|By Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 27, 2006 - I'm sitting in Harry Caray's restaurant, perusing the steak menu.
Not the restaurant's regular menu of USDA prime steaks; been there, tasted that. No, tonight I'm checking out Harry Caray's special menu of Tallgrass steaks--organic, grass-fed beef from Tallgrass Beef Company.
Harry's is the only steakhouse in Chicago--make that the country--that serves Tallgrass steaks. But they're not the only restaurant seeing the benefit of selling brand-name meat.
At RL, the restaurant owned by Ralph Lauren, the menu always makes note when the Double RL filet, which comes from beef raised on Lauren's ranch in Colorado, is available.
"No question there's a cachet," says Hugo Ralli, who with Steve Lombardo operates RL. "It's almost designer beef."
Fans of Ted's Montana Grill, a 40-unit restaurant chain that has a location in Glenview (and plans seven more Chicago-area openings in the next 18 months), know that much of the bison served comes from owner Ted Turner's own herd.
"Actually, we don't call it Turner Ranch Bison on the menu," cautions co-founder George McKerrow, "because though we know that 70, 80 percent of our bison comes from Turner Ranch, not all of it does."
At David Burke's Primehouse, a steakhouse that opened in the James Hotel last month, chef/partner David Burke not only knows that all his beef comes from Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, but soon he'll also know who the father was. That's because the restaurant invested in a prize bull, which lives at Creekstone Farms and helps out with, um, production.
"His name is Prime 207L," says Burke, sounding like a proud papa. "2,500 pounds. He's in the top 2 percent of the Angus bulls bred in the U.S. in terms of parenting and marbling [the latter term denoting the richness of the meat]. He lives in Kentucky, and is partnered up with the finest heifers to produce the finest meat. He's taken care of a few times a week, and should produce for the next nine years."
The interesting aspect to all this branding is that it is not stressing the flavor aspects of the meat. The emphases are on quality assurance, health and safety.
"The fact is, we're looking for certification of source and age verifications," says McKerrow of Ted's Montana Grill. "That's very important, because you know the life cycle of the animal. You know when it was born, and where it was raised and what it ate. Our bison are steroid-free, antibiotic-free and growth-hormone free. We're close to working on an all-natural beef program using the same standards."
That's a big part of the cachet behind Tallgrass Beef Company, which is owned by TV legend Bill Kurtis. Tallgrass beef is naturally raised, grass-fed and grass-finished, which means the cows don't bulk up on grain at the end of their life cycle. The cows are free of growth-hormone treatments and antibiotic-laced feeds.
The grass-fed beef is said to be lower in cholesterol, higher in omega 3 fatty acids and generally a healthier meat option. That's not just the manufacturers saying it; the Union of Concerned Scientists is getting behind the grass-fed movement as well.
"We opened up in October, and we've rolled the product out only in Chicago," says Kurtis, "but we're getting requests from San Francisco to New York. We've been making it available to special high-end chefs. Jean Joho at Everest is experimenting with his own cuts, and Charlie Trotter one night prepared tenderloin for 70 people, searing it three times on each side and soaking it in sake. It's fun to see individual chefs put their stamp on it."
Of course, none of this matters if the customers don't respond. But in the restaurants in which Tallgrass steaks go head-to-head (Harry Caray's and Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook), with the USDA prime, grain- and corn-fed beef that is the mainstay of most high-end steakhouses, Tallgrass beef reportedly more than holds its own.
"We have many prime steak options on the menu, and just three Tallgrass options," says Grant DePorter, president of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group. "And of all the steaks sold here, a little over 10 percent are Tallgrass. The response has been very good, and I'm certain, as more people become familiar with it, the percentage of Tallgrass sales will continue to grow."
"It flies out of here," says Sarah Stegner, co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe, an American restaurant in which Bill Kurtis, not coincidentally, is an investor. "We offer conventional beef as well, and Tallgrass definitely sells better. Many customers who buy it are interested in the health benefits. But that's not why we carry it; it's the flavor. Waiters sell it because it tastes good."
It certainly isn't selling because of cost savings; Tallgrass steaks aren't cheap. It's difficult to compare costs directly because the portion sizes differ (Tallgrass cows, for instance, are said to have smaller tenderloins than their corn-fed counterparts), but at Harry Caray's, a Tallgrass 8-ounce filet mignon goes for $28.95, and the 12-ounce New York strip and boneless ribeye steaks run $30.95. By comparison, the USDA prime ribeye at Harry Caray's is $35.95 for a 23-ounce, bone-in steak.
"Absolutely people respond," says Burke, who also offers Creekstone Farms beef at his New York restaurant, David Burke & Donatella. "It's branding. But it's also the right thing. As gimmicky as it sounds, it's really done for the right reasons. It's the future."
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So here's Phil's take on the taste of branded beef
So, how does a Tallgrass steak taste? At Harry Caray's, the Tallgrass ribeye was leaner than most ribeyes I've had, with less excess fat, and while tender, it still had discernible texture (I dislike too-soft steaks). It was as flavorful a ribeye as I've ever had, with a buttery finish.
A day later, I bought some Tallgrass ground beef from the Fox & Obel store and made some burgers at home. The beef was expensive--an eye-popping $5.99 per pound--but the meat was juicy and had that beefy tang I've only tasted in a top-quality steak. It made one hell of a burger.
Some restaurants offering specialty-brand meats:
- David Burke's Primehouse, James Hotel, 616 N Rush St., 312-660-6000
- Harry Caray's, 33 W. Kinzie St., 312-828-0966; and 10233 W. Higgins Rd., Rosemont; 847-699-1200.
- Prairie Grass Cafe, 601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-205-4433
- RL, 115 E. Chicago Ave., 312-475-1100. (Double RL steaks are not available currently; usually available 5-6 months per year because of limited quantity.)
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