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PRIME DINING

Great steaks and more on the coast

Jackson’s Steakhouse in Pensacola

EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPHS

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Although the Gulf Coast region is primarily acclaimed for its stunning shellfish and fin fare renowned the world over, many seafood-lovers also enjoy some of the best steaks served anywhere in the country.

And while Gulf-area fishers are sending much of their abundance of fresh seasonal fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs and other species plucked from the Gulf of Mexico’s sun-drenched waters to other destinations, top restaurateurs along the Gulf Coast are shipping in some of the nation’s top beef for voracious steak- lovers down South.

No matter where you’re from, whether “home” is in the Midwest near top cattle grazing grounds, along our East or West coasts or anywhere in between, including the glimmering Gulf Coast, if you have a taste for beef, there’s nothing like the aroma, flavor and texture of a superb sizzling steak to stir the senses, tempt the taste buds and please the palate.

These fantastic steak houses also share a little secret with many of their guests that not everyone is in on.

What many seafood-only devotees may not be aware of but need to know is that most steak houses – and certainly the ones featured here – offer some of the best, freshest seafood anywhere! In fact, some of the top preparations of tuna, grouper, crab dishes, salmon, shrimp, lobster and other succulent sea creatures can be found and enthusiastically enjoyed at area restaurants where the main focus is prime beef.

Traveling from east to west and beginning in Louisiana, we’ll visit with five of the crowd favorites. First stop: New Orleans, where Morton’s, the classic American steak house, entertains guests lavishly in its sexy and sophisticated surroundings.

Located in One Canal Place on the edge of the French Quarter, just a block or two from the Mississippi River, Morton’s features an atmospheric dining room with spacious leather banquettes, brass, etched glass and a bit of sass – sassy music, that is! The Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. traditions continue, but now they’re joined by Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and others in an extended contemporary jazz repertoire.

Like many of the steak houses visited, Morton’s has an open kitchen where patrons can observe the food preparation, along with the anticipated sizzle, smells and sensory excitement that make the experience so special. Under the direction of executive chef Frank Hemstreet, a New Orleans native, Morton’s kitchen produces some of the finest cuisine in a city noted worldwide for its culinary prowess.

“As the premier American steak house,” he says, “we get the best product money can buy, USDA prime beef, wet-aged three to four weeks. Every steak is cooked to order.

“I’ve visited Morton’s locations all over,” he continues, “and worked in both the San Francisco and Houston restaurants prior to coming to New Orleans, and there’s such a consistency of excellence.”

Morton’s guests agree. They also have their favorites. According to Vedran Komazec, the general manager, most prefer the filet, either single- or double-cut, served with béarnaise. “My personal favorite,” he notes, “is the 20-ounce New York strip, cooked medium-rare. It’s a hefty chunk of meat with a great flavor and texture.” 

Komazec usually enjoys the strip with a cabernet sauvignon, perhaps from Darioush, or a big pinot noir from Oregon such as Ponzi or a cab blend from Quintessa or Cain Five.

One of Morton’s most popular dishes, offered only on Friday and Saturday nights, is the bone-in roast prime rib of beef that is served with a whipped horseradish sauce. Because the meat requires roasting in advance, only a certain number of orders are available. The demand is so great the dish runs out every weekend. But there’s never a lack of fine cuisine at Morton’s: Guests can feast on all the traditional style steaks as well as a Cajun rib-eye preparation seasoned with Morton’s exclusive Cajun-spice dry rub.

Morton’s also treats each steak to a light shake of a house-blend seasoned salt before cooking. In addition to the sauces noted, au poivre, a five-peppercorn-cognac cream sauce, is also available.

Fantastic appetizers – such as Maine lobster cocktail; smoked Pacific salmon; Swiss cheese-crusted baked five-onion soup; broiled bacon-wrapped sea scallops; and tuna tartare with diced tomatoes, avocado, Thai cream and balsamic glaze – are knockout delicious. A selection of 15 super side dishes feature the freshest, best produce with each dish serving two or more.

Other killer dishes include Colorado lamb chops; sesame- encrusted yellowfin tuna; broiled salmon fillet with beurre blanc; jumbo-lump crab cakes; colossal shrimp Alexander; whole Maine lobster; Alaskan king crab legs; and chilled or baked prime ocean platters featuring oysters on the half shell – or, if baked, oysters Rockefeller – along with shrimp, crab, lobster and sea scallops.

Heading east across to Mississippi, our next stop is BR Prime at Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi where chef Olan Lambert helms the kitchen.

In a dining room that the hotel calls “Rat Pack swank” – complete with music from the packs’ most famous denizens – guests can soak up the retro sounds along with the scenery. Traditional dark woods, burgundy-toned walls, comfortable banquettes and slate and stone materials lend a thematic, rustic, period-feel to the setting. Diners can observe Lambert and his crew preparing deluxe specialties in the restaurant’s open kitchen.

