Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Steakhouses - Bern's, Tampa; BLT Steak, South Beach

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

For South Florida diners, it might well be the truth. On the one hand, we are fortunate to have local talents like Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein and Jonathan Eismann at restaurants that are reflective of each chef's personal vision and style, and seem to be finding an audience both with locals and the seasonal tourists. We've also had a massive influx lately of imported big-name restaurateurs making sizable investments in South Florida outposts, seemingly oblivious to the financial downturn (more likely simply the product of capital already committed before the economy turned south).

On the other hand, there seems to be a stultifying sameness to many of the new places, particularly the foreign imports. BLT Steak, Gotham Steak, Red the Steakhouse, the upcoming STK steakhouse ... do you see a trend here? But I'd be far from the first person to bemoan the fact that steakhouses are becoming as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Miami,[1] and won't do so further.

Instead, let me get to the point. A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune - though a cardiologist might disagree - of visiting two fairly celebrated steakhouses. The first was Bern's Steak House, a Tampa institution for more than fifty years and regarded by many as one of the finest steakhouses in the country. The second was one of the new foreign imported models, BLT Steak in Miami Beach, one of many spokes radiating from the New York hub of the Laurent Tourondel empire. It made an interesting opportunity for a compare and contrast.

Bern's Steak House

Bern's looks about a hundred years older than it actually is, because it is decorated in the style of a 19th century brothel. I say that with respect and appreciation. The governing principle of the decoration is that if there is a surface, it should be covered with red velvet, gilt, or if in any way possible, both. It is quite a sight to behold and doesn't look much different than the last time I was there, which was probably more than 20 years ago. While clearly an old-school institution, the restaurant is not fixed in amber. Indeed, they were ahead of the locavore trend, and for years have run their own farm which supplies many of the vegetables used in the restaurant (which, being a steakhouse, is not a ton, but still ...).

Arriving there late, and solo, on a Monday evening, I asked to be seated in the more casual bar area in the front of the restaurant, and skipped the tour of the kitchen and wine cave that is customarily offered. I was brought a plate with a few crackers topped with some melted cheese, which looked unfortunately grey in the restaurant's dim light, and then was given the fat menu and the even fatter wine list. Bern's wine collection is possibly even more legendary than its steaks, with 6,800 selections and over a half million bottles. Only a portion of the collection is actually housed in the restaurant's cellar, with the rest stowed in a warehouse across the street. There are two things in particular I find especially appealing about Bern's wine list: (1) the incredibly deep collection of older American wines; and (2) the eminently reasonable prices for many of those wines, most of which were purchased by the restaurant upon their release.

If there is a hole in Bern's massive wine list, it is the absence of half-bottle options; but given the prices, it was fairly easy to splurge on a full bottle even if I was dining alone. I told my waiter that I was interested in trying a zinfandel with some serious bottle age on it, that I trusted Ridge as a producer, and that he ought to help pick something good as he was going to be finishing off the bottle himself after I was done. He steered me to a 1977 Ridge Coast Range Zinfandel (priced around $60) that another diner had recently tried and enjoyed (he kept a notepad in his pocket to keep track of such things), which was decanted at the table. The common wisdom is that zinfandel is not a wine that ages particularly well, and that most should be drunk within about five years of release. Ridge, however, has a reputation for producing age-worthy zin, and this wine certainly reinforced that reputation. Despite thirty plus years in the bottle, this wine was still fully alive and vibrant; not the jammy flavors of most current zins, but elegant and layered, with a nose that suggested fallen leaves and hints of mushroom and forest floor among the dark fruit notes. It was a thrill to find something this old, and this well-kept, at such a reasonable price.

I let the zin get some air while I started with a flute of Delamotte Le Mesnil Champagne and an order of American hackleback sturgeon caviar. Bern's offers 20+ different caviar selections in one-ounce portions, ranging from various flavored whitefish or tobiko roes for $25 to $220 Iranian Oscetra. The hackleback, one of my favorites of the American sturgeon roes, comfortably resided much closer to the lower end of that range. Along with some toasted brioche, it came with accompaniments that I found highly amusing - six different flavored foams! That most stereotypical and loathed conceit of the so-called "molecular gastronomists," here in this seriously old-school steakhouse? Say it isn't so! Does this mean we should now call Bern's Steak House a "molecular gastronomy restaurant"?[2] Unfortunately, I can no longer recall all six flavors (lemon; onion; avocado; curry .... ?) but after sampling each, I stuck with the lemon or just a bare naked scoop of roe on the brioche.

