It is curious that Smith and Wollensky’s signature steak was not even listed on the menu until recently. Yet the Colorado rib steak—a masterful 32 oz slab of corn fed USDA Prime beef dry aged for 28 days—has been available since the restaurant opened back in 1977.
But it is not the only masterful thing that has been there since the beginning. Both Chef Victor Chavez and General Manager Tom Hart opened Smith and Wollensky, and have worked there ever since. Along with the “new guy,” Purchasing Director Danny Kissane (he has “only” been there 32 years!), they make the heart and soul of S&W and ensure that every steak that hits the plate is perfect.
It starts with Kissane, who personally inspects every single slab of beef that is delivered to the restaurant. S&W uses USDA Prime beef exclusively. Prime beef is the highest grade of beef, and accounts for only two percent of graded cattle in the U.S.; Kissane will only accept the top 25% of that. He is looking for abundant marbling, but also a large longissimus—the muscle that forms the eye of rib—to ensure that the steaks are the right size.
The beef is aged in house for 28 days to tenderize and enhance its flavor. S&W’s cavernous dry aging room might be using a time-honored tradition, but it is technologically advanced. It uses a complex “heat trick” system that employs heaters to influence the thermostats within the refrigeration units, which keep the temperature constant. When the door shuts, the room it is bathed in the eerie glow of ultraviolet light, which impedes the growth of undesirable bacteria.
When the beef is aged to specifications, it is taken into the butchering room and fabricated into steaks. The Colorado rib steak is made from the “107” rib section (the number assigned by the North American Meat Processors Association). A typical primal will yield nine 32 oz rib steaks. Chef Chavez is rather particular about his steaks, especially his signature item—they must weigh the right amount and have enough fat to protect them during cooking.
The fabricated steaks are then distributed amongst S&W’s three kitchens and the adjacent Wollensky’s Grill. The equipment is constant throughout—Southbend broilers, which use a combination of gas and electric heat, are used to sear the meat at 800 degrees. That is, unless you order your steak black and blue (as I do)—charred black on the outside, cool within—in which case they will be cooked on the flat top. S&W is one of the few steakhouses that gets “Pittsburgh style” right.
The steaks are tempered before cooking and then aggressively seasoned with a mix of kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Once the correct temperature is achieved, they are allowed to rest before being anointed in “love juice,” a generous ladle of clarified butter. Chavez recommends creamed spinach, hash browns, and onion rings as complements to the steak, and a good glass of red wine to wash it down.
Shock and awe might be the best words to describe the reaction of first timers witnessing the arrival of the S&W rib steak to the table. It is simply massive, spilling out over the edge of the plate, the aroma of charred meat filling the air. Cutting in to the steak elicits a loud cracking sound from the expert charring and gives way to a succulent interior. A first bite can be a revelatory experience. The steak has that unmistakably bold flavor of dry aged beef: salty, bodacious, and earthy, with blue cheese flavors.
It is not hard to see why this is S&W’s signature steak and the most popular menu item—it is classic just like the people that bring it to you.
Smith and Wollensky
797 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022 (map)