I’m not the type of person to bat an eye at high food prices. I believe that every person chooses what to spend his/her money on, and I choose to spend mine on food (and all other things food-related). Having said that, the chance to spend P2,200 on a steak gives me pause. Would I really spend that much on a piece of meat?
Apparently, it seems I would.
This evening, I’m with my Bin and another steak-loving couple, who coincidentally, also own a steak restaurant. I’m pumped for this experience partly because I’m going to be paying four digits for a steak and partly because I’m dressed to the nines and wearing my killer heels.
The place is Elbert’s Steak Room ”“ “room” not house, because it’s a small, niche-market restaurant dedicated to those who prostrate at the temple of beef. A dim ambience belies the fact that the space used to be a call-center office, and in the early evening glow, the lights from the opposite buildings cast a soft luminosity around us. (It’s a completely different vibe during the day, which is why the Steak Room is only open for dinner). Wood in shades of rich brown dominate and alternate with paneling that run the length of the room. There’s a main eating area that accommodates three tables each seating four. Opposite is a larger, still-empty area that I’m told can be divided in half via a screen for two separate functions. Adjoining it is a “cigar room” replete with black leather high-back chairs, shelves of wines and books — very much the “exclusive gentleman’s club” arrangement. It’s décor that’s a physical and emotional statement about comfort and luxury.
By now you must’ve gleaned that Elbert’s Steak Room is indeed, owned by someone named Elbert, last name Cuenca. His is a family of restaurateurs whose establishments include Zen, Furusato, and the now-defunct Restaurant 12. Elbert’s years in the food service industry, all the valuable lessons he’s learned, are encapsulated in this little place: things like sturdy tables made of cast iron with a single leg instead of four because “… people’s feet were getting caught in the extra legs…” and faux leather chairs really designed for sitting because “…diners should be able to sit and savor their meal.”
Obviously, Elbert loves steak and his Steak Room is a paean to it. “There’s just no place in Manila that serves a good steak,” he says quite emphatically. “I’ve been to all the renowned places and at some point, it was just an effort to finish the steak on my plate. It wasn’t enjoyable, as it should be.”
Once seated, the menu is handed over, a simple printed affair listing just three steak choices: Filet Mignon, New York Strip, and Rib Eye (complete menu here.) Beef has more grade levels than any other meat, eight to be exact, the ultimate of which is USDA Prime, which is what’s served here in Elbert’s Steak Room. These steaks are imported chilled, never frozen from the United States. Chilled steaks are earmarked for quality because the restaurateur can track how long it’s been aged, how long it’s been handled, and most importantly, how fresh it is. Freezing, on the other hand, will never improve the quality of a steak, how it’s been handled is an issue that’s obscure at best, and when cooked, all of its juices ooze out on the grill, leaving nothing on the plate.
Steaks at Elbert’s are cooked in this way: the hot grills are first brushed with grape seed oil, a neutral oil with a high smoking point. The steaks are slapped on the grill when the temperature reaches a fierce 550°F, hot enough to sear and char the steak on the outside. Such hellishly high heat produces that elusive grilled flavor and keeps the steak juicy by cooking it quickly before the juices can escape. The belief that this practice “seals in the juices” is a myth, but grilling is the way to go when it comes to good steak. Sea salt from the Mediterranean is added only at the tail end of cooking ”“ any earlier and it will leach out the steak’s juices.
I’m a rib eye steak person myself and apparently, so are the other members of my little group. Devotees of this most luxurious of steak cuts cut from the rib bone, we adore its extra moisture and marbling which enhances its complex, sweet flavor. Aside from my Bin who prefers his steak well-done, we three request our steaks to be cooked to the chef’s recommendation of medium rare. Now, most local steak places will actually cook a medium-rare to medium, but a true medium-rare is very red in the middle fading through pink to a grey-brown near the surface of the meat. Cooked just ”˜til this level, all the luscious red and brown juices pool onto the plate, creating a most savory sauce with which to mop up with bread or one’s chosen side dishes.
Every table is served with a basket of warmed Fantan dinner rolls. These are delightful doughy things shaped by stacking strips of bread dough which are then cut into rectangles, pinched at one end, and placed right side up into a muffin pan. After a brief rising, the dough is popped into the oven and bakes up into a “fan,” hence the name. Spread abundantly with the accompanying whipped butter, it sets me up quite nicely for the steak that’s about to come.
Every steak order comes with a house salad and a choice of soup. The salad is an assortment of greens laced with a ginger vinaigrette that bites, not bothers. It’s crowned with onion and tomato slices and garnished with thoughtful extras like avocado and ubod (heart of palm).
