There are moments, in the course of human endeavour, when only a steak will do. And not just any old steak, either: it must be a steak that aligns with that delightful descriptor from vintage pulp fiction: "Big, fat, juicy ..."
The problem, however – in this age of costly cattle pampering and stratospheric restaurant prices – lies in satisfying a serious steak craving for less than the price of a smallish car.
Should you, for example, rush off to Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar and Grill in the Crown complex for an exquisitely marbled wagyu rib fillet seared to perfection on a wood-fired grill, you will be expected to cough up an eye-watering $115. The steak will not disappoint. But remember, that's $115 ...
PLUS the entree, the side dishes, and the $500 you dropped at the blackjack tables as you picked your way through the casino on your way to the restaurant.
PLUS the $1500 bottle of first-growth Bordeaux, in the company of which any steak costing more than 100 bucks deserves to be interred, surely.
But even without the last two kickers, anyone who escapes from Rockpool for less than $200 a head is, frankly, drinking the wrong wine.
Mercifully, there are alternatives. In recent weeks, we have combed Melbourne and the adjacent wine regions in search of steaks of substance – flavoursome meat, intelligently cooked – for less than $40 a pop. And we found plenty.
We have concluded that there are two ways to satisfy a steak craving on a budget. These are:
1. Opt for a secondary cut, which, in the hands of a clever chef, can be a tastier proposition than many premium cuts. It may not be as outrageously tender as the premium cut, but ... we have our own teeth, do we not?
2. Order your steak in surroundings from which you do not emerge, hours later, whistling at the interior design or deafened by the mindless braying of the upwardly mobile. In short, avoid unnecessary opulence with your steak because, one way or another, you will be paying for it.
Here, then, are our favourite half-dozen great steaks for less than $40, in no particular order:
Rib-eye on the bone (600g)
Salad and Cafe de Paris butter, or similar — $38.50. At the Vine, Collingwood.
The price charged for this outstanding slab of prime beef – grass-fed, dry-aged and cooked according to Heston Blumenthal's frenetic, flip-flop technique on a blistering-hot flat grill – is laughable. The steak is from a hereford herd in the Tara Valley, Gippsland, and has been matured to near perfection. The meat is dark and flavoursome and the cooking – by the well-credentialled Ron O'Bryan, who now operates this unfussy, vintage food pub with his wife, Kirsty – is impeccable. In summary: better than many Melbourne steaks costing twice as much.
Angus bavette (flank steak)
Radish slaw, walnuts, blue cheese butter — $32. At Albert St Food & Wine, Brunswick.
This dish, like so many at this fine establishment, is a treasure. Any number of international taste tests have established the excellence of this delectable section of flank steak in terms of sheer flavour. In the hands of a chef as accomplished as Philippa Sibley, the tenderness aspect has been addressed through culinary virtuosity. She has also added a flurry of earthy embellishments in keeping with the cut. All things considered, this is clearly another of Melbourne's finest affordable steak experiences.
Cooked on the parrilla (Argentine charcoal grill) chimichurri — $36. At San Telmo, city.
There is reckoned to be no tastier cut than this compact slab of steer's diaphragm – often called "the butcher's steak" because of that profession's reluctance to part with it, and also valued by the French who know it as onglet. This grass-fed example has lashings of flavour along with the resistance to the bite you might expect. The speedy but brief and expert application of fierce heat from the parrilla ensures that this is a beef experience you will not forget in a hurry, especially if you take full advantage of the generous allocation of fiery chimichurri.
Flat iron steak
Rare (essential), bed of garlic and chilli spinach, salsa verde — $31.50. At La Luna Bistro, Carlton North.
Actually, it's not always flat iron steak, which happens to be the magnificent cut of beef you are left with when you slice an oyster blade horizontally and remove the tendon. At the whim of beef guru, chef and restaurateur Adrian Richardson, it could just as easily be hanger steak, which has a similarly robust texture and a comparable flavour profile. Either way, your steak – which will arrive, sliced against the grain, on its green mattress (spinach) with matching bedding (salsa verde) – will deliver superlative value. Sensibly, if anyone orders their flat iron or hanger well done here, they are advised to choose another cut, which, sadly, will be more expensive. Their loss. Order it rare or, worst case, rare side of medium rare, and be amazed.
Scotch fillet (300g)
Small salad, sauce bearnaise — $38. At the Wayside Inn, South Melbourne.
There are few tastier presentations of this fine cut of beef than the grass-fed, dry-aged, Gippsland-grown example on offer in this shiny-bright second establishment of steak whiz Sean Donovan from Footscray's Station Hotel. The meat's naturally enhanced flavour profile (the grass) and extraordinary tenderness (the age) are both elevated by careful cooking over a red-gum grill. The elegant tangle of salad is perfect, and the bearnaise – you can have a pepper sauce, but why would you? – is thick and glorious, and may even seduce you into blowing a few more dollars on a bowl of golden fries with which to scrape the dregs from the bottom of the jug. When nobody's watching, obviously.
Friday lunches only
Your choice from several of the fine steaks listed on the menu — $29. At Steer Bar and Grill, South Yarra.
The excellence of the steaks and the brilliance of the cooking here suggest there are few better-value offers in Melbourne. However, the fact that it is available only for Friday lunch knocks it out of contention for some. But in terms of the steaks – which come with fine chips, a decent salad and a glass of very respectable wine (or a beer, if you prefer) – they simply do not get any better, as you will discover if you check out the offerings that appear on the restaurant's website each week. On a recent visit, for example, I was invited to choose between a 250g grass-fed, wagyu scotch fillet or a 280g organic, grass-fed, black angus porterhouse. It was also clear that if I had slept in and turned up only in time for dinner, the same steak would have broken the budget.
