Scoff all you want, but know this: Like Birkenstocks, steakhouses have remarkable staying power. While you can (and should) cook good steak yourself, chances are you aren't chummy with a good cattle purveyor or have a commercial broiler at home. That's where steakhouses come in: They can transcend your need for a revelatory experience, provided the experiences are good enough to justify the cost of a tasting menu.
That's where I come in. Over the past three weeks, I visited several local steakhouses and tested classic cuts such as rib-eye and New York strip steaks, where available. My arteries swelled a little, but I lived to tell the tale.
Some caveats: Chain steakhouses were excluded from our list, and we didn't visit every steakhouse in the metro area. But if you're looking for a break from the grill or a place to treat yourself — or dad for Father's Day — here are eight (ranked) options.
What to build in the middle of a parking lot, where an AMC movie theater, Chipotle and Williams-Sonoma beckon?
A steakhouse, but make it fancy: Design it like an airline lounge with high ceilings, glossy lighting and sleek, rounded edges.
"Welcome to Baldamar," a hostess coos, before parading us through a dining room filled with patrons dressed like Disneyland visitors breaking for lunch. Such are the travails of building a shopping-mall steakhouse.
Baldamar looks better than it needs to be, and the servers play their role well, strutting around in leather aprons. It all looks promising.
Until it isn't. Both steaks — New York strip ($53, 14 oz.) and rib-eye ($58, 18 oz.) — are sloppily cooked, as if the cooks had fun playing Tetris on the grill. That may explain why some parts are gray and mealy while others are done to the correct temperature. One corner of the steak has some semblance of a crust.
The steaks may be prime-certified and "custom aged," but you won't know it when the predominant flavor is salt and not much else, and when the lack of resting drowns the meat in blood.
Your best bet is to order elsewhere from the menu; their sides are a little heavy-handed with seasoning but are at least flavorful and look the part. Much like those aprons.
1642 W. County Road B2, Roseville, baldamar.com.
7. Jax Cafe
Sure, there's the '90s-era website designed like it peddles souvenirs from a medieval castle, but Jax Cafe in the flesh is not tacky at all. Some would say it's even elegant, with tartan carpets, wooden beams and the kind of paintings you'd find at your distant uncle's Scottish abode. Legends like Jax need no introduction.
Most of the diners here won't bother about such frivolous things as optics. They've frequented for decades — Jax Cafe dates back to 1910 — telegraphing to servers using coded dialects so their meals never miss a beat. Our neighboring table orders a side of asparagus, brightly colored and as thick as link sausages. Ours, by contrast, is shriveled, forlorn and as colorful as a barren field.
A New York strip ($52, 14 oz.) is tough and stringy, too, and it's not properly rested. But at least it's flavorful and seasoned judiciously, not needing much of the sauce. Which is probably for the best: The béarnaise is too acidic and has the consistency of warm Jell-O.
1928 University Av. NE., Mpls., jaxcafe.com
6. P.S. Steak
P.S.: This place is special.
The location is awkward, but look at the magnitude of it: The corridors are wide enough to fit a Humvee, and the decor builds on the beaux-arts remnants of its predecessor, La Belle Vie, by darkening its walls and affixing animal heads to them.
And the way steaks are presented is a case study on how markups are justified: The wooden boards on which these steaks rest are thick and smooth, with a slender groove around the edge to catch the juices; there's usually a bulb of roasted garlic, otherwise there's charred lemon, too. And those steak knives!
They look like scimitars, except thicker, with a satisfyingly ergonomic handle bedecked with grain. They can cut through anything, though the steaks really are tender enough.
One of the most tender cuts offered at P.S. Steak is a wagyu Denver cut from Snake River Farms, a well respected meat purveyor. You won't find Snake River Denver steak at many steakhouses in the Twin Cities, but at P.S. Steak, you can order 10 ounces of it for $68, fairly reasonable given its extensive marbling.
I wish the other steaks had more to offer. They're well-rested and carefully cooked, but don't impart much by way of flavor (slightly flat) or texture (wan crusts).
510 Groveland Av., Mpls., psmpls.com
5. Gianni's Steakhouse
The first thing you notice at Gianni's is the number of men wearing gingham shirts, sleeves carefully unrolled to show watches the size of pacemakers. Many of their faces are glowing like apricots against the sunset. Where do they come from?
It's Thursday and the weather's nice, so probably Wayzata. Gianni's has been in business long enough — more than 25 years — to know how to court these diners, both old-timers and the newcomers. This isn't the kind of steakhouse where the wine glasses will bounce off the concrete pavement unscathed.