And what specialties he has in store! BR Prime offers both USDA prime as well as American-style Kobe beef, called “Wagyu.” Lambert sources meat for the American Kobe rib-eye from the Midwest. The “platinum” Wagyu strip steaks he orders come from Blackmore Ranch in Australia.

Lambert varies cooking styles, employing the high-heat broiler method as well as a grill. He recommends cooking Kobe-style steaks at least to the medium-rare stage because the meat is very marbleized. “If you don’t heat the steak enough, the fat particles won’t melt, and diners could be left with an unpleasant aftertaste,” he explains.

Lambert also serves a dry-aged bone-in 18-ounce New York strip. Another specialty is the 26-ounce chateaubriand, which is carved tableside for two and served with the chef’s selection of five different seasonal vegetables.

Other tableside preparations include tuna tartare, steak tartare, Dover sole and shelled king crabs.

With steaks, Lambert finds customers show a preference for the Delmonico, a boneless 16-ounce center-cut rib-eye.

“I like that steak; I think it has the most flavor,” he says. He also likes the Wagyu’s flavor.

Filets may be a middle-of-the-road choice, but they remain a guest favorite, he says.

Another interesting steak, the tomahawk, is a bone-in 28-ounce rib-eye that slightly edges out the 24-ounce king porterhouse in size.

BR Prime’s sommelier, Mark Warren, likes to serve a 2004 Newton Le Puzzle, a Napa cabernet blend, with the Delmonico cut. For the filets, he proposes one of the following Oregon pinot noirs: Bergstrom, Penner-Ash or Elk Cove.

For the dry-aged bone-in New York strip, Warren chooses a Tikal Amorio Malbec from Mendoza.

The entire menu offers myriad exciting choices even beyond the stellar steak selections. Other featured dishes, such as the double-cut lamb chops, the Fudge Farms pork chop, the veal chop, the sugar-maple grilled salmon, the ahi tuna au poivre and the pecan-crab-crusted Hawaiian swordfish, beckon undecided diners.

A versatile mix of appetizing starters, soups and salads features lobster tempura with two sauces, crispy oysters with chile-citrus- soy glaze, pan-seared diver scallops with oyster mushrooms and melted leeks and Louisiana crab cakes with spicy rémoulade.

 At least a dozen exciting sauces and toppings are served, such as sautéed foie gras, which the restaurant also prepares as an appetizer with mixed berries and balsamic vinegar, which cuts through the fat from the foie gras, according to Lambert.

In addition, chimichurri sauce, with parsley, red wine vinegar, cilantro, unfiltered Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, oregano, shallots and red pepper flakes, goes with any steak, Lambert says.

A Roquefort butter as well as a blue cheese crust are also offered. “For the crust, we blend several blue cheeses and bread crumbs and spread that over the top of the steak and shove it under the broiler to crust it up a little,” he says.

Potatoes and vegetables are also inviting – most also serve two – with choices such as lobster mashed potatoes with added lobster bisque and lobster chunks; duck fat fries; roast corn cut off the cob and cooked with chipotle peppers and cream; and wild mushrooms with shiitakes, criminis, silver dollar buttons and sometimes maitakes sautéed with shallots and fresh thyme and cooked down with a little white wine and demi-glace.

BR Prime’s “mac” side dish features elbow macaroni, 2-year-old cheddar cheese and a béchamel sauce with Louisiana crawfish and colossal crabmeat added.

“Its not just the food,” Lambert says. “The atmosphere and service are top-notch. From the time you sit down until the time you leave, it’s an entire experience!”

Heading east, we arrive at Jackson’s Steakhouse in Pensacola where executive chef/co-owner Irv Miller and his partners, Barry Phillips and the Merrill brothers – Collier, Will and Burney – are enjoying the restaurant’s phenomenal success as much as their customers.

In addition to the extraordinarily talented and accomplished Miller, his savvy business partners and the rest of the team, Jackson’s has history going for it.

The restaurant is located on the first floor of an 1860s-era building across from Plaza Ferdinand. It was at the plaza in 1821 that Gen. Andrew Jackson accepted the Florida territory from the Spanish on behalf of the U.S., and the American flag was raised in Pensacola for the first time. Jackson served as the new state’s first governor for seven years before becoming the nation’s seventh president.

After Miller and partners acquired and renovated the historic property, they began making more history of their own.

Miller, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, had already made a name for himself among the top chefs of the southeast at the critically acclaimed Les Saisons, Frangista Seafood and Spirits, and Colours in Destin and at Bud and Alley’s in Seaside.

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