I elected to skip the soup which comes with every entrée and moved on to the salad. I usually do not care much about fussy service, but I am still a sucker for touches such as the chilled fork that was brought out with the salad. I believe my server said the salad had 12 different vegetables, many from the Bern's garden, but I have to confess that none particularly moved me.

Next arrived what I had really come for - the steak. The steak portion of the Bern's menu takes up a total of five pages, and includes an explanation of each cut (and how Bern's butchers each - all butchery is done in-house and to order); pricing for various weights of each different cut (ranging from a 6 oz. filet mignon to a 60 oz. New York strip); a detailed description of the degrees of doneness you can request; and a lengthy discussion of their in-house dry-aging process. I went with a 10 oz. rib-eye, and it was one of the finest steaks I've had in a long time. The beef was clearly the beneficiary of good dry-aging, rendering it tender with a deep concentration of flavor. Most remarkable was that it had been trimmed so that there was not a bite on this steak that wasn't edible. I actually like the "cap" on a rib-eye, which is usually separated from the rest of the steak by a thick line of fat, but this was trimmed like what I have more recently seen described as an "eye of rib-eye." When I mentioned to my server (after devouring every bit of the steak) that I liked the cap, he told me to just say so on my next visit, as every steak is cut to order and can be butchered basically however you want.

The steak was accompanied by a perfectly pleasant baked potato with all the fixings, some slightly flaccid, soggy onion rings, as well as some rather nebbish vegetables from the Bern's garden - some shredded sauteed carrots with a hint of sweetness, which just seemed odd, and a few different types of wax beans, which were given an incongruous splash of soy sauce. I didn't save room for a trip to the "Harry Waugh Dessert Room."

The truth is, I could have easily lived without everything at Bern's but the steak and the wine; but with just those two things, I could have had an incredibly satisfying meal. All the more remarkable considering that the rib-eye I ordered - which came with an onion soup, salad, baked potato, onion rings and vegetables - was $40. I know that seems like a steep price point to be talking about a "bargain," but relatively speaking - and particularly once the wine prices are factored in - that might well be an apt description of Bern's.[3]

BLT Steak

Visually, at least, BLT Steak is the anti-Bern's. Stationed in the lobby of the Betsy Ross Hotel on the northern end of Ocean Drive in South Beach, BLT Steak is the embodiment of minimalism, a stark contrast to the baroque excess of Bern's. The space draws lots of natural light from the windows facing out on Ocean Drive, and everything is terrazzo, blond wood, and beige linen. The primary "decoration" is a large blackboard behind the banquettes inscribed in chalk with a tutorial on different types of beef. It is a surprisingly small space, with a bar off to one side, about a dozen or so tables in the main lobby space (which still also functions as the Betsy Hotel lobby), and another row of tables in a narrower space along the windows facing Ocean Drive. There's also outdoor seating on the front patio.

Whereas at Bern's I could have just stuck with the steak and the wine and happily skipped everything else, it was the "everything else" that made for some of the biggest highlights at BLT Steak. Indeed, one of the best things was one of the first to arrive at the table, a jam jar filled with warm, oozy chicken liver mousse, along with a similar jar of lightly pickled vegetables and some crusty bread. I don't know many people that enjoy chicken liver (at least not as much as I do), but I hope they're at least willing to try this - it may make them converts. These treats were followed by a tray with a gigantic popover for each diner, delicately crispy outside, tender and warm but not mushy or doughy within. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite pre-dinner steakhouse spread between this and Bourbon Steak's trio of duck fat fries and truffle-oil soaked focaccia.

chicken liver mousse
photo credit: Jacob Katel

In addition to the regular menu, which doesn't stray very far from the usual steakhouse staples (although it does offer more fish and seafood selections than usual, both in the appetizers and entrées), there was also a separate menu of daily specials which appears designed both to give the chef (the all-of-25-years old Samuel Gorenstein) an outlet for more creative fare, and to take advantage of seasonal local product. The specials menu offered both prix fixe and a la carte options, but I felt like I needed an abacus to figure it all out. The prix fixe offer included three courses plus a side dish (I believe it was for $60), theoretically from any of the items listed on the specials menu, but at least half the items had "supplement" charges if ordered as part of the prix fixe, ranging from $3 to nearly $20. Feeling too mentally taxed to figure it all out, we simply went a la carte.

