Steakcraft: Michael White's Steaks at Marea, Ai Fiori, and Osteria Morini
Editor's Note: Please welcome longtime contributor the Nick Solares back into the Serious Eats fold. On Steakcraft, he'll look into the makings of New York's premium steaks, with lots of juicy photos along the way. Take it away, Nick!—M.F.
Steak Fact SheetCuts: NY Strip
Grade: All USDA Prime
Breed: Black Angus, Creekstone Farms
Dry Aged? Yes, Ai Fiori and Osteria Morini 28 Days; Marea 50 days
Pre-Cooked Weight:Ai Fiori 7 oz., Marea 18 oz., Osteria Morini 32 oz.
Price: Ai Fiori $42 (available as a $5 supplemental charge on prix fixe), Marea $54 (available as a $7 supplemental charge on prix fixe), Osteria Morini $79. All steaks come with sides.
Price per Ounce: Ai Fiori $6, Marea $3, Osteria Morini $2.45
While chef Michael White is best known for his rococo interpretations of Italian cuisine, he is at heart a corn-fed Midwestern kid with a love of corn-fed American beef. This is evident at three of his Manhattan restaurants: Marea, Ai Fiori, and Osteria Morini. At each he serves one of the crown jewels of the butchers meat locker—the dry aged strip loin. And just as the respective restaurants offer different glimpses of the thematic elements that inspire them, so to is the handling of the same cut, leading to three very different, yet equally compelling results.
For all intents and purposes Marea, White's seafood-centric central park juggernaut, is his flagship restaurant, and the steak, listed simply as the "bistecca" on the menu, reflects this. It is an 18 oz., bone-in USDA Prime Black Angus strip from Creekstone Farms and expertly aged for 50 days by butcher Pat LaFrieda. The steak is seared on the grill and then basted in butter, rosemary, and garlic. It comes served over panzanella—bread crumbs cooked with bone marrow—braised baby romaine, and a hearty Bordelaise sauce.
"When I opened Marea I put as much time and effort in to the steak as the seafood," White comments. Indeed, the steak served at Marea is utterly superb. As I noted in my review of the restaurant back in 2009, "the steak is sensational and not just by seafood restaurant standards. It...has the distinctive mineral-rich tang and buttery flesh that is the hallmark of the dry aging process." The steak has remained a constant on the menu, unchanged in preparation or popularity since the restaurant launched. They sell as many as fifteen a night and go through eight to ten strip loins a week.
Ai Fiori, which means "amongst the flowers," is White's ode to the Rivera. White and Chef de Cuisine PJ Calapa deftly combine classic French technique with Italian ingredients and flavor profiles. It is somewhat remarkable that these two hulking men who look like they could be line backers turn out such a delicate and refined menu.
The steak for example is relatively small—only 7 oz.—but comes served within a composed dish that includes endive, shards of Parmesan, a Bordalaise sauce, and a complex potato terrine layered with Parmesan that is cooked sous-vide and then pan seared. It is the perfect compliment to the dish and almost worthy of as much discussion as the steak itself—almost.
The steak is a 28 day dry aged USDA Prime cut that is whittled down to a perfect cube. In case you are lamenting the loss of flavor from the dry aged trimming, fear not—the trimmings make their way into the Bordelaise sauce. The steak is pan seared in canola oil and then basted in butter, rosemary, and thyme before being finished in the oven. It emerges with a perfect crust the color of dark mahogany, and sliced to reveal the perfect rosy interior before being nestled on the plate. While the dish looks diminutive compared to the average steak, it is packed with flavor. At its heart is the meat and potatoes that a lad from Texas (like Calapa) loves, but it draws on the flavors of France and Italy like the restaurant itself.
Osteria Morini is among White's most casual restaurants, but the steak they serve there is anything but casual. It is a serious 32 oz. hunk of 28 day dry aged Prime strip served on the bone for two. The steak is seasoned simply but liberally with pepper and a housemade rosemary salt before being seared on the grill.
Because the cut is so large, it is actually seared on all sides before being brought to temperature in the oven and finished with a basting of rosemary, garlic, and butter. The steak is presented tableside whole before being sliced back in the kitchen, and finished with an anointment of olive oil and sea salt.
If nothing else, parading a sizzling steak, redolent with garlic and rosemary, through the dining room is an excellent marketing ploy that creates a domino effect on steak orders. Indeed, the steak was once only a special that proved so popular that it has become a permanent menu item, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes. And with good reason—it is a steakhouse quality cut served with two sides (don't miss the fingerling potatoes) for $79, making it one of the city's best steak bargains.
About the author: Nick Solares is a NYC-based food writer and photographer. He has published Beef Aficionado since 2007, with the stated purpose of exploring American exceptionalism through the consumption of hamburgers and steak. He has written over 350 restaurant reviews for Serious Eats since 2008 and served as the creative director for the award-winning iPad app Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat. You can follow him on Instagram (@nicksolares) and Twitter (@beefaficionado).