PRIME DINING

Great steaks and more on the coast
EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPHS
Jackson’s Steakhouse |!!!|in Pensacola

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.

 

He’s cooked twice at the prestigious James Beard House in New York and has been featured in Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, Food Art, Southern Living and many other publications. He’s also hosted a local PBS affiliate cooking series, Flavors of the Gulf Coast, as well as appearing on CNN’s On the Menu program.

Miller applies his signature style to every preparation at Jackson’s, and there are many – that is, if you can get beyond the steak choices! 

First, guests need to consider the 14-ounce Delmonico steak, the 15-ounce New York strip, the 24-ounce porterhouse or the 6- or 8- ounce filet mignon.

Optional seafood toppings for featured steaks can transform a steak into a classic surf and turf  dish, with such add-on items as lump crab, grilled shrimp, rock lobster tail, Oscar (with crabmeat, asparagus and hollandaise) and Carpetbag (stuffed with seasoned fried oysters).

In addition, sauces and other toppings such as béarnaise, au poivre, Diane, white truffle oil, blue cheese and seared foie gras can be added. All grilled steaks arrive with Jackson’s special garlic confit.

Several specialty steak entrées include the restaurant’s most popular: a wood-fired petite filet with fried green tomatoes and lump crab, andouille cream and three-cheese macaroni. Another favorite is the pan-seared bourbon Black Angus rib-eye with mushrooms and ginger.

Perhaps the most popular featured steak entrée, at least with both Andrew Jackson and chef Irv, is the “Ole Hickory Cut,” a 10-ounce rib-eye cap steak, cooked over an open flame, sliced and topped with green peppercorn sauce.
“The cap steak,” Miller explains, “is the most tender, flavorful part of the steak that lies on top of and surrounds the center of the rib-eye.”

Every night, there’s a Proprietor’s Cut on the menu, often a prime rib-eye or special-cut cap steak, he says. Other Proprietor’s Cuts have featured American Kobe beef New York strip steaks.

Jackson’s Wine Spectator-award-winning wine list provides many choices to pair with steak and other dishes: for example, a Spann Mayacamas cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma, Chateau Beycheville Saint-Julien from the Medoc and a Salentein Malbec from Argentina.

Chef Miller’s fantastic menu also offers about 15 delicious appetizer selections and entrées, such as a 24-ounce veal porterhouse, grilled balsamic-painted almond-crusted lamb chops, seared pepper-dusted Gulf yellowfin tuna, fiery spiced grilled salmon, hickory wood-fired redfish and Irv’s coastal crab cakes. Whatever the dish, Miller’s culinary excellence can be found in every bite, on every plate.

Moving eastward, we next arrive at Seagar’s, located on the Gulf at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort in Destin. General Manager Kevin Moran and executive chef Bruce McAdoo work in tandem to make sure every guest’s experience is memorable.

From the split-level main dining room to several smaller private dining areas for business or a more personal experience, Seagar’s softly lit, atmospheric enclaves offer both serenity and entertainment. In season, a pianist serenades guests with light classical and Broadway show music.

 But the real excitement is in the open kitchen, where McAdoo wields a big blade on some considerably sized cuts of meat. 

“Each steak is cut to our individual specifications,” Moran says.  “We look for the ultimate steak experience for our patrons, so we’ve worked with our suppliers to customize our orders.”

Seagar’s and all of the steak houses featured use USDA prime beef, either corn- or grain-fed from top Midwest producers. In fact, Moran points out that only 2 or 3 percent of the 35 million annual U.S. cattle are graded to meet USDA standards of tenderness, juiciness and flavor.

Seagar’s most in-demand cut is the 10-ounce filet. “We season it with a simple sprinkle of kosher salt and cracked black pepper,” McAdoo says, “and use high heat to sear it and seal in the juices and flavor.”

Moran, who originally served as the restaurant’s sommelier, likes to pair a lighter-style cabernet sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend such as a Jarvis Lake William meritage from Napa Valley with the filet. “The wine shows an elegant style,” he says. He also suggests the Quintessa meritage with the filet, another elegant Napa Bordeaux-blend that he finds is softer and less tannic.

With the restaurant’s 20-ounce bone-in cowboy rib-eye, another customer favorite, Moran’s choice is a 2006 Camus Special Select cabernet sauvignon. He’s also partial to the 1999 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard to accompany the rib-eye or a strip steak. However, he often prefers a younger, bolder, more tannic wine with a rare and juicy rib-eye.
For a more contemporary approach, Moran picks a 2004 Paul Hobbs Stagecoach Vineyards cabernet sauvignon to drink with the rib-eye. Regarding Seagar’s vast cellar, Moran says, “We have great depth in our cabernet selections with many well-aged wines and verticals, including five vintages of Dalla Valle and four each Mondavi Reserve and Shafer Hillside.”

Other steaks in Seagar’s repertoire include a 16-ounce New York strip as well as an 18-ounce bone-in Kansas City steak and a 24-ounce porterhouse.

McAdoo also prepares steak Diane with a brandy, cream and peppercorn sauce and chateaubriand, a 22-ounce tenderloin carved for two with a medley of vegetables, Duchess potatoes and sauce béarnaise. Both are served tableside. Other tableside preparations include Dover sole, Caesar salad and bananas Foster.