I started with one of the daily specials, a porchetta di testa. It was amusing to see that this was the exact same preparation as the one done by Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco, as shown in this video; and one that I have already seen duplicated, in almost exactly the same manner, right down to the garnishes, by Chef Michael Schwartz at Michael's Genuine. One more dish to add to my list of "goes around ... comes around" items, apparently. It was good, possibly even a bit more refined than MGF&D's iteration, and I have no complaints with finding pig head on multiple local menus.

Mrs. F started with a classic shrimp cocktail, something that's often good but tough to make really sing. In fact the only time I've ever had a truly standout shrimp cocktail was at Bourbon Steak (which, it seems, I need to go back to), where an extra dimension was added by a poaching liquid redolent with tarragon and other fresh herbs whose flavors were beautifully picked up by the crustaceans. The shrimp at BLT Steak were plump and sweet but not particularly special.

photo credit: Jacob Katel

Frod Jr. and I split a 40 oz. porterhouse, an impressive cut roughly two inches thick, with the sirloin and filet on either side deftly trimmed off the bone and sliced into big slabs. It was done closer to medium rare than the medium/medium-rare I'd requested (for Frod Jr.'s benefit), but the heat from the pan actually provided for some carry-over cooking of the slices left within. It was a good steak (though an unfortunate seam of fat running the length of the sirloin side was a distraction), with a nicely charred exterior from broiling at 1700 degrees (!), but lacked the depth of flavor (and the conscientious trimming) of the steak at Bern's. A pat of herb butter on top was unnecessary, and a head of roasted garlic seemed very 1980's. We did have plenty of leftovers, and Frod Jr. and I had a steak sandwich, and a steak sandwich, for lunch the following day. We even tried to put it on the Underhills' bill. And that head of garlic actually came in handy to flavor a roasted garlic mayo for the sandwiches.

Mrs. F and Little Miss F elected to split a swordfish - a decision I didn't fully support, particularly given the rather uninspiring menu description as "spiced grilled swordfish / olive oil & lemon." The only thing missing was the "spiced," and this was a bland dish if generously portioned. There were other intriguing fish options, including an acacia honey marinated Alaskan black cod and some local fish selections in the daily specials.

As sides, we ordered some "crispy gnudi" from the specials list, along with onion rings and creamed spinach from the regular menu. The gnudi didn't really work for me, the exterior not so much crispy as just a bit gummy, and the rest of the components not really seeming to come together - a scatter of thinly sliced speck on top, a ramekin of butter on the side. The onion rings were big fat rounds of sweet onion, with almost a tempura style coating, stacked impressively into a tower. The creamed spinach was no better or worse than any other steakhouse version.

Desserts were a big hit among the junior members of the Family Frod. The real surprise hit was a key lime panna cotta which Little Miss F ordered. Served in a big glass bowl, the panna cotta was quiveringly light but bright with zippy key lime flavor, topped with a creamy coconut sorbet that was an effective pairing. Frod Jr. can almost never pass up a molten chocolate cake, and was sucked in by the one on the specials list. I've had these too many times to get excited by them, but he's still young.

The wine list, unsurprisingly, is no match for the list at Bern's. While fairly short, it manages to offer more options than just the typical panopoly of big California cabernets that are usually prevalent on steakhouse lists. The markups were wildly unpredictable, however. A 2006 Ridge Three Valleys zin, typically around $20 retail, was priced at $70+; on the other hand, a 2006 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, at $49, was less than 2x the average retail price of $30. Guess which one we got? (Hint: it was not the "base-model" current release from the same winery which produced a nicely 30+ year-aged wine that I bought for less at Bern's earlier in the week). The Graillot, a reliable Northern Rhone syrah, was a great match with the steak.

Service at BLT Steak was smooth and solicitous, belying the stereotype of apathetic or worse South Beach service. Though it was quiet for a Friday night, sometimes those slow service nights seem to trigger a certain inertia in the staff. Not true here. The servers cooperated in taking care of tables, the manager stopped by mid-meal to check on us, and the sommelier complimented us on the selection of the Graillot. It's not often that somebody notices and comments favorably on a wine from the low end of the list's price range.

So what's the point? I suppose there are a few. (1) overall, I had very pleasant meals at both Bern's and BLT Steakhouse; (2) despite both being "steakhouses," they are quite different places, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps it's too simplistic to simply lump all the "steakhouses" together; (3) despite my prejudices against steakhouses and even moreso those that are imported satellites, Bern's steaks and wine list alone are worth the visit, and BLT Steak is doing enough right to be worth checking out again - if for no other reason than the chicken liver mousse and popovers.

