A Cut Above
Steakhouses and other carnivore-pleasing restaurants are setting themselves apart with custom cutlery.
There are things that are timeless for a reason, and many of them are luxuries. A bespoke suit, a classic and comfortable sedan, a well-made deep leather club chair. They will never go in or out of style. They bridge the gap between generations, traditional for the old and retro for the young, and become the items everyone can agree on.
A steakhouse is the epitome of this phenomenon. It is a safe place to take your parents, first date, or boss. It naturally slides with changing food fads and tastes; nothing is more paleo- gluten free- keto- friendly than a steakhouse, but it's also a weirdly perfect place to take vegetarians, who can indulge in oversize salads and luxurious vegetable side dishes galore.
The old school places have stuck around for a reason, quality and consistency are the hallmarks of their charm. They source the finest aged cuts of prime from purveyors like Sterling Silver Premium Meats, treat them well, cook them simply, and send them out to a grateful clientele. But there is a new wave of steakhouses hitting the market, gussying up some of the classic dishes, freshening menus. Creamed kale is a satisfying twist on the old creamed spinach trope, and roasted sunchokes are a lovely swap in for roasted potatoes. The maître d’ butter might be seasoned with white miso and black garlic, but satisfies as much as the old shallot herb butter did.
Bringing new menu items to the party isn’t really enough these days. Unfussy but attentive service is the mark of a good place, old or new, so hospitality also isn’t enough. And while a bright and modern room will delight as much as a wall of deep ruby banquettes, design also isn’t going to be enough. We live in the land of Instagram, and visuals drive traffic. This can get complicated with this style of food. After all, that creamed kale is indistinguishable visually from creamed spinach, so how is the contemporary steakhouse proprietor able to set themselves apart?
Nowadays, steakhouses and meat-forward fine dining restaurants are setting themselves apart with tableware. Whether it is a unique plate or bowl, or a way of serving a deconstructed dish, tableware has become as much a part of the story as the food it rests on. And the single most important element of the settings is the knife. You cannot properly attack any part of this meal, from the wedge salad to that marbled bone-in ribeye, without a good sharp blade. After years of the standard wide-wood handled serrated blades imperfectly slicing the steaks on the sizzle plates, suddenly there are custom knives being made by artisans both local and global.
The 2019 James Beard Award winner for Best New Restaurant, Frenchette in New York City, has knives so special they demand attention at the table, are all over social media, and have been specifically called out in every review—most notably Pete Wells' glowing New York Times review. The knives in question, part of Roland Lannier's Tableware’s Not Dead, have become famous for their reverse structure, featuring a flat sharp side and a curved dull side, and the $400 set of four has become the perfect gift for food lovers.
"We didn't think they'd be that befuddling," says Frenchette's co-owner Lee Hanson. "People like to zero in on befuddling things. Maybe it was a conversation starter. I've actually seen it as a conversation starter, certainly not intended, but we're not backing down now. We're actually going to sharpen both sides so you can use it either way." He may have been joking about that last part, but no doubt, diners would obsessively document the development on social media.
Adam Perry Lang, chef of APL in Hollywood is as famous for the razor-sharp knives he has handcrafted himself, as he is for the steaks coming out of his 1000-square-foot aging room—and for the price tag if you steal one. There is a $950 deposit to be paid to use the knives, refunded as long as the knife remains behind after you leave. The presentation of the knives is as important and special as the presentation of the meal, and Lang likes it that way. The show is a part of a three-act play, the life and death of the animal, the breaking down and preparing of the meal, the eating. For Lang, and many other chefs, to present a less than perfect knife has become the mark of a place that isn’t up to standard.
Even high-end tasting menu restaurants are taking a tip from the new steakhouse when it comes to their cutlery. At Ardent, in Milwaukee, chef-owner Justin Carlisle ordered custom knives from a local artisan to present with his meat dishes.
“The inspiration for our custom steak knives came from Kyle Connaughton of Singlethread and Dan Felder of Pilot and their work with bloodroot blades," says Carlisle. "Ardent is a very personal and family ordinated place with my father raising beef for us, and my mother knitting our shawls, napkins and aprons along with supplying us with things from her garden. So we try to connect all this with the diner thru out their experience here. I found a young local knife maker that was just starting out, Nathan Zimmerman of Zimknives, and asked if he could make us steak knives for Ardent with the handles made out of our retired aprons that my mother made."
And it didn't stop there. "We also had custom knife boxes made by Hank at Heavy Friends in Athens, Georgia. So now on the beef course, we present the knives and have the diner choose their knife. It makes the whole experience that much deeper and more personal,” Carlisle explained.
Whether you are ordering a tender filet or robust porterhouse, chances are good that in this day and age, you’ll be presented with a knife that will not only do justice to the carving but will be a co-star on the plate and in your pictures.