Ask chefs to prepare one of their favorite steak dishes, and they may not go anywhere near the grill or broiler. Instead, some will simply start chopping up meat for beef tartare.
The French classic of raw beef has long had a warm spot in the hearts of many chefs and nostalgic gourmets, and now it’s starting to gain wider appreciation and star treatment across local restaurant menus.
“I think people have gotten more comfortable with the idea” of eating raw meat, said Christopher Lynch, executive chef at Atchafalaya, where his beef tartare is laced with agrodolce red peppers and sharp mustard seed. “When you have high quality meat, it’s such a beautiful thing, and you know there’s so much that went into getting it to you, you just want to eat it as is.”
Beef tartare is seeing a comeback at restaurants across the country in a trend running alongside the growing appetite for crudo, raw oysters and other elemental expressions on our menus.
In New Orleans, it’s arriving in greater variety as more chefs put their own stamp on the dish. At the same time, more variations on the theme — from source material as varied as Lebanese and Mexican traditions — are now represented on local menus, too.
Beef tartare has turned up at newcomers, including the Franklin in the Marigny, Brown Butter in Mid-City and Salon by Sucre in the French Quarter, while at his upscale CBD tavern Balise, chef Justin Devillier prepares a venison version, with the rich, Merlot-colored deer meat topped with flurries of horseradish and crumbled rye bread.
At Pêche Seafood Grill, lean sirloin is heavily imbued with garlic and spread over an outrageously flavorful smoked oyster aioli on a slice of grilled sourdough. And chef Kristen Essig always keeps a beef tartare on the menu at the French Quarter bistro Meauxbar, where she’s now working up a new edition with confit tomatoes and bacon aioli.
The beef tartare at Root Squared, the more casual lounge above chef Phillip Lopez’s fixed-menu-format Square Root, is mottled green from a hamper of herbs and bits of smoked capers mixed into the meat, while puffed quinoa adds a delicate crunch.
Though his is a very modern rendition, Lopez said its inspiration goes back to the classic beef tartares he learned to love as a young boy traveling with his parents in Europe.
“My mother was crazy to let me try it, because after that’s all I wanted wherever we went,” he laughed.
Risk and reward
The chance of developing a craving isn’t always the first peril that raw meat might bring to mind. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating any raw meat, since raising its temperature high enough to kill any possible bacteria is a key to preventing food-borne illnesses. Add the raw egg yolk that accompanies traditional and many contemporary tartare recipes and food safety experts have cause to throw multiple red flags.
In their restaurants, however, chefs point to high-quality product from trusted suppliers and their own fresh, cut-to-order preparations as safeguards for their raw dishes.
Beef tartare was traditionally found at continental restaurants and steakhouses, and the high-end dining room is still its natural habitat. The Rib Room, for instance, has long served beef tartare as an off-the-menu special, never listed but always available by request. When Tom Wolfe became the Rib Room’s executive chef earlier this year, he kept this arrangement in place, but changed the recipe to one he has served at a number of his earlier restaurants, which accentuates the sharp and tangy flavors of capers and mustard between the velvety meat.
“I’ve been a student of the art of tartare for a long time, and I’m fascinated by it,” said Wolfe.
These dishes have also been finding a following in more casual venues, too. When Adam Biderman, of Company Burger, designed a new bar menu for his Freret Street neighbors at Cure, he included a beef tartare recipe with fresh parsley and smashed capers between the chopped sirloin.
Beef in the raw is even making the pop-up circuit, with tartare appearing periodically on the menu of Four Calendar Café, which Matt Hayashi runs on Tuesday evenings inside the St. Claude Avenue wine shop Faubourg Wines.
“There’s so much you can do with it, no two recipes are alike,” said Hayashi, who topped a recent example with duck egg and shaved bottarga, the salt-cured roe.
In fact, raw meat dishes reach far back into the traditions of many cuisines from around the world. Ethiopian examples are represented locally at Cafe Abyssinia and Nile Ethiopian Restaurant, two eateries within a mile of each other on Magazine Street. They both serve kifto — a finely minced hash of raw beef gleaming with clarified butter — and gored gored, featuring larger chunks of chopped beef blended with a heady bouquet of spices.
At his new Israeli restaurant Shaya, chef Alon Shaya has been giving many their first taste of the Lebanese classic kibbeh nayah. Similar to the fried kibbeh croquettes that are a standard on local Middle Eastern restaurant menus, this raw rendition combines grassy-flavored lamb and buttery beef with bulgur, bits of mint and ground walnuts and a trace of sweetness from pomegranate molasses. In the CBD, at the Besh Restaurant Group’s taqueria Johnny Sanchez, chef Miles Landrem has been running a recurring special of carne apache, a traditional Mexican dish of marinated raw beef that he spoons onto bite-sized tostadas.
At Pêche Seafood Grill, chef Ryan Prewitt acknowledged his tartare might seem a counterintuitive choice for a restaurant devoted to Gulf seafood. But he said the response from diners quickly validated the addition.
“Raw beef has such a big umami flavor, and we thought it fit in with the raw bar approach here,” he said. “It’s one of those dishes chefs love to make.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.