Bern's Steak House
1208 S. Howard Avenue
Tampa, FL 33606

Bern's Steak House on Urbanspoon

BLT Steak
1440 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139

BLT Steak on Urbanspoon

[1]In fact, there are now more steakhouses in Miami Beach than there are Starbucks. The Starbucks locator shows 9 stores in Miami Beach. Steakhouses? BLT Steak; Fogo de Chao; Gotham Steak; Parilla Liberty; Outback Steakhouse; Prime One Twelve; Rare Steakhouse; Red; Shula's; Smith & Wollensky; Texas de Brazil = 11. And that's not even counting recently closed Kobe Club and Tuscan Steak, or soon-to-open STK.

[2]Regular readers will know I don't think there is any such thing as a "molecular gastronomy restaurant" and hopefully the use of techniques such as foams in an old-guard restaurant like Bern's helps prove the point.

[3]One oddity of Bern's is that the bill includes a 12% service charge "to be given to your waiter in lieu of salary," with a note that "The option of a gratuity for fine service, of course, is yours." I frankly had no idea what to make of this rather ambiguous notation, and added about another 10% to the bill as tip - in addition to the glass or so I left behind of the Ridge zin my server had recommended.


  1. Great description of both places. I never get over the kitsch of Bern's though - the decor, the kitchen tour, and the dessert room with the 1970's intercom to the pianist. I can tell I'm getting over my flu as I wasn't too nauseous reading this. Just winced a little when you talked about the chicken liver. But when I'm back in full form, I'll take you on in a chicken liver challenge any day!

  2. "Regular readers will know I don't think there is any such thing as a "molecular gastronomy restaurant" and hopefully the use of techniques such as foams in an old-guard restaurant like Bern's helps prove the point." How does that prove any point? I'm not sure why you allow your disdain for the term Molecular Gastronomy to cloud your otherwise sharp judgement, Mr F. What would you call wd~50? Or minibar? Give it up, babe!

  3. 1. GREAT post
    2. I'm a chicken liver fan too
    3. Sharing a porterhouse with Jr. PRICELESS. Looking forward to that..

  4. Chicken liver chowdown?

    Danny - It's all that steak and wine that's clouding my judgment (to say nothing of the pizza tonight). You ask a good question and I'll respond in a new post rather than bury it away in the comments here.

  5. Great Post Frod. Surprisingly, the steak I had at BLT (ribeye) was the richest and most flavorful I remember having in a Miami steakhouse. Also, having splurged less on wines during the current downturn, I thought my math was all wrong on the wine list. Glad I am not the only one completely perplexed by the markups.

    I have never been to Berns, but the wife is tempting me with a trip there if I pick her up after her Bar exam.

  6. Jason, hit the Mons while she is taking the test and then Berns

  7. I love the old school ambience at Bern's. And that dessert room is fantastic. Steakwise, it isn't the best I've ever had--that prize may go to Peter Luger's---but it's worth the trip to Tampa anyway. Also great about Bern's--the prices...unlike most of Miami's finer steakhouses, I found this bill to be actually, shockingly reasonable. We were with a party of seven and when we got the bill we thought they left some items off by accident. Not so! Very refreshing.

  8. Berns....Upon pulling in the driveway I took a picture of the big sign "Valet cashier $5.00 please gratuity not included. Thank you" poor taste for a "prime steakhouse". The sides included with the meal were great. On to the steak....ordered the porter house for two Very tough. No where near prime or aged. I could pick one up at the super market far better. Dessert room was fantastic loved it! For a steakhouse compared to Lugers, Bobby Vans or Uncle Jacks. I'd give it a C.

  9. Berns....Upon pulling in the driveway I took a picture of the big sign "Valet cashier $5.00 please gratuity not included. Thank you" poor taste for a "prime steakhouse". The sides included with the meal were great. On to the steak....ordered the porter house for two Very tough. No where near prime or aged. I could pick one up at the super market far better. Dessert room was fantastic loved it! For a steakhouse compared to Lugers, Bobby Vans or Uncle Jacks. I'd give it a C.

  10. I love BLT, every time I come to Florida. I make it a priority to have diner here. The menu has the best steak, raw seafood bar, and drinks. Andrew the manager always take great care of bus and his staff is best. I highly recommend BLT for a exceptional meal.