This is the rare steakhouse where servers know how to coddle, trading discourse tuned to the correct pitch. Your second espresso martini order is all you, by the way, not them. And they won't bat an eye should you order your filet mignon well-done. No one stares here.
Yes, the steak: New York strip, ($55, 16 oz.) is cooked evenly enough, and the char is there. Rib-eye ($80, 22 oz.), lacks that char, even though it's broiled in the same 900-degree oven — and looks more pallid — but at least it's juicy, fatty and tender. While it is still a pleasure to eat, I wish I could taste more "beef" — the rib-eye is wet-aged (hence the moisture), in contrast to the strip, which is dry-aged and meatier. Other than my conversation with the chef, there's little detail around the steaks' provenance except for some marketing language on the menu: "Humanely raised and handled." Just like the neighborhood.
635 E. Lake St., Wayzata, giannis-steakhouse.com
At Murray's, newly minted servers/carvers shadow a veteran for three days before handling the knife themselves.
"It looks intimidating, but it really isn't that bad," our server said, carving slices from a whole strip sirloin, the size of a meatloaf, with clockwork precision.
Murray's signature Silver Butter Knife Steak, which serves two ($135, 28 oz.), is tender enough to warrant its moniker, though be forewarned, the way it's cooked means only a limited section, the core, is done to your temperature preference — the outside is cooked more aggressively.
Less celebrated but equally noteworthy is the rib-eye ($67, 18 oz.), well marbled with a soft linger of dry-age. That it sits on a moat of liquid grease suggests that a textbook broil isn't the goal — the sheer unctuousness of it all is worth the draw.
26 S. 6th St., Mpls., murraysrestaurant.com
3. St. Paul Grill
A notepad on every table is telling. So, too, are the banker lamps, retro window blinds and discreet service. The St. Paul Grill is clubby yet serious.
Their steaks certainly set the tone — they're nearly faultless.
Grill marks are dark and handsome, while crusts are well seasoned with the right amount of salt. No elegy on where the steaks come from or the types of lives these cattle lived. Dry-aging might bring the beefiness up a notch; otherwise, a recent rib-eye order ($64.95, 16 oz.) was juicy enough and well rested, arriving with a more generous than expected band of rib cap, full of buttery flavor.
The rest of the menu can feel listless, but sides reliably fulfill their role, as expected from a place so refreshingly lacking in conceit. Go.
350 N. Market St., St. Paul, stpaulgrill.com
2. The Lexington
First impressions matter, yet it seems the Lexington doesn't tend to them.
The entrance looks and feels like a nondescript gentlemen's club. There's no bouncer outside, but the host inside behaves like one. Tonight, he's also filling the role of production coordinator, slinking around the dining room, tablet in hand.
No matter: The Lexington is one of the area's best-looking old-school steakhouses. It's quiet and furnished with the kind of ornateness (chandeliers, gratuitous wood paneling) that would recall the pledge hall of a well endowed frat house if it weren't for Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background. So elegant it is that you'd feel out of place wearing shorts to dine, even though many diners do.
They come for the steaks, which are grilled over Minnesota hardwood and come from a breed of cattle that lends itself to a mouthfeel so remarkably clean that it makes me forget I am eating steak for the fourth time in a week. A medium-rare cookery may not yield an iron-rich, red flesh; it's more pink-hued, with a distinct mineral tang — more characteristic of the New York strip ($59, 14 oz.) than the rib-eye ($69, 16 oz.). While the rib-eye carries more flavor, the former cut has my pick as the best of its kind in the cities.
1096 Grand Av., St. Paul, thelexmn.com
1. Manny's Steakhouse
Manny's Steakhouse may have relocated and changed many hands since 1987, but one of its cooks, Luis Agudo, has been around for most of it.
"We call him El Presidente," a server tells us. Agudo, the kitchen manager, has been cooking Manny's steaks since 1997 and has distilled proper steak cookery to a science. There is a deep, ferocious char on each of his steaks, with edges that taste rounded and smoky — almost like cured sausage. There is his nuanced use of salt, fading into a vibrantly ruddy flesh characterized by its robustness and minerality, thanks in part to a judicious 21-day dry aging of grass-fed, corn-finished cattle. The rib-eye ($79.95), for this reason, is a trailblazer.
A dinner at Manny's reminds us why the bells and whistles justify a premium on a night out, even if you're at the bar, where I dined. Every meal here begins with procession. Meats are still ceremoniously wheeled out on a cart. The wine list is studied. And the service is authoritative yet graceful, delivered in steakhouse baritone by servers so devoted to Manny's beef that a general question was returned with a minute-long manifesto. Twice.
"That's probably more than what you expected," our server said. That applies to the steaks, too.
825 Marquette Av. S., Mpls., mannyssteakhouse.com
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.