There are some seriously good, seriously expensive steaks to be had in Sydney, like the 350-gram 56-day dry-aged, grass-fed Cape Grim rib eye on the bone at Rockpool Bar & Grill for $60. Or the 300-gram Tajima wagyu Scotch fillet at Otto Ristorante for $85. Or perhaps you'd prefer to share the 400-gram full-blood wagyu chateaubriand for two at the Prime Grill Room for $295.
The steaks, as they say, are high, for what is practically our national dish. High on desirability, high on sizzle, and sadly for beef-lovers, high on price. And the price is constantly rising, thanks to the increased demand for our premium meat overseas.
It's one of the factors behind the decline in Australian beef consumption, from 66 kilograms a head a year in 1976 to 33 kilograms in 2011. We remain the world's second-most eager beef eaters (next to Americans) and our chicken and pork consumption over the same period has doubled, yet cost, health and environmental issues are impacting on steak lovers across the country.
This is no bad thing, as meat should never become a taken-for-granted commodity. But it's all the more reason to really enjoy a big, beautiful steak when we do decide to shell out for one. And there, the news is good. Hell, it's bloody good. There is no doubt that the beef we eat is far, far better than that of 20, or even 10, years ago. According to Sydney's Mr Meat, Anthony Puharich of Vic's Meat, better farming practices, improved animal welfare, a wider variety of breeds and the rise of the small-scale farmer have contributed to the increase in quality. ''The meat industry itself has evolved and the variety of cuts that are readily available has increased and improved,'' he says.
Add to that the improvements in grilling technology and technique, and the total commitment to meat shown by, say, Rockpool Bar and Grill, which dry-ages all meat on the premises in temperature-controlled rooms, and has a full-time butcher on staff, and we're looking like the lucky country.
Quality meat purveyor Colin Holt of Hudson Meats agrees the steaks are getting better. ''Years ago, there was a push for lean beef,'' he says. ''Now, people are beginning to understand the benefits of natural grass-fed beef and the good fats your body needs.''
Holt says we need to rediscover old cuts such as flank and skirt, which give great flavour and texture, and deliver real value for money. Robert Marchetti of Bondi's Italian-Australian butcher La Macelleria is another who believes we need to get back to basics. ''I don't think we need to eat $100 cuts of meat that are fatty and overfed,'' he says.
Puharich, too is a skirt man. ''Most people are familiar with bavette (flank) and onglet (hanger), but there are four different types of skirt, and they're all awesome to grill.''
A 9+ full-blood wagyu and a whopping grass-fed Cape Grim rib eye on the bone are wonderful steaks to experience, but it's more important to be able to satisfy that steak craving without having to hand over the kids' school fees. Here are 10 great local steaks that deliver on flavour, quality and provenance. If you want anything cheaper than this, then head for your butcher and do it yourself at home.
TEN TOP STEAKS UNDER $30
Restaurants were visited independently and steaks judged on the quality of the meat (provenance, ageing, flavour, texture), the cooking (crust, precision, smokiness, type of grill), presentation, value and sheer sizzle factor - that sweet, smoky, savoury, mouth-filling juiciness that immediately sets up the need for another bite.
250g grass-fed Scotch fillet
at The Bourbon, $28.
Sourced from Ralph's Meat Company in Victoria, the grass-fed, butter-poached then grilled Scotch fillet is cooked spot-on to medium rare, undulating like a waterbed when pressed with a finger. It's impressively tender, with full-on buttery juices. Chef James Metcalfe serves it with fried parsley and swanky New York-style silver pots of garlic butter and excellent, golden chips.
22 Darlinghurst Road, Potts Point, 9035 8888, thebourbon.com.au.
at The Newmarket Hotel Bistro, $24.50.
This was just plain delicious; a massive, old-fashioned pub steak big enough for two, with decent chips and a decent salad (or mash and veggies) and a choice of sauce included in the how-do-they-do-it price. The 70-day grain-fed Charolais T-bone from Queensland is big on flavour and heavy on the grill marks, yet tender as tender, too. That's grain-fed for you.