Chips, salad, mushroom or peppercorn sauce — $36. At the Deck, Flinders Hotel.
Food offerings in this extravagantly upgraded hotel are in the hands of Pierre Khodja, one of our masters of North African cuisine, but also a man who seems able to cook anything, anywhere. His fingerprints are all over this steak.
It's hard to know exactly how he has done it, but he has endowed this meltingly tender but least-flavoursome of cuts with great beef character: this place is the hotel bistro, and a good one, but there is nothing casual in the way this meat is handled. The sauce – go the peppercorn – is superb and the sides incomparable. There is also a similarly handled porterhouse at the same price but just this once . . .
Smashed Dobson's potatoes, Otway bacon and thyme-roasted mushrooms — $26. At the Healesville Hotel.
The best news here is that this country pub, a once-celebrated food destination which somehow lost its way, is back in form with solid, sensible, enlightened cooking. And this bargain-price presentation of flavoursome, grass-fed, dry-aged rump – perhaps the tastiest of all premium cuts – is a ripper.
The 300g steak – butchered and aged at the hotel's adjacent butcher shop – is caramelised and then eased to a moist medium-rare and sliced, tagliata style, and deliciously finished with a bacon and thyme-roasted mushroom embellishment.
The dish explodes with flavour and is thoughtfully executed. It's well worth a drive to the Yarra Valley, but remember it's on offer only on Monday and Tuesday nights, which are steak nights at the Healesville.
Know a great steak? Let us know in comments section below.
Terry Durrack's steak and tips
Five ways to score a great steak for less
1. Choose the cheapest steak at an expensive restaurant, rather than the most expensive steak at a cheap restaurant. Great restaurants buy only great meat, and your cheapie is subsidised by the more expensive offerings.
2. Share a larger steak between the two of you, in the manner of the French l'entrecote, and share a substantial salad or vegetable dish as well.
3. Invest in a name. Certain beef suppliers, such as Cape Grim, David Blackmore, Rangers Valley, Gundooee Organics, Coorong and O'Connor Premium, have a record for excellent beef at all levels.
4. Explore the so-called secondary cuts, such as bavette, onglet and skirt. A good chef and a good grill can turn them into better-than-premium experiences.
5. Use well-sharpened steak knives. They really make a difference to both perception and reality.
How to speak beef
A glossary of terms, hot off the grill.
Dry-aged: Dry-aged meat is hung on the bone to break down the fibres, evaporate moisture and concentrate flavour; a more expensive process for the providore, as the meat can lose as much as 20 per cent of its weight.
Entrecote: The French term for scotch fillet or rib-eye off the bone (rib-eye on the bone is referred to as cote de boeuf).
Eye fillet/tenderloin: The smallest, most expensive and tender cut of meat taken from the short loin. It's really more about tenderness than depth of flavour.
Flank: Taken from the belly, close to the hind legs. Very lean meat that benefits from a marinade to make it tender.
Grain-fed: For an animal to be classed as grain-fed it must have been finished in an accredited feedlot for a required number of days ranging from minimum of 70 days through to 300-plus days. Grain-fed beef is more consistent in quality and generally more tender, although all animals are started on grass or pastures.
Grass-fed: A grass-fed or pasture-fed beast has spent its life grazing on pastures and natural grasses. Typically, grass-fed steak has more resilience and character than grain-fed.
Hanger/onglet: This tender cut 'hangs' within the diaphragm, attaching itself to the last rib and the spine near the kidneys, giving it a rich, gamey flavour.
Marble score: Running from 1 to 9+, the marble score is used to grade the intramuscular fat content, particularly significant in wagyu beef. The higher the score, the higher the fat content - and the higher the price.
Minute steak: A small thinly-cut piece of steak (often a flattened-out end piece of tenderloin) that can be cooked quickly.
Oyster blade/flat iron: A tender piece of meat cut from the shoulder of the beast.
Porterhouse: The American term for T-bone, although often incorrectly used in Australia to describe a sirloin steak.
Rib-eye: Taken from the fore-rib section, this juicy, tender steak has enough fat to give it real flavour. Served on the bone, it's about as good as steak gets.
Rump: Taken from the back leg, a good value steak with a good chew and great flavour.
Scotch fillet: A boneless rib-eye; the best bet for cooking at home.
Sirloin: From the rear back portion of the animal between the scotch fillet and rump.
Skirt: There are four types - inside, thick (hanger), thin, and skirt steak (flank) - from different parts of the carcass. Fibrous, with a bit of a chew, but great flavour.
T-Bone: A bone-in steak combining the eye fillet and the sirloin, making it very tender yet with good flavour.
Wagyu: Full-blood wagyu comes from 100 per cent pure Japanese black wagyu and is renowned for its extreme marbling and tender, full-flavoured meat. Cross-breeding produces a range of wagyu classifications.
Wet-aged: Wet-aged beef is beef that has typically been aged in a vacuum-sealed bag. This retains its moisture, keeping weight loss to a minimum. The natural enzymes break down and tenderise the fibres of meat, but the natural juices are purged or lost.
Yearling: Yearling beef, which makes up most of the beef sold in local supermarkets and butchers, can actually be from cattle up to 30 months of age, as long as they don't have any permanent incisor teeth.
The world's most underrated steak?
Rump, apparently. ''It's a poor man's choice, but then, peasants tend to eat the best bits,'' says chef Rob Marchetti. Sydney steakmeister Neil Perry agrees that rump is underrated. ''It has wonderful flavour, although it can freak people out that they actually have to use their teeth.''