BY IAN MCNULTY
Nov. 20, 2013
What could be more elemental than the main act of the American steakhouse experience? You take meat, add heat, season it and bring it to the table with a knife fit for the battlefield.
Producing a really fine steak calls for a few more moves in the kitchen, and, when it comes to the particular sub-genre of New Orleans-style steaks, a dash of theatrics, as well.
That would be the bang-snap clatter of the steak sizzling away, the urgent guidance not to touch the super-hot plate, the ritualized raising of napkins to shield shirtfronts from shooting-star butter splats.
The subtler points happen behind the scenes. Are the steaks butchered in-house, allowing the indulgent customer to call an audible for an off-the-menu steak cut to spec? Are the steaks “rested” before service, that essential (but hardly universal) step that allows the juices to settle back into the meat instead of rushing out at the first slice?
All this is part of the program at the CBD’s notable new Desi’s Vega Steakhouse, and it’s hardly surprising.
Namesake and managing partner Desi Vega spent a formative chapter of his career working for Ruth Fertel, who famously popularized the New Orleans steak style around the world as her Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse company grew.
Desi Vega’s Steakhouse blends the tricks of the trade Vega picked up in the Ruth’s Chris heyday with a solid dose of his own family’s long and varied history in New Orleans restaurants (they ran everything from Steak & Patty to the Ritz Club to a Frostop burger stand).
Vega would later join a group of partners to take over Mr. John’s Steakhouse on St. Charles Avenue.
As that restaurant grew busier and busier, he decided to expand with another steakhouse in the spot that was previously Mike’s on the Avenue.
The menu here is basically the same as at Mr. John’s, and it’s located just a mile away, but the setting is so different that the two restaurants feel worlds apart.
Whereas Mr. John’s dials in the cloistered, dark-hued archetype of the big city steakhouse, Desi Vega’s is sweeping, open and white, with huge windows framing views of passing streetcars and the oaks of Lafayette Square.
On weekdays, the dining room can feel like a lunch club for the neighboring New Orleans Bar Association, with nearby law firms and the federal courthouse feeding a steady supply of suits. At night it’s little looser, with a noticeably younger clientele and more than its fair share of Saints players among them.
The various steak cuts share some important characteristics. The strip ($44) and the filet ($39) each looked poised, plump and ready — the filet doming up on top, the strip arching just a bit. Their surfaces were finely crusted with pepper and sprinkled with parsley (an old steakhouse trick: the wet herbs ensure raucous sizzle on the hot plate). They were edged with char and glistening, while within the fibers of rare meat were wavy, distinct and flushed with juice.
Since this is a steakhouse, naturally there is wedge salad, here called hearts of lettuce ($11). Pleasingly sour, chunk-laden blue cheese dressing cascaded over it, carrying almost equal amounts bacon and black pepper.
It’s delicious, though it can feel more like a dip than a salad. The Boston Bibb salad ($10) with goat cheese and pears is still heavily dressed but offers somewhat less guilt with your greens.
The kitchen reprises the sizzling plate treatment for a crab cake ($14), giving an extra buttery sear to a patty composed almost entirely of crab and herbs. “Who dat shrimp” ($15) are stuffed with crabmeat and essentially enrobed in bacon, which is fused to the shrimp, and drizzled with a spicy/sweet Thai-style sauce.
Lacy, thin onion rings ($8) have the tang of Crystal Hot Sauce cooked right into them, and andouille and crawfish add some smoke and texture beneath the golden, soldered cap of mac and cheese ($9). The daily fish — flounder with crabmeat ($32) when I tried it — adds more Creole flavor to the menu, and a lighter option for someone dragged along to the steakhouse by her friends.
But really, the signature of this place should have been clear the moment you walked in and heard that sizzle.