If a city’s success is measured by its density of steakhouses, downtown Bellevue is rolling. Bellevue’s wealth is probably the biggest factor in the concentration of these meaty institutions, but so is its large corporate presence and Asian populations — demographics that tend to support status-symbol dinners associated with a big expensive cut of beef. Situated along Northeast Eighth Street are no more than four restaurants dedicated to the almighty steak. But, if you think one size fits all, think again. Each makes its own unique stab at steakhouse glory. Here are the three that claim local heritage.
John Howie Steak
Consistently taking home awards for “Best Restaurant” and “Best Chef,” John Howie Steak is a hometown favorite. But, besides the home-field advantage, what sets JHS apart? First of all, the level of service is outstanding. Servers here are generally not college kids just passing through; rather, these are people who have made service a career. “My people don’t leave. They love working for me,” said Howie. And the ambiance tries to bridge the gap between traditional steakhouse “old boys club” and an atmosphere agreeable to “ladies who lunch.”
Secondly, the meat program run by Executive Chef Mark Hipkiss (incidentally, Hipkiss is a butcher’s son) exceeds quality levels of many other institutions. USDA Prime steaks are the minimum standard of quality at JHS and are sourced exclusively from Nebraska. American, Australian, and Japanese Wagyu round out the steak cuts with in-house dry and wet aging techniques. For customers wondering whether Japanese Wagyu tastes measurably better than other steaks, JHS offers a sampler platter — 4-ounce cuts of each grade from USDA Prime to Japanese Wagyu. Howie tells skeptics, “If you can’t taste the difference, I’ll take it off your bill.” Thus far, he’s never lost that bet.
Finally, the cooking method depends on live mesquite wood fire as opposed to charcoal briquettes and high-heat gas-flame broilers used elsewhere. Howie firmly believes this is the best way to impart flavor into the meat. Consequently, live wood fires require expensive “pollution control units” (aka hoods) that Howie jokingly calls “his two Ferraris in the ceiling.”
Howie’s “last steak ever” is a USDA Prime Delmonico, a bone-in NY strip steak seared over a mesquite-wood fire and seasoned with sea salt. But, every night leading up to his “last steak ever,” Howie would top it with the JHS French onion preparation, 3-day veal stock, caramelized Walla Walla sweet onions, and cheese melted into all the cracks.
Opened in 1989 on top of the Bellevue Hyatt, Daniel’s Broiler is the town’s original steakhouse. At the time, it was the only restaurant that could boast a view, and remains one of the best to this day. During the early 1990s, Daniel’s transitioned to an all-USDA Prime grade menu showcasing the country’s top 2 to 3 percent of quality.
“We are kind of meat fanatics.”
That pillar is so integral to Daniel’s identity that it recently took staff more than a year to decide whether to add American Wagyu and American Bison to the feature section. “Staff members were nervous that this meant stepping away from who we are, but we decided to view it as adding more depth to our menu, not stepping away,” said general manager Robert Cramer.
In addition to its commitment to high-quality steaks, Daniel’s maintains high standards for its service staff, including the “10 standards of service,” such as the guest comes first, hot food on hot plates, cold food on cold plates, and always striving to understand the needs of the guest. As the “Broiler” in its name suggests, Daniel’s utilizes its 1,800-degree gas broiler to quickly “seal the juices” within each steak. The meat is transferred to a wood grill to finish cooking and to impart mesquite and/or applewood flavor into the steak.
Many longtime customers living the “snowbird” lifestyle stop in at Daniel’s whenever they are in town and deliver Cramer his favorite compliment; “It sure is good to be home.”
El Gaucho Bellevue is a celebration house. The 18,000-square-foot restaurant is the stage upon which “live action dining” theater plays out nightly. In addition to live music, tableside Caesar salad service, hot swords skewering kabobs, and flaming desserts garner fascination from young and, er, well-done guests alike.
