Cheeseburgers, Cheeks and Churrasquera, Oh My!

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Despite its market challenges, beef reigns supreme

Where’s the beef? It’s a good question to ask in one of the largest beef-producing countries in the world. According to Statistics Canada, in 1999, Canadians consumed a per capita average of 23.8 kg of beef annually, up 2.1 per cent from the previous year. But, by 2009, consumption dropped to 20.9 kg, a number that declined to 20.2 kg last year. If anyone has a beef, it’s Canada’s cattlemen.

First it was cholesterol and health concerns that kept red meat off the plate; then it was an unfortunate worldwide problem — mad cow disease. Finally, according to the Beef Information Centre, the recent recession kept protein portions on the plate small, and as beef is the highest-priced protein it suffered the most, resulting in consumption numbers taking a nosedive for several years now. But this might be changing.

Canadians have always enjoyed a good steak — witness the success of chains such as The Keg, Montana’s and Ruth’s Chris. Across the country, hundreds of independents specialize in thick, juicy slabs of meat hot off the grill and traditional fare such as roast beef — at Bailey’s in Winnipeg, for instance, it’s even accompanied by real Yorkshire pudding ($29.95). The standard brunch in most high-end hotels and upscale restaurants, such as The Doctor’s House in Kleinburg, Ont., includes a carvery, serving fat slices of juicy prime rib; and the ubiquitous hamburger has propped up the menu in quick-service and family restaurants. But what’s even more exciting is the new breed of steakhouse, and restaurants specializing in gourmet burgers, beefing up the culinary landscape.

From Brazil, the churrasqueria introduced a new way to serve meat: large cuts skewered on a sword, flame-roasted and brought to the table.

Churrasquerias are popping up across the country: Rodeo Brazilian Steakhouse in Toronto, Brasa in Niagara Falls, Ont., Pampa in Edmonton and Samba in Vancouver. Most have large buffets of accompaniments, but, for their customers, it’s mainly about the meat. The prix-fixe menu (about $35 to $40, depending on day of the week) allows guests to have as much as they like and to sample several different cattle cuts. And while these types of restaurants offer chicken, lamb and sausages, it’s the beef that really flies off the skewers. “It’s so much more interesting than a piece of meat on a plate,” says Evandro Pelegrini, grill supervisor at Brasa. “People like to taste the difference in the flavour between different parts of the cow.”

But it’s not just steak that’s flexing its foodservice muscle. Once the pauper of the beef family, burgers have become aristocrats. Of course, these aren’t just frozen hockey pucks topped with anaemic iceberg and tomato slices. We’re talking freshly formed patties of pure, top-quality beef, topped with anything from caramelized onions and horseradish mayo to grilled wild mushrooms and truffle shavings. The Works, a seven-store Ontario chain, which will double its unit count this year, offers 70 toppings from unabashed comfort nosh such as Kraft Dinner and peanut butter to pear and brie or pesto and grilled eggplant.

It’s all part of a new breed of bistro that’s taking the burger to gourmet heights and, according to the Beef Information Centre, the trend drove burger sales up three per cent last year.

“I compare the ‘premiumization’ of burgers to what Starbucks did for coffee,” says Andy O’Brien, president and CEO of The Works. “We aren’t fast food; we’re casual-dining, full-table service, a host at the door and no TV screens. But we’re burgers.”

McDonald’s recently introduced the Angus Third Pounder. Served on a new bakery-style roll; its premium offering is a third-of-a-pound of 100-per-cent pure Canadian Angus beef, served as deluxe (with lettuce and tomato), bacon and cheese or mushroom and swiss. “It has been extremely successful since it launched in early April,” says Louis Payette, national media relations manager for McDonald’s restaurants of Canada Ltd. “It’s beating our projections and sales of the product are sustaining very well to date.”

Burger King, too, has introduced a series of premium offerings. Its grilled Angus beef Steakhouse XT [$5.79] with sautéed mushrooms, golden crispy onions and swiss cheese was so successful BK followed with a Stuffed Steakhouse burger, filled with jalapeños and cheddar ($4.99) as a spicy alternative.

Indeed, zesty, ethnic flavours and artisan quality cheeses are replacing boring sauces and processed slices. Vancouver’s Local Public Eatery, part of the Joey Restaurant Chain, serves its burgers in hand-made, seeded brioche buns with toppings such as French blue cheese and sweet red onion marmalade (The Frenchman, $15) or three-year-old cheddar and smoked bacon ($14).

Canyon Creek Chophouse, a Sir Corp., casual chain boasting eight locations in Ontario, takes its house-made burgers to the next level with toppings such as bold blue cheese gratinée and sweet sautéed onions or sautéed hot peppers, Asiago and Thai chilli mayo. But it’s the 100-per-cent local beef that makes them so good, says executive chef Mark Jachecki. He uses local, dry-aged beef from Wellington County. “Everyone advertises that they use Canadian AAA or USDA beef,” he says. “We’re trying to get as local and farm-centric as possible. Consumers today are well educated, and they want to know where [their food] comes from. We give them the story behind it.”

