mushrooms in miso butter, tiny crispy spaetzle that taste like buttered popcorn, and an acidic tomato- and mint-spiked quinoa salad.

To drink, there are a half dozen unnamed wines available by the glass or carafe, a half dozen beers, and a trio of force-carbonated and house-bottled cocktails—the watermelon-jalapeño-tequila sandia caliente is a surprisingly adult beverage, well balanced between the sweet and boozy.

Oddly for a place that has only a single prix fixe dinner, there's a pretty extensive weekend brunch menu—burgers, chicken and waffles, sausages, steak of course, and more. It almost makes you wish these folks didn't limit themselves to a deeply unsatisfying entree the rest of the time. You have to admire them for breaking the typical Chicago beef palace mold—we have too many of those places already. But Grass Fed's concept is tragically flawed.

Grass Fed, 1721 N. Damen, 773-342-6000

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