At the Hotel Palomar's swanky new modern steakhouse Knife, chef John Tesar is utilizing a $50,000 dry-aging room to create a little meat magic — enhanced only with a little bit of salt and pepper. Aging is a crucial component in creating an incredibly delicious steak. Some steakhouses use a process called wet-aging, or sealingsteaks into vacuum bags to break down connective tissue while retaining moisture, but dry-aging has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, likely due to the process's ability to produce a bevy of complex flavors. The process of dry-aging is delicate and requires a great deal of patience, but setting it in motion is actually quite simple: Steaks are placed inside a room that has the right balance of temperature and humidity that's carefully monitored, while Mother Nature does the rest.
Tesar's own dry-aging room was inspired by some of the country's top steakhouses, particularly Mario Batali's Carnevino in Las Vegas. "They have a warehouse across from the Las Vegas Strip that's as big as our banquet room. They have a computerized monitoring system there because there's over a half-million dollars of beef in there at any given time, but really all you need to know is that the room has to be 36 degrees, and 40% humidity," Tesar explains.
In his own dry-aging room, over $20,000 worth of beef is aging at any given time. Tesar sources the grass-fed, organic beef from premier purveyors like Niman Ranch and 44 Farms, and the Akaushi (or Japanese Wagyu) is from a farm in San Antonio. Some of these steaks will be aged for 45 days, while others are destined to become Tesar's much-trumpeted $80-per-inch 240-day dry-aged ribeyes.
Most of the time, the process of dry-aging steaks results in mold that looks less than appetizing. At Knife, though, the steaks look like a better version of something that you'd see in any butcher's case. There is no black mold to trim away, only small dots of a harmless white mold that provides complex flavor to steaks in the same way that it does charcuterie. The dry-aging room is strictly maintained, and only Tesar and his sous-chef enter the room only when necessary. The temperature and humidity mix has to be watched closely, and any contamination has to be dealt with swiftly.
"If you don't clean the shelves and pick the blood up, bacteria grows. At 36 degrees and 40 percent humidity, you don't need ultraviolet light or anything else to kill the bacteria," says Tesar. "It's a longer process of developing the mold, but you don't want to lose that temperature. Other steakhouses have 'dry-aged' beef on the menu, but they're just doing it in a walk-in. They're not managing the humidity. At that point, it's just old fuzzy beef."
Beef that goes into the dry-aging room at Knife, especially that which is destined to stay there for 240 days, is minimally trimmed. The fat cap on the beef continues to add flavor through the drying process, and results in less loss from the actual muscle tissue. Still, after 240 days, over one-third of the meat's original weight has evaporated. "There has to be a bone in the steak and a nice bit of fat in there, otherwise you're just shrinking meat. A dry-aged filet would be stupid. Maybe a bone-in dry-aged filet."
This constant attention to detail is partly why Tesar considers dry-aged steaks such a great value. The dry-aging process also produces a unique texture in the steak along with concentrating and intensifying the beef's natural flavor. "You're taking all of the blood and water out of the steak," says Tesar. "You lose weight, which increases the price-per-pound, but we don't look at it that way as chefs. We're increasing the flavor in this piece of meat. It's so rich and deep in that beef flavor, so you don't need to eat as much. It gives you much more satisfaction."
It looks as if Tesar's dedication to elevating the boring old steakhouse is working: Even though Knife is in its infancy, the public is loving these dry-aged steaks. "I've had every chef and restaurateur in town in here, and they love what we're doing." The night before I spoke with them, Knife had over a hundred covers. "It's not because we're new. It's because people really like our food." As his steak concept begins to take off, Tesar also has plans to expand the dry-aged offerings at Knife beyond just beef. Elysian Farms lamb, made famous in Thomas Keller's storied restaurants, is next on the menu.
— Amy McCarthy