In the current economic climate, opening a high-end meat market would seem to be a risky proposition. But in December 2009, that’s exactly what Henry Albert did when he debuted Rare Cuts in Mandeville. He opened a second location in Harahan in March of this year, and a third shop is set to open Uptown in the coming weeks.
Albert is a native of New Orleans, and while attending Tulane, he and his roommates became fanatics about steaks. They ate at local steak houses and grilled whenever they could, but Albert was frustrated by his inability to consistently get high-quality meat. He spent two years doing research and making connections with producers across the country before opening the first Rare Cuts. His work and the relationships he developed give him access to high-quality cuts of beef, veal, pork, lamb, poultry and game.
Rare Cuts sources its products from small farms and ranches, as well as a couple of local wholesalers, and the meats on offer are generally only available in restaurants. Albert selects primal cuts, which are then sent to Natco Food Service, a locally owned company whose USDA-approved facility and skilled butchers process the meats to Rare Cuts’ specifications.
If you peruse Rare Cuts’ Web site, you’ll see that some of the meat on offer is pretty expensive. Two 8-ounce filets will cost you $29, a frenched rack of lamb costs $38, and a 15-pound prime beef rib roast goes for $229. But the comparison that Albert hopes you’ll make is not to the cost of steaks, chops and roasts available in your local supermarket but rather to the cost of the restaurant-quality products that you’d find at, well, restaurants. Albert told me that many of the cuts available at his shops would sell in a restaurant for around twice what he charges.
At $16 (tax inclusive) per, the two rib-eye spinalis steaks (also known as rib-eye cap steaks) I bought from Rare Cuts recently were not cheap. But they were delicious and, for a special meal, well worth the cost.
The rib-eye cap is a rich, well-marbled cut that essentially covers the top of the rib-eye. It’s a tapered piece of meat, wider and thinner at the loin end than the chuck, and generally it isn’t sold separately from the rib-eye or rib roast. When it is, it’s sometimes presented stuffed, rolled and then cut into pinwheels. At Rare Cuts the cap had been cut into steaks about an inch or inch-and-a-half wide and weighing around 8 ounces each.
Albert told me his preference with the spinalis is to rub the steak with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and then grill it. He said that because of the marbling and connective tissue, it takes a little longer to cook than other cuts of the same size. Based on my experience, he was correct.
When I cooked the two steaks I’d purchased, it was raining, so my charcoal grill wasn’t an option. Instead, I seasoned the steaks with salt, seared them all over in a very hot pan with a little olive oil and then finished them in the oven at 350 degrees. For medium-rare, I’d recommend around 15 minutes in the oven and another 5 or so to rest.
To add to the richness of the meal, I cooked my long-standard accompaniment to steaks or roasts: potato gratin. It’s a standard because it is ridiculously easy to prepare, assuming you have one piece of kitchen equipment and no fear of the volume of heavy cream required to do it right. The piece of equipment that makes a gratin easy to pull off is a mandoline or “v-slicer.” You can spend a great deal of money on a stainless-steel mandoline that will allow you to adjust the thickness of anything you slice to within a millimeter, but unless you do a lot of very precise slicing, I’d recommend buying an inexpensive v-slicer that has at least two settings. What you want, regardless of the tool you use, is thin, uniform slices of potato.
Find a baking dish big enough to hold as many potatoes as you intend to cook. A good rule of thumb is at least one medium-size potato per person. For four people, a square 2-quart Pyrex will work. Peel the potatoes, and then slice them thinly and evenly. Butter your baking dish on the bottom and sides, and then start layering your potatoes. I like to use an overlapping pattern because I think it makes it easier for the cream to distribute, but you can also just scatter the slices in randomly if you wish. Season the layers of potatoes with a little salt and pepper as you go, and continue until you’ve got the thickness you desire. You do want to leave at least a half inch or so of space between the top of the potatoes and the edge of the baking dish to avoid a boil-over.
Once you have the potatoes layered in the dish, add heavy whipping cream. How much you’ll need depends on the size of your dish, the number of layers of potatoes and even how you laid them down. What you want is for the cream to come almost to the top of the potatoes. A half pint generally works for four potatoes. Add the cream slowly, and gently shake the dish as you do so that it permeates. You can do this with a mixture of cream and milk or cream and stock, but if you’ve layered your potatoes properly, you won’t be using that much cream, and life is short, no? Top the dish with grated cheese –– the classic choice is Gruyère –– and bake it, covered, at around 375 degrees. How long it will take to cook will depend on how thickly you layered the potatoes. If you have only a few layers of potatoes in a wide baking dish, it will cook much more rapidly than a deep dish with dozens of layers. Put the dish in the oven, covered, for around 20 to 30 minutes, and then uncover and return the baking dish to the oven. Continue to bake for 20 minutes, and then check for doneness by inserting a thin knife into the center of the potatoes. If you meet any significant resistance, back into the fire it goes. If the cheese starts to brown too much before the gratin is complete, put the cover back on. In a four-potato gratin, using the 2-quart Pyrex, it will take about an hour. If you’re doing the dish, as I did, along with steaks, either drop the heat to 350 and let the gratin cook a little longer or reduce the time your steaks are in the oven at 375.
Finally, and in a feeble attempt to balance the richness of the beef and potatoes, I sautéed some arugula in olive oil with dried chile flakes, garlic and currants. For one 5-ounce package of arugula, you’ll want a pinch of chile flakes; around 3 tablespoons of olive oil; a medium clove of garlic, sliced thinly; a tablespoon of currants or raisins; and salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. This is a dish you’ll want to start while the beef is resting and the gratin is almost done because it doesn’t take long to prepare.
Start by heating the olive oil in a pot that will comfortably hold the arugula and that you can cover. Add the garlic and chile flakes, and cook until the garlic is softened. Add the currants. Wash the arugula, and leave some of the water on the leaves. Add the arugula to the pot, stir to coat with the oil, and then cover the pot, and cook on low heat for around 5 minutes. The steam from the water on the leaves, combined with the hot oil, should have cooked the arugula perfectly in that time. If not, raise the heat to finish the cooking. Season the dish with salt; freshly ground black pepper; and if you think it needs it, a little lemon juice.
The Rare Cuts in Harahan is located at 5860 Citrus Blvd., Suite B, and you can call them at 504/309-8391. In Mandeville, Rare Cuts can be found at 1600 W. Causeway Approach, Suite 5, and the phone number is 985/778-0800. The shop Uptown will be located at 801 Nashville St. at the corner of Magazine. Either of the other two shops will no doubt be able to provide you with a phone number once it’s open. Calling is a good idea if you’re looking for something you don’t see available on Rare Cuts’ Web site because Albert is generally able to get just about anything you could find at a restaurant and will work with his suppliers for special orders.
Whether you are willing to pay the kind of money required to enjoy the offerings at Rare Cuts is a personal choice. It’s probably not the kind of place you’ll shop every day. But I’m still thinking of those rib-eye cap steaks a few days later and thinking of how much better they’d be had I put them on the grill.
That’s the kind of thinking that Henry Albert is counting on, I don’t doubt.