A waiter rushes through the dining room carrying a steak, and heads instantly turn. Eyes follow. Fingers point. “Did you see that?” a guy at a nearby table says, leaning into the aisle to get a better look.
“There goes another one.” Heads turn again, jaws drop.
[This article originally appeared in Robb Report.]
Barely contained on an oversize platter of industrial heft, one of these steaks lands on my table with a graceful thunk—a 2-pound USDA prime ribeye, nearly two inches thick and still smoldering. Steak for one. The heady aroma of perfectly charred beef does not just perfume the air at LasVegas’s Old Homestead Steakhouse, it consumes it, intoxicating everyone within finger-pointing range. Wine glasses clink. Laughter mingles with the racket of nearby slot machines. Another cadre of strong-armed waiters bearing massive hunks of meat hustles by.
All it takes is the nudge of my knife to slice completely through a steak bigger than what my local grocer passes off as a pot roast. Juices puddle underneath. And after 21 days of dry aging, the meat delivers a serious, full-bodied punch. Steak does not get any better than this. It is dizzyingly good.
Revelatory—even for me, the son of a fifth-generation cattle rancher.
A tectonic shift has taken place in the Las Vegas dining scene: Instead of bragging about Michelin stars and 15-course tasting menus, every major hotel and resort is upping the ante with at least one glamorous steak house. The Palazzo hotel boasts four. In Las Vegas, some of the best chefs in the world have turned their attention to sourcing and grilling the ultimate hunks of meat: Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Palmer, and Michael Mina—each opened his first steak house in LasVegas.This spring, Gordon Ramsay joined them with his first steak house, inside the Paris casino.
Las Vegas is where the modern steak house was first conceived, and where it continues to be innovated and celebrated. The result is the best steak money can buy, anywhere in the world. That makes for fierce competition, and the steak houses here are constantly striving to set themselves apart, starting with the beef itself. Between April 2011 and April 2012, Las Vegas shipments of Certified Angus Beef (a premium brand of beef preferred by Colicchio and Mina, among others) increased by more than 1.5 million pounds for a total in excess of 5 million pounds—and that is but one of many premium brands or sources making their way to the city.
Old Homestead Steakhouse gets its beef from Pat LaFrieda, the esteemed New York meat purveyor. In 2010, LaFrieda was forced to move his packing facilities across the river to New Jersey—after more than 90 years in Manhattan—to keep up with swelling demand. Credit Las Vegas: Since opening day in January at Caesars Palace, the 220-seat steak house—an offshoot of the original in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District—has been serving 400 to 500 customers a night, seven days a week. Ninety percent of those customers order steak. Big steaks. Numbers like that give the city’s restaurants serious muscle in the meat market.
But what most people do not realize about the USDA grading scale (and what the USDA would rather we did not know) is that the inspectors actually identify three tiers of prime and three levels of choice, distinctions that are meant to be invisible to the end consumer, says Mark Polzer, vice president of business development at Certified Angus Beef. This leaves room for brands like Certified Angus Beef and elite purveyors such as LaFrieda to cherry-pick the exclusive top tier of prime. Or in the case of Carnevino, Batali’s steakhouse in the Palazzo, “We have our own guy on the line at the beef-processing plant who hand-selects the very best of the prime at the exact moment that it is being graded,” says the restaurant’s culinary director, Jason Neve. In other words, there is a velvet rope in the beef industry, and the big boys in Las Vegas get to cut to the front of the line. They see and select meat that other steak houses can only dream about. And the chefs take it from there.
Vongerichten was the first to reinvent steak for LasVegas—or anywhere, for that matter—when he opened Prime Steakhouse at Bellagio 14 years ago. A novel experiment at the time, Prime broke the mold with a steak house dining room that was neither clubby nor masculine. Swathed in velvet and drapery, with white-clothed tables set with Bernardaud china, Prime was as elegantly refined as a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, but with a menu meant to challenge the very best steak houses in America. It is still one of the toughest reservations in town. When the economy slumped and the rest of Las Vegas crapped out, says Griffin, “We never felt it.”
Batali’s 4-year-old Carnevino, the most expensive steak house in town, grills more than 5,000 pounds of steak a week. To head Carnevino’s unprecedented meat program, Batali tapped renowned barbecue guru Adam Perry Lang, a veteran chef of Le Cirque and Daniel in NewYork and Guy Savoy in Paris. Batali and Lang built a 2,000-square-foot warehouse and butcher shop across town, where slabs of beef are moved around with forklifts. As the beef rolls in, Carnevino’s chefs judge each cut and decide how long it will age (typically 90 to 120 days). They set aside the fattiest, most heavily marbled cuts and let them age for up to an entire year for the restaurant’s off-menu Riserva program, in which steaks are sliced to order at the restaurant—at $108 per inch. The outer layer of fat, combined with the internal marbling, determines how long a steak can age. Dry aging is actually a classic method of preserving meat: The fat around the edges helps preserve the meat inside, and as it ages, the muscle becomes more tender. It takes a very special piece of prime to benefit from an entire year in the meat locker.
