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Gerard Bertholon’s rib-eye tastes like bleu cheese, and he thinks he knows why.
It’s mid-May, and I’m sitting with Bertholon at Bourbon Steak as the French-trained chef and chief strategy officer for the Alexandria-based sous-vide giant Cuisine Solutions starts to explain his theory. It begins, Bertholon believes, with the steakhouse’s signature “butter poaching,” as California-based celebrity chef Michael Mina likes to call his method for tempering beef at his four Bourbon Steaks around the country, including the one at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. The process slowly raises the temperature of refrigerated steaks by warming them in a heated liquid of clarified butter spiked with thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, and cooked garlic.
Bertholon tries to lay out his theory right there at our dining room table, but I’m bloated on Bourbon Steak’s duck-fat fries and grilled meats (and two glasses of high-alcohol wine). My concentration skills hover somewhere at a 2-year-old’s level, which is a shame, because I have invited Bertholon here to try to solve the bleu-cheese problem at Bourbon Steak. I tell him I’ll call him back tomorrow.
Five months later, Bertholon and I finally talk again. In the intervening weeks, I’ve eaten two more times at Bourbon Steak, trying to sniff out more clues as to the mystery of that bleu-cheese flavor in Bertholon’s rib-eye (if not my New York strip, which had a much-less pronounced moldy cheese flavor on the night we dined in May). Since then, I’ve tasted a similar kind of funk, I thought, in Bourbon’s steakhouse bar burger, which incorporates dry-age end cuts, but nary a trace of it in an 8-ounce hunk of domestic Wagyu rib-eye that I recently ordered.
I’ve walked away from my three flesh-eating experiences at Bourbon with conflicted feelings. The meats were regularly cooked to temperature and seasoned well, but they all had flaws to my mind: The Wagyu had a mushy texture, with deposits of chewy and poorly rendered fat, and little flavor aside from a seasoned browned exterior. The burger emitted a sort of musty, fungal aroma that I couldn’t ignore, and, of course, Bertholon’s rib-eye had that shot of penicillin flavor running through it.
It was my hope that, with Bertholon’s assistance, I could begin to figure out why a number of critics, including myself, were unwilling to wholeheartedly endorse Bourbon Steak’s namesake entrees. The headline on Tom Sietsema’s March 8 review said it well for many of us: “Surf Before Turf.” Wrote the Washington Post reviewer: “Although the grass-fed rib-eye is thick, juicy and ignited with black pepper, and the dry-aged New York strip gets a zesty lick of red pepper sauce, neither cut of meat is likely to threaten the competition or send anyone into protein heaven.”
Bertholon has reservations about Bourbon’s approach to steaks, too, and he could do more than just whine about it like a dining critic with a deadline. He might be able to pinpoint the problem. Bertholon and Cuisine Solutions have trained countless chefs in sous-vide techniques, so he has both the experience and knowledge to dissect Mina’s unusual butter-bath preparation, which borrows heavily from the principles of slow, vacuum-sealed cooking. Bertholon agreed to share his theories with me under the name of constructive, not destructive, criticism of Bourbon Steak.
To Bertholon, the problem seems clear: The temperature of the butter bath is too low to kill any of the good bacteria that may live on the exterior of the steaks. In fact, he says, the clarified butter, at temperatures under 135 degrees Fahrenheit, offers the perfect environment to promote the growth of Lactobacilli. The bacteria are perfectly safe to eat, Bertholon adds, but they can taste like…bleu cheese. “It’s just an unpleasant taste that you don’t expect in the meat,” he says.
The butter bath’s problems could also be compounded by other factors, says Bruno Goussault, Cuisine Solutions’ chief scientist and the man widely recognized as one of the two pioneers of sous-vide cooking. One factor is the butter itself, which also contains Lactobacilli despite being clarified. The other factor is the length of time Bourbon Steak uses the same butter. Does the restaurant go 48 hours or longer without switching out its butter or raising the heat on the liquid to kill off the bacteria generated?
David Varley is the executive chef at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, and he can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in a conversation about food chemistry. He can, for instance, give you a Qaddafi-length speech on why Mina implemented the butter-bath preparation at Bourbon Steak. The technique, Varley says, is designed to prevent damaging a steak’s proteins, which, when exposed to high heat for a period of time, will shrink and release moisture, turning a potentially delicious cut of meat into something dry and livery. Don’t even get Varley started on the exterior damage that high heat can cause to a steak.
The warmed clarified butter is the nurturing mum to high heat’s abusive stepfather. The liquid, the chef says, slowly brings the refrigerated meats up to a temperature right under medium-rare, about 125 degrees Fahrenheit, without exposing proteins to the kind of heat that would make them wet themselves. From there, Varley adds, it’s just a quick flip on the wood-burning grill to provide the all-important Maillard reaction, that flavorful change of color to the meat’s surface, and to bring the steak up to the desired temperature. “It’s easy to take a meat from 125 [degrees] to 130 by giving it a quick sear,” Varley says.
Varley is a little surprised to learn of the bleu-cheese flavor on his non-Wagyu rib-eye, in part because the cut comes from Master Purveyors in the Bronx, which dry-ages the meat in a room with ultraviolet lighting designed to prevent bacteria growth. Nor does the steak, he adds, stay in the butter bath very long. The meat warms in the liquid butter for maybe an hour, which is far less time than it should take to promote bacteria growth, and what’s more, Varley adds, every night after service the kitchen heats the butter to kill off any bacteria that may have developed.
But Varley does allow that back in May, after Bertholon visited the steakhouse and told Bourbon’s GM Mark Politzer about the potentially troubling butter bath, he raised the temperature on the liquid to 145 degrees, which is hot enough to kill bacteria.
Still, the Bourbon Steak chef isn’t convinced that the butter is a problem. He thinks the so-called bleu-cheese flavor may be a by-product of the dry-aging itself or even a side effect of his red-wine-and-shallot basting liquid that the kitchen brushes on meats. The more Varley thinks about it, in fact, the more he wants to solve the mystery himself. He wants to invite both Bertholon and Goussault to the steakhouse for an evening of experiments to see if they can’t isolate the exact source of the bleu-cheese flavor. Varley promises to let me tag along for the tests.
Bourbon Steak, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 944-2026.
Follow Tim Carman at twitter.com/timcarman.