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American Steakhouses

It's official: beef is back. Thanks to a cash-rich and protein-craving population, the steak house is again the hottest joint in town, from coast to coast. What's more, some of the country's most celebrated chefs are moving in with a whole new take on the classics

How fickle we are.

A decade ago the steak house was in cardiac arrest, as outmoded as a vinyl LP. Sure, your dad still lunched with clients on rib eyes and Gibsons, and beefy regulars swore by their old haunts. But did anyone who really cared about food—people like you—consider creamed spinach and a Frisbee-sized porterhouse a Serious Dining Experience?

Well, just as vinyl LP's simply sound better nowadays, so does the thought of a nice New York strip, with some cottage fries and an iceberg-and-blue cheese salad. Blame the economy, the Atkins diet, or a craving for all things retro: steak restaurants are more alive than ever. At old-school beef emporiums like Brooklyn's Peter Luger, reservations are harder to get than courtside seats for the Knicks. Meanwhile, celeb chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joachim Splichal have opened their own steak-house interpretations, proving plenty more can be done with a choice cut and a few spuds.

Used to be that beef was just "real food for real people." Now even unreal people have a jones for red meat—people like Brazilian cover babe Gisele Bündchen, the best spokesperson for beef since James Garner. ("Ah, mm, I love meat," she has raved. "Meat is the best.") Vogue editor Anna Wintour is often seen eating a steak or a burger for lunch. Chic young things on the Zone or Atkins diet are getting their protein fix, not with soy shakes, but with pan-seared filets (hold the frites).

Steak, it seems, is the dot-com stock of the aughties. Clearly, your dad was onto something.

So is the steak-house trend really about great beef, or is it all just cigar smoke and mirrors?We got to the meat of the matter in New York, L.A., Las Vegas, and Chicago, sizing up the New Breed against some esteemed ancestors. For an unabashed carnivore's perspective, I brought along my friend Jack, a guy's guy of a certain age, who thinks "vegetarian" means the T-bone comes with mushrooms ("I hate that," he says). He does love beef, and the thought of eating steak for two weeks straight had him frothing like a mad cow.

NEW YORK
"Reminds me of my uncle's brothel back in Reno," Jack muses as we duck into the Strip House in Greenwich Village. There's a definite bordello theme, with rosy silk lamp shades, ruby-red flocked wallpaper, and red quilted-leather banquettes. You feel as if you're deep in a bottle of Burgundy—and from the look of things, half the patrons already are. A tableful of suits whoops it up over a bawdy joke, and hollers for another shellfish platter. Jack studies the carpet pattern: a kaleidoscope of buxom female silhouettes, like the opening credits of a Bond film.

Such is the tongue-in-cheeky appeal of the Strip House (heh-heh—get it?). Chef David Walzog, who heads up the straitlaced Michael Jordan's The Steak House at Grand Central Terminal, gets more creative here. "Tomatoes and onion," a steak-house standby, becomes a postmodern salsa, wrapped, sushi-style, in a cucumber slice, seasoned with basil and tomato-water vinaigrette, accompanied by chèvre and crostini. Next is a terrine of rabbit, veal, pheasant, and oxtail, deliciously gamy and densely textured. "Best goddamn meat loaf I ever ate," Jack says.

The namesake strip, richly marbled and bursting with juice, is paired with a boneful of velvety mustard-and-marrow custard. By now Jack has forgotten about the pornographic carpet and is giggling with pagan joy. One spoonful of the truffle-scented creamed spinach and he's entirely out of his head.

As the night wears on and the port starts flowing, the sound track shifts from Steely Dan to Maxwell, and couples canoodle on the mohair sofas in the bar. Enjoyably schizo, the Strip House is the sort of place you could take your dad, your wife, or your mistress. Just don't go there with your macrobiotic niece from NYU.

"IT'S STEAK, JACK, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT."

Jack and I are stunned into silence, ogling the steak tartare at Dylan Prime, a nouveau beef joint in deepest TriBeCa. We'd heard rumors about this divine apparition. Now it sits before us: a delicate mound of raw sirloin with a speckled quail egg perched on top. "My God," Jack whispers, "it's beautiful."

After a short prayer, we pour the egg over the tartare, mix in capers, onion, parsley, and a dollop of mustard, and spread a small forkful on crostini. It's the platonic ideal of meat. We take our time, hardly noticing the Miu-Miu—shod models at the next table. "This is it," Jack murmurs, licking his fork clean. "This is the Grail."

Too bad the rest of our dinner doesn't measure up. The bread arrives cold; the mushy gnocchi and soupy risotto sides aren't worth a second bite; and the kitchen can't seem to get Jack's porterhouse done medium-rare—the first is medium-well, the next barely lukewarm. He finally gives up and orders another tartare.

The thing to do, then, is hit the candlelit lounge and cut to the chase, with a Bloodless Mary martini (horseradish-and-pepper-infused vodka, served straight up in a glass rimmed with celery salt), a good Cohiba, and that ambrosial tartare.

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