Using locally farmed beef is undoubtedly a plus with customers. At Toronto’s Marben Restaurant, two full sides of beef are brought in from Dingle Farms outside Brantford, Ont., every three weeks. Dry-aged by the farmer for up to six weeks, executive chef Carl Heinrich and his staff butcher the meat themselves. “Almost every surface in the kitchen is a butcher block,” he laughs. “We cut them down for two basic dishes: steaks and hamburgers. The bones go to stock.” The tender cuts are roasted as 6-oz steaks; the remainder is ground for burgers ($17). “The best burgers use meat from every part of the animal,” insists Heinrich. “That way it’s not too chewy or too juicy.” But Marben’s burgers are unique — meat from the neck, ribs, et cetera, is braised and used as stuffing inside the ground beef. The result is juicy and meaty — and hugely popular.

Heinrich isn’t unique in his efforts. Many chefs are donning a butcher’s apron and cutting their own sides of beef. In fact, the movement to treat the whole animal with respect — man shall not live by tenderloin and prime rib alone — is making superstars of chefs, and even butchers, who use the whole carcass. Chilean born chef-turned-butcher, Sebastian Cortez, for example, trained at Toronto’s George Brown College but uses the skills he learned at home on the family farm. Sebastian & Co., Fine Organic Meats in Vancouver is well known for treating its beef with finesse and care. Orders for its dry-aged Porterhouse come from as far away as Singapore.

In keeping with this nose-to-tail philosophy, chefs are using parts of the carcass once considered waste or tossed into the stock pot. “More chefs are using off-cuts — you’ll even find them in fine-dining spots these days — people will try them now where they wouldn’t order them [before],” says Scott Vivian, chef/owner of Beast in Toronto. “We try to focus on the off-cuts to encourage people to try them.” The tender muscles in beef cheeks, for example, are becoming a feature on nationwide menus. In the winter, Vivian makes stroganoff with cheeks and serves it with papardelle and mushrooms ($14) and in the summer he serves it braised on a bed of creamed stinging nettles topped with crispy leeks and beef jus ($15). And, at Pied-à-Terre in Vancouver, cheeks come served with red wine jus and truffled mashed potatoes ($25). You’ll find beef cheeks with mashed potatoes ($16.50) on the lunch menu at L’Astral, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Loews Hotel in Quebec City. And, in Halifax, Fid Resto, which specializes in local cuisine, serves Espresso-braised Nova Scotia beef cheeks with grainy mustard mashed potatoes and local spinach ($22).

Apart from a few French chefs, in the past, marrow was generally consigned to the stock pot. But, today, chefs are boning up on recipes using this rich heart of the femur, which has been called the cow’s answer to foie gras. At Biff ’s Bistro in Toronto, roasted bone marrow pudding with  Maldon salt and parsley salad ($12) is presented in a shin bone cut horizontally. Calgary’s Charcut Roast House serves bone marrow au gratin with garlic brioche toast and parsley salad ($12). And, at Winnipeg’s Segovia Restaurant, a tapas portion of bone marrow comes with Maldon salt and grilled bread ($5). With only four of these to a side of beef, Marben’s Heinrich can only harvest 160 portions of marrow each year from his carcasses. So, he cleans and freezes them until there are 20 to 30 portions, and then he roasts them and serves them with chutney and herb salad. “The marrow is special for us because it’s only available a few times a year,” he says. “This part of the bone has such a depth of flavour; I think our regulars watch for it.”

Another bony cut, short ribs are appearing on upscale menus. At Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro, cellar- aged cured beef short rib with artichoke heart, truffle vinaigrette, chèvre and puffed quinoa is an appetizer. Chives Bistro in Halifax serves boneless braised P.E.I. short ribs with ricotta, sundried tomato and spinach ravioli, local mushrooms, cognac peppercorn sauce, asparagus and buttermilk onion rings ($27). And, Ron Kneabone, executive chef at the Terrapin Grill in the Fallsview Marriott Hotel & Spa in Niagara Falls, Ont., braises short ribs in red wine and root beer with mirepoix and serves the tender meat in  martini glasses for special functions, “It’s so flavourful, and the guests love the unusual presentation,” he says.

In fact, many chefs are offering interesting new twists on beef, often tweaking traditional recipes.  Steak  tartare is a classic French dish, but at The Press Gang in Halifax, it becomes sesame and hoisin beef tartare with a soba noodle salad, truffled lime oil and crisp breads ($13) and at Raymond’s in St. John’s, N.L., filet tartare is served with parmesan cheese, celery, shallots, fresh herbs and truffle oil ($20). At the other end of the country, the chef at Araxi in Whistler, B.C., tosses tartare with capers, shallots, chives, truffle vinaigrette and serves it with a quail egg and house-baked rye crostini ($16.50). And, in between, L’Arôme, the restaurant at the Casino du Lac-Leamy, Que., serves it with sherry-onion confit and ricotta foam with truffle oil ($16.90).

“Most chefs are happy to get away from the traditional prime ribs and steaks,” says Kneabone. “Taking beef to another level allows us to showcase what we can do.”

Such creativity has its rewards. Whether it’s steak, hamburgers or more esoteric cuts, finding creative ways to beef up the menu will lead to beefed up profits.

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