Cnr Botany and Gardeners roads, Mascot, 9669 5591, newmarkethotel.com.au.
at Le Pub, $26.
This busy, corporate city-centre spot is one of the few to offer Tasmania's mighty Cape Grim for less than $40, much less $30. Forget the entrecote business, this is a good grass-fed Scotch fillet with a 2+ marble score, a fair chew, and good long flavour. It's slightly overcooked, however, served with charmless chips and cafe de Paris sauce.
66 King Street, city, 9262 3277, lepub.com.au.
at Palings Kitchen and Bar, $28.
On the same major-league grill that serviced the previous steak-centric Mad Cow steak restaurant, chef Christopher Whitehead now sizzles an affordable 300-gram Rangers Valley grain-fed rump accompanied with a pile of buttery spinach and decent fries.
Level 1, ivy, 320 George Street, city, 9240 3000, merivale.com.au/palings.
at The Larder at Otto Ristorante, $45 for two.
The share price puts this 350-gram grain-fed Peter Andrews 150-day Scotch fillet with pan-roasted mushrooms and cafe de Paris butter at just $22.50 a person. Sliced for serving, it's almost like eating roast beef. Take advantage of the BYO option and spend the savings on a side of mash.
6 Cowper Road, Woolloomooloo, 9368 7488, ottoristorante.com.au.
at The Bar at Rockpool Bar and Grill, $29.
You may not be able to run to a wagyu rib-eye in the Grill, but in the Bar you can get a neat little minute steak - Rangers Valley or Cape Grim - that's never seen a cryovac bag. Cooked over charcoal, it delivers a good juicy, smoky, well-seasoned and tender beefy hit. Note that it doesn't come with anything… except of course, a lush leather chair, moody scene, smart crowd and a serious cocktail bar.
66 Hunter Street, city, 8078 1900, rockpool.com/sydney/bar-and-grill.
Cape Grim Scotch fillet sandwich
at the Butchers Cafe, $12.
Where else can you buy a top steak from a butcher then get it cooked for you in the cafe next door? Not only that, the cafe's steak sandwich is a bargain, with cooked-to-order Cape Grim Scotch fillet tucked into a Sonoma sourdough baguette with mustard mayonnaise, rocket and a pile of sweetly caramelised onions.
152-154 Sydney Road, Fairlight, 9949 2460.
at The Oaks, $28.
The quintessential Aussie cook-your-own steak beer garden has a charm all of its own, in spite of the supermarket vibe to the queue-and-order system. Choose your meat - an unevenly cut 300-gram grain-fed wagyu rump, say - and stand around the barbie with a beer in hand until done to your liking. I liked the steak very much, and the refrigerated, foil-wrapped, pre-boiled potato, salad, bread roll and herbed butter, not so much.
118 Military Road, Neutral Bay, 9953 5515, oakshotel.com.au.
Coorong skirt steak
at The Cut, $26.
The cowhide chairs and chopping-block tables are clues to the core business here. While most steaks weigh in well above our price limit, there's a Coorong Angus beef from Mount Barker listed on the lunch menu that comes sliced into long, slender fingers, delivering distinct flavour along with a firm chew. Soft, oily shoestring fries add little.
16 Argyle Street, The Rocks, 9259 5695, cutbarandgrill.com.
BBQ wagyu skirt steak
at Izakaya Fujiyama, $27.50.
Japanese chefs place as much value on their beef as their fish. At this casual izakaya, chef Kenji Maenaka balances wagyu fat content with skirt's gaminess, slices it teriyaki-style and serves with a dressing of garlic, sesame and soy. A bit of a chew, but there's flavour at the end of it.
52 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, 9894 6499, izakayafujiyama.com.
Pony at The Rocks, Chophouse, Clovelly Hotel, The Woolwich Pier Hotel, Moncur Terrace, Bill's Woollahra and Darlinghurst (for the steak sandwich), The Local Taphouse in Darlinghurst and Panama House, Bondi.
Please chefs, can we move on from cafe de Paris butter now?
And when serving steak to share, please send out warm plates instead of cold.
And if you are going to sous-vide your steak first, you should let us know on the menu.