Among the four of us, we get to try all three of the soups available for tonight: Tomato, Cream of Leek and Potato, and my favorite of all favorite soups, Pumpkin. Served in wide, white receptacles, each soup carries a playful garnish of pesto oil and accompanying garnishes like croutons, cheese shavings, and flat leaf parsley. For a dinner as expensive as this, it’s almost compulsory that everyone gets a taste of everybody else’s dish. I like that the tomato soup has the requisite sourness but doesn’t cross the line into tomato “sauce”; the cream of leek and potato has elusive, velvety nuances; and the pumpkin soup hits my tongue in a salty whoosh before bursting its pumpkin essence at the back of my mouth. With all the soups, one constant is deep flavor layered upon flavor.
I find myself surreptitiously scooting my unfinished salad and soup over to my Bin’s plate. I want to make sure that I have more than ample stomach room for the piÃ¨ce de résistance, the steak. In a restaurant as exclusive as this one, there’s no doubt that the service will be nothing short of impeccable. But such attentive service can be obsequious. At Elbert’s thankfully, our server intuitively understands the dance of serve and retreat that must be adjusted to each customer. They have been trained well. I notice that the courses don’t come in quick succession, as some restaurants are wont to do when they’re hustled for rapid turnover. (“I don’t care about turnover, I want people to savor their meal,” Elbert tells me later.)
It’s almost anticlimactic to describe my steak experience at Elbert’s Steak Room after everything I’ve already described. It almost goes without saying that once we’re served our steaks, an immediate hush descends on our table. It’s a silence so penetrating that one of us murmurs, “It’s almost like we’re not friends anymore.” Far from it, but each of us is holding a private communion with our respective steaks. Weighing approximately 300 grams per slice, my rib eye melds an intricate network of flavors onto my tongue: first beefy, then a melting mélange of buttery flavors from the fat and juices, and finally, an ever-deepening harmony of taste just before I swallow. There’s a sampler of seven sauces (chimichurri, et al) that come with the steak, but I couldn’t tell you what they taste like because I prefer my meat unadulterated.
Side dishes that have been ordered are placed neatly on the same plate, separate and distinct from the star that is the steak. Tonight we try the Creamed Spinach, the Mashed Potatoes with Truffle Oil, and the Porcini Mushroom Risotto. These side dishes aren’t meant to distract but to complement, to give your palate a breather, if you will. This perfectly crafted meal, so satisfying, so mindfully presented in such soulful surroundings makes my mind spin with satisfaction.
After dinner, the dessert sampler is brought out. Elbert comes to our table and mutters good-naturedly about being nervous about “… serving dessert to ”˜Dessert Comes First.'” I have to chuckle but will admit here that I feel a bit of apprehension as I gaze at the sweets: two of the three are on my Desserts I Don’t Like list ”“ the Best Chocolate Mousse and the Tiramisu. I take a spoonful of each and putting aside my biases, have to concede that the mousse is quite extraordinary. Still, it’s the CrÃ¨me Caramel that has me transfixed, its garnish of candied orange peel points up the flan’s creaminess, warranting more than just one spoonful from me.
For a restaurant that’s just a month old, the interiors are still in the process of being completed, although I hardly notice, save for some stray electrical wires sticking out of the walls. There’s also the issue of no elevator ”“ one must climb three flights of stairs just to get there. Most people won’t (shouldn’t) have a problem with that ”“ think of it as working up the appetite ”“ but it might be an inconvenience for those with mobility issues. The owner envisions his place as that where important deals can be made or where couples can dine at leisure. “Slow eating is a lost art,” Elbert muses. “I’d like to bring it back.” Also, considering this restaurant and what it stands for, this is not a place I would suggest bringing children (under 12) to, no matter how well-behaved they are. It’s not about being snooty or otherwise. This place is what it is and that has to be respected, including the other diners.
People eat at Elbert’s Steak Room for the total experience. When you make the decision to eat here ”“ and the considerable investment ”“ approach the experience as you might a meal that you’ve long waited and prepared for: the discernment and resulting pleasure will require unrushed time and thought. It’s not often you’ll encounter a meal with exceptional sincerity and purity of spirit.
Elbert’s Steak Room
3/F Sagittarius Building III
111 H. V. de la Costa Street
Salcedo Village, Makati City
Dinner only, reservations highly recommended.
updated Elbert’s Steak Room post: Love It To The Bones (June 10, 2008)