You have a favorite steakhouse. You know what cut of meat you like, and you can tell a waiter how you liked it prepared. When you want that steakhouse experience at home, the key is to buy the right stuff. I asked two of New York's steak sultans, Pat LaFrieda, owner of LaFrieda Meats, and James Briscione, chef instructor at the Institute for Culinary Education, for tips on selecting that perfect piece of meat. Buy from a specialist: As New York's premier restaurant meat distributor, LaFrieda doesn't have to shop for his T-bones. But for those who do, he recommends against grocery stores. "Most supermarkets get their meat prepackaged," says LaFrieda. "The lowest bidder will portion steaks for a big supermarket chain, and will package the meat in white boats with a diaper that soaks in all the blood. They box it, ship it out, and put it on the shelf as if it was cut in the supermarket." La Frieda supports his local expert. "I'd find a local meat specialist or butcher," he says. "I don't want to buy from someone who sells broomsticks and soap and frozen shrimp." Briscione, who teaches ICE's famous steakhouse class, is less opposed to supermarket shopping. He recommends that people buy their meat "anywhere there's a meat counter." Follow the leader: Find out where your favorite restaurants buy their meat, and follow their choices. "A lot of steaks at school come through Ottomanelli," says Briscione, referring to a popular Manhattan butcher. "Restaurants like Danielle or Gramercy Tavern put the name of the ranch on the menu. You can go to their Web site and see who the local purveyors are."
But if your favorite restaurants like LaFrieda Meats, you're less lucky, as his meats are sold exclusively to restaurants. "We have a loyalty to our restaurants," explains LaFrieda. "We don't want to compete with our restaurants so we do not sell to the public. Consumers can't get the same quality, and we like to keep it that way. Our restaurants really like that." Go with what you know: As Briscione says, "Know what you want. It's not the same as going to the fish counter and trying to figure out what's fresh. Talk to the guy about what you want to make and how you want to cook it, then have him cut it fresh, right there for you." Especially when cooking for a date, Briscione recommends going with a meal that you've made in the past. "This is not the time to try something new. Keep it simple and keep it good." Choose a moldy oldy: "If you want to go the extra mile in flavor, aged meat is the way to go. I'm starting to see it in retail butchers," says LaFrieda. "Make sure they've trimmed the aged meat, getting rid of the dark, hard surface. It should be pinkish-red in color." Fat is flavor: Good marbling translates to high-quality meat; it's part of what separates USDA prime (the best) from choice (the second best). LaFrieda says: "Look for light red, not deep red. The overly red, beautiful looking meat usually has no marbling, and will be dry and tough; it's not what you're looking for."
"You want white flecks in the meat," adds Briscione. "Grass-fed beef will be extremely lean and kind of tough. One-hundred percent grass-fed meat is good for the animal, but not as great for eating." Tenderloin + mushrooms = magic: When cooking for the fairer sex, both men recommend tenderloin. Briscione says, "There's no visible fat, it's tender, there's no bone. Serve it with mushrooms. It's worked for me many times." Adds LaFrieda: "Most guys don't like filet, but women do. Restaurant chefs say they keep filet on the menu because it's what women order." La Frieda can also attest to the aphrodisiacal effect of mushrooms, "Make a Wellington, or put sauteed mushrooms on or near the tenderloin. I've done it plenty of times. It works." And the winner is: When cooking for himself, Briscone has three favorites. "It's going to be ribeye or New York strip. If it's casual, hangar. Hangar is the most flavorful cut, but it's not tender; it's super beefy." What will tip the scales between ribeye and NY strip? "It depends on mood, how much exercise I've had that day. NY strip is a little bit leaner." For something special, LaFrieda recommends a simple strategy. "I would suggest something that's USDA prime. Pick 40% fat marbling; it will cook out, but leaves behind a delicious, tasty and tender piece of art."