Seven Perfect Steaks
In all, I dined at 16 top steak houses in search of nothing less than the perfect cut of beef. The steak had to be at least an inch thick, and cooked medium rare with a beautifully charred crust. It had to be dry-aged, deeply flavored, and rich with juices. And it had to be tender, of course, and not too lean. A steak with no visible fat is not a steak worth eating. Here are the seven best, in order of preference.
Carnevino, The Palazzo
Chef Mario Batali’s Italian-accented menu is superb from start (antipasti such as grilled octopus and beef tartare) to finish (date-and-espresso milkshake with gingersnap cookies). Steaks are dry-aged by the restaurant for 90 to 120 days (longer for the off-the-menu Riserva program); rubbed with sea salt, black pepper, and rosemary; gas broiled; and seasoned with rosemary olive oil. Wine service is polished and delightfully heavy on Barolo, Brunello, and Super Tuscans. The grand, masculine (and sometimes loud) dining hall is regal yet understated, with plenty of marble and antiques.
Best steak: 240-day dry-aged Riserva rib eye, thick cut and intensely flavored, with a fatty crust that has a tang of blue cheese ($108 per inch). 702.789.4141
Old Homestead Steakhouse, Caesars Palace
This warm, updated riff on the classic red- leather-booth steak house serves the most impeccably marbled, massive cuts. Steaks are cooked under a 1,800-degree infrared broiler that instantly seals in every last drop of juice, and gloriously finished with double-butterfat butter for an incomparable crust.
Best steak: 26-ounce, bone-in, 30-day dry- aged Gotham rib ($68). Order a side of black-truffle gnocchi instead of potatoes. 877.346.4642
Prime Steakhouse, Bellagio
The first of Las Vegas’s modern steak houses is also its most elegant and romantic, with powder-blue velvet drapery, Bernardaud china, and a view of the Bellagio fountain. The hotel’s in-house butcher shop supplies supremely high-quality steaks—gas-grilled and finished with butter, salt, and pepper. Starters at the restaurant, which was created by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, include a chilled seafood platter that over- flows with oysters, clams, mussels, crab legs, lobster tails, and shrimp the size of house pets.
Best steak: 18-ounce, 28-day dry-aged bone- in rib eye ($70), which comes with a trio of sauces. 866.259.7111
StripSteak, Mandalay Bay
Chef Michael Mina makes up for a surprisingly bland dining room with truly outstanding steaks, which are first poached in butter, then grilled over mesquite for a transcendent flavor and velvety texture in a category all its own. The duck-fat fries are mandatory, as are the corn-and-blue-crab hush puppies.
Best steak: 8-ounce, American Wagyu rib cap, which is the best part of the rib eye ($67). 702.632.7200
Jean Georges Steakhouse, Aria Resort and Casino
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new steak house wood-grills USDA prime along with high-quality Wagyu and Angus from Australia, and serves it in a dining room with the style and energy of a nightclub. The outstanding sommeliers suggest unexpected but brilliant pairings. Diners can request a VIP beef tasting served atop a platter of smoldering apricot-wood chips.
Best steak: 10-ounce, Australian Angus New York strip ($65), which is surprisingly comparable to Wagyu in tenderness and flavor. 877.230.2742
Cut, The Palazzo
Settle into an Eames chair and take in Wolfgang Puck’s mod, modern steak house, where waiters display raw slabs of USDA prime beef from Nebraska, Illinois, Washington, and Kansas, plus Wagyu from the United States and Australia. Steaks are grilled over wood and charcoal with salt, pepper, and two secret seasonings, then finished with garlic butter and placed under a 1,200-degree broiler to set the crust. It is hard to resist the finest onion rings on the strip, and a famously rich assortment of appetizers, such as bone-marrow flan.
Best steak: 12-ounce, 35-day dry-aged Nebraska rib eye ($59), which has better marbling than its Wagyu counterparts. 702.607.6300
The Steak House, Circus Circus
The menu is short, no-nonsense, and no-frills. The wine list is embarrassing. The casino has seen better days. But surprise of surprises: Circus Circus has one of the best dry-aging programs in Las Vegas, grills over mesquite, and employs waiters who regale you about the days when they served the Rat Pack. Corkage is $20 per bottle.
Best steak: 30-ounce, 21-day dry-aged bone-in rib eye ($50), one of the biggest steaks in town. 702.794.3767