Steak has been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons. Namely, the price is rising fast, pushed along by last year’s high feed costs, drought, and rapacious Asian demand. But amid all the fuss about the soaring cost of low-grade hamburger meat, some observers have lost sight of the good news afoot at the premium end of the spectrum. Never before has so much great quality, naturally raised beef been available from coast to coast. And more to the point, never before have so many butchers and restaurants aspired to dry-age it to such states of tantalizing perfection.
At the moment the best beef and the finest dry-ageing programs converge in Toronto—in the form of restaurants looking to put the ultimate steaks on the plate with the help of ageing rooms, or butchers, aiming to send you home with the same product, raw. Keeping track of their comings and goings is very nearly a full time job. Or hobby. And fortunately I know someone with the requisite time and appetite to see it through.
“Gents, it’s high time for another steak tasting,” my friend Dr. Josh Josephson, owner of Toronto’s Josephson Opticians, wrote in a group e-mail that went out in February. His steak-tasting club—which obviously includes me—is an illustrious but informal gang. The core of the group is made up of chefs and restaurateurs (Mark McEwan, David Lee, Joe Bersani). Others are informed and enthusiastic carnivores (Clayton Ruby, Jimmy Molloy and myself). I cannot reveal what it takes to be asked to join; only that once in, you are not allowed to quit.
Since the 1990s we have convened every year or two—as necessity and appetite dictate. Sometimes our group of seven or eight rents a limo and visits six or seven successive steak houses and restaurants in a single night. Other times we conduct surveys at people’s homes, evaluating our samples blind. This time I came up with a novel new plan: gather all the steaks and have them cooked for us at one restaurant, thus sparing the need to move, or clean up, or waste energy travelling when we could be drinking. Chef Lee graciously nominated his own Nota Bene for the cause.
On the night in question, the steaks were prepared as they show best: rare for strip loins, medium-rare for rib steaks, and no seasonings save for olive oil, salt and pepper. We graded each steak out of a possible 10 points for qualities of taste, texture and juiciness. And the next day, Dr. Josephson converted all of our scores into a dense and perplexing spreadsheet, which the rest of us ignored save for the final rankings.
Our lineup started with past winners Cumbrae Farms (as supplied to Nota Bene) and McEwan Foods (as supplied to Bymark). We rounded out the list with Bestellen (where Cumbrae beef is aged in-house), and then added three other new suppliers to the mix, courtesy of Richmond Station, Michael’s on Simcoe, as well as a new shop, Butchers of Distinction, all of which break down their own beef and dry age it on site. Each supplied two large ribs and two large strip loins—about 14 kilos in total.
After much mastication our collective votes determined the following: the best strip loin in Toronto comes from Cumbrae, aged by Cumbrae (far outclassing the same beef, aged longer at Bestellen). The best rib hails from P.E.I. via the ageing room at McEwan. And on the off chance that you are heading out but cannot decide which cut you’re in the mood for, you should dine at Richmond Station (2nd place in both categories to become our overall winner). Next year, we’ll have to see.