If guests can hold off until the entrée selections, Osetra caviar, lobster brochette, baked oysters and an eggplant-and-green-tomato napoleon layered with jumbo-lump crabmeat and served with lemon beurre blanc are among the dozen fabulous appetizers offered.

Back to those entrées, add to the list: Maine lobster; Alaskan king crab; blackened tuna; Chilean sea bass; potato-wrapped salmon; and a seafood trilogy of diver scallops, jumbo Gulf shrimp and black grouper medallions.
For our final bend in the road, we travel to Destin Chops 30A, adjacent to Rosemary Beach in gorgeous Seacrest Beach.

Owner James Altamura cites Morton’s Steakhouse as the inspiration for the original Chops, which he opened in Destin in 1996. He closed the restaurant in 2007, moving east, and reopened the following year in the midst of the newly developing beachfront communities of Rosemary, Seacrest and Alys beaches on Highway 30 A – a spectacular setting indeed!

The newest incarnation of Altamura’s Chops – he also owns the marvelous Marina Café in Destin – is updated in look and feel from the traditional dark woods and classic, formal steak house atmosphere.

“We wanted to go in a more casual, contemporary direction with lighter colors and materials,” Altamura says. The chairs and tables are highly finished dark walnut with brighter walls in subtle bronze and silver metallics, zebra wood accents and abstract artwork. Soft lighting and contemporary jazz fill the room.

The bar’s ambiance and décor are bright and trendy with upbeat music and a backlit bar with changing hues of orange, green and blue illuminating the spirits bottles, complete with a sports component with four large televisions and a sushi bar. Although the look may be different, the one aspect that hasn’t changed is the great quality of the steaks and other cuisine that is Destin Chops’ hallmark.

All Chops’ steaks are seasoned lightly with salt and pepper to help with the crusting and then charbroiled with intense heat. A favorite is the 16-ounce USDA prime strip, Altamura says. “It has the most wonderful flavor and tender yet chewy texture,” he says.

Chops’ well-earned reputation for its extensive wine collection endures, Altamura says, with the wine list blending the esoteric with the eclectic. “[It’s] stuff people are looking for,” he says, with classics such as the five first-growth Bordeauxs; Caymus Special Select cabernet sauvignon; and Silver Oak, Sassicaia and Chianti Classico Riservas.
Although most people like a big meritage or Bordeaux with a steak, Altamura likes to stay ahead of the curve and has also added a number of up-and-coming pinot noir labels such as the 2006 Kosta Brown Russian River; Martinelli Russian River (made by Helen Turley); Pahlmayer’s Jason from Sonoma Coast; A.P. Vin Kanzler Vineyard, also from Sonoma Coast; and the 2006 Sea Smoke Southing from Santa Rita Hills, a highly allocated wine.

Altamura likes to pair the latter wine with the strip steak, pouring it into a decanter with a large surface area for 10 minutes or so “because it needs to develop,” he explains.

According to Altamura, perhaps the most frequently requested steak is the 30A 8-ounce filet topped with jumbo-lump crabmeat, sauce béarnaise and grilled asparagus. A 12-ounce bone-in filet is also a big favorite, as is the surf and turf filet-and-lobster combo. Another option is the American Kobe beef hanger steak.

The 16-ounce rib-eye is a nice-size portion. Larger steaks such as the 20-ounce cowboy bone-in rib-eye and the 24-ounce porterhouse are often shared, but some diners can individually put away these hefty steaks along with a 1-pound stuffed baked potato, Altamura says.

“I think people feel that a premium steak house visit is not the usual dining-out situation and that the experience can – and perhaps should – be quite elaborate.”

To begin, Chops’ array of more than 15 appetizers, salads and soups are tempting choices, including both ahi tuna tartare with wasabi topiko and a pepper-seared ahi tuna with soy-ginger vinaigrette and Asian vegetables. Among the offerings is a Maine lobster prepared three ways: traditional-cocktail, classic-Newberg and contemporary-wonton.
Although the restaurant offers a dozen side orders such as garlic spinach sauté, stir-fried Asian vegetables and macaroni and aged cheddar with optional crabmeat, Chops’ signature thin, crispy onion rings – also available as an appetizer – are served with every steak.

In addition to the steaks, Chops fantastic chef, Giovanni Filippone, who recently was filmed for a segment of Hell’s Kitchen reality cooking show, covers all the bases with such dishes as pan-seared Cape Cod jumbo diver scallops with mango beurre blanc and mushroom risotto.

Other house specialties include 2-pound broiled or steamed live Maine lobster; pan-seared black grouper with lemon-caper-butter sauce; grilled Gulf ahi tuna; double-cut lamb chops with rosemary-lamb au jus; a thick-cut pork chop with brandy-thyme mushroom sauce, seasonal vegetables and Yukon gold mashed potatoes; and pan-seared Atlantic salmon with pesto sauce and sautéed broccolini.

The steaks are great, but our area steak houses offer so much more – come by to enjoy some of the best cuisine along the glorious Gulf Coast.

It doesn’t get any better!
 

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