Vv Magazine‘s Jason Finestone investigates what makes a top Toronto steakhouse, and takes a closer look at five of its very best to see how they source, cut, and prepare their steaks.
The mark of one of Toronto’s top steakhouses is not only found on their flame kissed cuts. It’s in the patina of an oak banquette. It’s in meticulous service and thoroughly educated staff. It’s in relationships with farmers, pride in their butchery, an idiosyncratic understanding of the products they serve, and the method in which they’re treated, from pasture to plate.
As any passionate owner will tell you—and Michael Dabic of Michael’s on Simcoe is no exception—the steakhouse experience is entirely wholesome, but it starts with the meat. “A great steakhouse is defined by having as much control over the beef as possible, from its inception to how it’s raised, until it hits the table.”
He’s in the process of opening a butcher shop called The Butcher Chef, and Dabic and executive chef Derek von Raesfeld are working directly with their famers, creating their own local feed for the cattle. While the shop is still several months from opening, it’s all part of narrowing the gap between farm and the front of house.
This element of relationship building is so singularly important to a great steakhouse, that all of Toronto’s top steak slingers interviewed for this piece humbly belabored the point. Especially when each restaurant exclusively sources prime beef—the top 2% of the world’s stock—trust in one’s suppliers must be uncompromising.
Danny McCallum, executive chef at Jacob’s & Co. can speak at length, and with great reverence about each one of his farmers, despite having up to 18 different regional farms featured on the menu at any given time.
His enthusiasm is clear when referencing his man Ken from Wagyu Sekai in Puslinch, ON who provides three to four perfect specimens of A1-5 wagyu per year out of his 400 cattle. He sings the praises of VG Farms in Simcoe, ON, who are pioneering a traceability program that gives information about each cut of meat by scanning a QR code, from feed to lineage to their noseprint. “I can source that info and pass it along to the guest. It’s kind of like a hockey card of meat!”
Knowledge is power in the case of a great steakhouse, and more knowledge means more control. It may seem like a redundant theme, but everything from diet, to treatment, to the way it’s graded, broken down and brought into a restaurant’s fridges has an impact.
Arron Barberian of the storied Barberian’s Steakhouse is adamant that he brings in his meat whole and butchers in house. “If we leave it to someone else, there’s a variable that’s out of our hands,” he explains. “It has the potential to negatively impact our business and that’s part of the supply chain we can’t compromise.”
Jacob’s, Michael’s and The Shore Club also butcher in house. Harbour Sixty on the other hand, chooses to outsource their cutters to limit the potential of in-house error. Newly minted head chef Gaetano Ferrara controls input by knowing that each steak is weighed individually so no underweight piece ever makes it to their display case.
Chef Murray Gregga at The Shore Club prefers to focus entirely on the whole, raw product, and elects to cut in-house, while straying away from an ageing program, with limited cuts aged out of house for up to 36 days.
Harbour Sixty also doesn’t age their meat in house. Ferrara attributes this to their 3,000 steak per week peak volume and an inability to keep up with their 45-65 day rotation of standard wet-aged product.
But the ageing process is often another synonymous cog in the wheel that turns a top steakhouses engine. Dabic chooses a mix of dry and wet-aged steaks for Michael’s on Simcoe. Preferring to dry-age large, bone-in cuts, as the bone protects and insulates the meat, and to wet-age smaller cuts like tenderloin.
McCallum dry ages in two separate meat rooms at Jacob’s. “It’s true molecular gastronomy,” he says. “Molecules are doing the work for us to make the meat tastier before we even go to cook it.”
Barberian lauds his nearly 60-year-old oak meat locker for the nuttiness created by the 1957 wood interior. “It’s something that you don’t get in a contemporary refrigerator,” he contends. “It has its own, I won’t call it funk – its own ecosystem.”
Of course, after all of the care and caution has gone into building relationships with farmers, sourcing the best cattle, butchering the prime cuts and ageing appropriately, none of Toronto’s top 5 steakhouses is worth its bite without a properly cooked piece of meat.
Every chef has their own way of cooking a steak, and no way is necessarily superior, unless you don’t rest it properly. Dabic stresses that he is, after all, in the service industry – he exists because of customers and each customer has a preference. At Michael’s on Simcoe, they grill the steak over open flame with a subtle hint (about 2%) of fresh wood that chef von Raesfeld chops from his cottage, before finishing them in the oven.
At Harbour Sixty, chef Ferrara sears his steaks in a Southbend broiler at 1800-degrees and finishes it by brushing with clarified butter and a dusting of sea salt. The Shore Club also uses a Southbend, but sticks to salt and pepper.
Chef McCallum fries his steaks in an extremely hot cast iron skillet for a good sear before transferring the pan to his Montague – a top-down charbroiler. He then rests it to cool at one degree under desired doneness to seal in the juices before bringing it back up. Barberian’s Steakhouse cooks over pure Quebec hardwood charcoal – a costly ritual that commands a $20,000 yearly charcoal bill. It imparts a different flavour, and along with their eponymous steak spice, is part of the tradition that “can’t be messed with.”
No matter which steakhouse you choose to frequent – if you’re so lucky – the mark of Toronto’s top 5 steakhouses is rooted in the precision, education and intuition that comes along with understanding the whole restaurant process. Above all else, it comes down to the meat.
“I’m very proud of this city and its steakhouses,” says Dabic. “So many of us are focused on doing things the right way – butchering and ageing in house – it’s not necessarily the easy way. It’s not about just taking a piece of meat out of a bag.”
“You see a lot of restaurants that are very focused on one element – the feed, the ageing locker, how they cook it,” Barberian preaches. “It’s not one element above the other. A great steak is like a BMW. It’s not about the individual parts. There’s homogeneity to the product – the final piece of machinery when it all comes together is what makes it a BMW. A great steak is no different.”
Nor is a great steakhouse.
What do you think makes a top Toronto steakhouse? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.