THAT’S CHEF MICHAEL LEVITON whose chin seems to be resting on a plate of rib-eye steaks being passed across a table at Area Four, his Cambridge, Mass. eatery. Leviton is an advocate of grass-fed beef, choosing it over grain-fed beef for the menus at his two restos.
Stung by criticism from James Beard Award winning food writer and restaurant critic Corby Kummer (far right in the photo) over a “chewy” $45 steak he was served one night at Leviton’s other spot (the upscale Lumiere in nearby West Newton), the 46-year-old chef challenged Kummer, WGBH’s Boston Public Radio host Emily Rooney, and a handful of others to a blind steak tasting.
I heard about the event at the last minute; Leviton was gracious in granting my request for a seat at the table.
Eight steaks were presented in two flights (excuse the wine tasting reference – there’ll be a bit more of it), the first consisting of the familiar rib-eye, the second of a cut known as bavette (favored by French bistros for their steak frites). We were told that each flight offered examples of 100% grass-fed beef, mostly grass-fed, and what Leviton called “commodity beef.”
The steaks were beautifully and consistently executed by the Area Four kitchen, but almost immediately something appeared to go awry in the theory department. I assumed our task was to note the characteristics of each steak, consider what we liked or didn’t about each one, compare impressions, then suffer the ordeal of “the reveal” – where the panel learns the identity of each. This is the approach I’ve grown used to in organized wine tastings over the years, and it’s often a humbling experience. Wines that are “supposed” to be preferred don’t always come out on top.
But it was clear from the chatter as the numbered plates came to the table that this wasn’t going to be the format. Instead, it appeared that the job was to see who could divine which steaks came from cattle raised on grass and which from those fed on grain. Leviton provided the information that only four sources of beef were involved and that they occupied the same positions in each flight.
The steaks were beautifully and consistently executed by the Area Four kitchen, but almost immediately something appeared to go awry in the theory department.
Thus, if Niman Ranch rib-eye was plate #1 in the first flight, its bavette would be plate #1 in the second flight. (In fact, Leviton didn’t reveal the sources of the beef we were tasting and declined to do so afterward despite requests). He also explained that one steak in each flight was 100% cool-climate grass-fed, one was 100% warm climate grass-fed; one was mostly grass-fed with some finishing on grain, one was conventional grain-fed, feedlot beef.
It was a lot of information for what was supposed to be a blind tasting, where facts about the objects under consideration are typically suppressed. These clues were just the sort wine tasters use to successfully calculate – or bluff – rather than taste their way through an event of this kind.
As it happened, my preference was (in order) for plates 2 and 3 in the first flight and 3 and 2 in the second flight. I liked them both for their nice beefy flavor, the rather resistant, ropy texture, and the fact that each presented a nice long finish. The reveal showed that 2 was 100% grassfed, and 3 mostly grass with some grain finish. To my palate they seemed very close.
The way the event turned in the direction of a test of the participants’ ability to pick out the commodity product diminished its value, I think. The next day Rooney and Kummer took to the airways with a 30 minute segment on the event (listen to it here) with Rooney repeatedly crowing that she “nailed it” while Kummer patiently fielded questions and comments from listeners that often strayed from matters of taste to the morality of meat-eating, humane slaughter, et cetera — all rather far from what seemed to be the topic. But, hey, it’s a talk show and I have no beef with any of that.
An approach in which eight steaks were presented with no commentary whatever would, it seems to me, have been much more profitable. In a truly blind tasting of this sort no hints are given about the mix, the geographic sources, or producers involved. To have nothing to go on but your palate is a strangely disorienting experience, and often enlightening. This tasting wasn’t so much blind as sight-impaired.
I don’t know how the steak that originally set Kummer off tasted, or whether I would have found it too tough to be happy with at $45, but I know that Leviton’s approach to food is one I admire, in part because it has never been narcissistic, moralizing, or sanctimonious. I appreciate the fact that he makes no attempt to gloss over the uncomfortable fact that we live on animals – an arrangement most of us wouldn’t wish to undo.
“I just want to make the point that there’s some good grass-fed beef out there and that I serve it,” he says.
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