Some might think all the flair could surely be a smokescreen to distract from a lower-quality product, but that would be incorrect. “We are kind of meat fanatics,” said president and COO Chad Mackay. His father, Paul Mackay, worked at the original El Gaucho (open from 1953-85) and decided to resurrect the institution in 1996 (Seattle). Throughout the years, they have built relationships with key beef producers in an effort to source the highest-quality product for the restaurants.
El Gaucho serves Certified Angus Beef, what many consider a cut above USDA Prime. Its steaks come from specific family ranches, not commodity feedlots. Within the Niman Ranch system, beef cattle are raised exclusively without antibiotics or added hormones; have an all-vegetarian diet; and are given space to roam outdoors with access to fresh, clean water and with as little stress as possible. El Gaucho’s commitment to this consistently superior product means a better experience for diners.
Another theatrical element is the blazing charcoal-fed wall of fire. “We had an open kitchen long before it became a trend on TV and in the restaurant scene,” said Mackay. It provides action and activity for guests as well as a way for the cooks to interact with the diners. Plus, he goes on, an open kitchen is always cleaner.
Behind the scenes, El Gaucho participates in a composting program with Cedar Grove Composting in an effort to reduce landfill waste. In the coming season, they are working to close the circle and put the compost to use on land leased in Woodinville, where they plan to grow some items for the restaurant.
Not all steakhouses are located in Bellevue. Prime, in Redmond, bills itself as a more casual version of the institution. The “Classic Cuts” are all USDA Prime from St. Helen’s Beef raised in the Pacific Northwest, while some of the “Contemporary Cuts” venture into the top of the USDA Choice category. Combined with less formal service (what co-owner Jason Bailey defines as “not four servers for each table”), the prices reflect the more relaxed atmosphere. In Issaquah, the institute of meat is JaK’s Grill, of course. The carnivorously inclined are served on a first-come basis as no reservations are accepted.
Meat Primer 101
The USDA meat-grading labels are clear as mud. Instead of something like a logical 1-10 scale, the United States government chose to give meat arbitrary labels that basically all sound good and are frequently misunderstood by consumers. Here is the actual breakdown of USDA grading labels.
Only the top 3 percent of all U.S. beef is labeled “Prime.” To achieve this label, inspectors look at the meat’s fat cap and other factors. Beef from Nebraska tends to pass the bar more than any other area in the country, in part because the state’s cattle don’t have to be bred with heartier breeds of cows that can withstand the hot Texas summers. All USDA Prime beef is grain-finished — grass-fed/finished beef simply does not have enough fat to qualify as “Prime.”
And then comes Wagyu, with a grading system all its own. Wagyu is a breed of cattle cultivated in Japan over the last 2,000 years. Rumor has it that Wagyu cattle are fed beer and massaged daily — which is an exaggeration of sorts. They are often fed grain that is a byproduct of the beer brewing process. As far as massaging goes, any relaxing rubdowns are likely done just before slaughter to calm the animal and keep it from producing lactic acid as a result of stress. Lactic acid can significantly impact the texture and quality of meat.
This is the top of the line. Japanese Wagyu cattle have been bred for centuries with a calm environment and a much slower fattening process that takes about two years (hence the higher prices at market). The result is tender, finely marbled beef with a telltale “spider web” pattern. True Kobe beef is Japanese Wagyu produced in Kobe, Japan (similar to how “champagne” must come from Champagne, France).
This is also a purebred Wagyu beef and comes in second place only to Japanese Wagyu in terms of quality. The main difference is due to lack of centuries to perfect growing techniques. One unique quality distinction of Australian Wagyu is that it is considered “halal” or raised in accordance with Muslim law and therefore approved for consumption by practicing Muslim people.
Though the lowest on the Wagyus scale, American Wagyu is nevertheless considered better quality than USDA Prime meat. American ranchers fatten beef cattle far more rapidly than their Japanese counterparts (six months versus two years) resulting in less fine marbling. American Wagyu is not purebred, but rather crossbred with Black Angus. Some producers label their product as “American Kobe” — though it would not be recognized as such in Japan.