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Ours is a meat-loving town. Back in the 1990s, the high-end steakhouse – defined by a la carte menus and pampering tag-team servers – took the city by a storm of 28-ounce Angus porterhouses. The trend eventually petered out, hit hard by the 2008 recession. Diners may have tightened their belts, but didn’t lose their palate for high-quality steaks. We guarantee that our roundup will stir a craving sated only by red meat.

Methodology

At every steakhouse I visited, my order always included a rib-eye. That helped me set a baseline for quality. “Rich and beefy” are characteristics of this well-marbled cut. Fat equates to flavor, and to me, that signifies the best piece of meat.

** Denotes A la Carte Menu


Carnevor

Carnevor. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Clockwise from top: dry-aged rib-eye, lobster mac and cheese, bone-in filet and lobster bisque from Carnevor. Photo by Chris Kessler.

In January, SURG Restaurant Group’s big cha-ching moved a few doors down from its original digs on Milwaukee Street to the old Umami Moto. Texture-loving Flux Design took on the interior work, creating a look that suggests the modern home of Fred Flintstone. When the price range is as high as it is here, you expect a polished waitstaff, and this one delivered. With a steak menu all USDA* prime (wet- and dry-aged choices, Japanese Wagyu and a Wagyu-Angus cross), it’s clear SURG aims to impress. (In that way, its parallel is Rare in the 833 East building.) Despite the merits of dry-aging (see the glossary below), the wet-aged 16-ounce bone-in filet letwas juicy, the seasoned crust leading to more pronounced beef flavor inside. It was more flavorful than (but not as succulent as) the dry-aged 20-ounce rib-eye from SURG’s Hidden Creek Farm. Your wallet will take a beating, and trust me, it’s hard to stomach the thought of a $57 a la carte steak, but these are top tier. **

What the Chef Recommends
Mario Giuliani ●
Carnevor
“45-day dry-aged NY strip, medium-rare, with a dry Italian red wine”

$39-$161. (718 N. Milwaukee St., 414-223-2200)

*United States Department of Agriculture


Glossary

Steakhouse lingo includes terms like “prime,” “choice” and “wet-aged.” What they mean and why they matter:

Beef quality grades
The USDA has eight beef grades, based on marbling (fat), color and maturity. The No. 1 grade, prime, has ample marbling. Choice, at No. 2, is considered high-quality but has less marbling than prime.

Dry-aging
Cuts of beef are hung in an open-air, temperature-controlled space and allowed to dry for several weeks. As the meat dehydrates, the flavor intensifies – some argue the flavor is better than wet-aged.

Wet-aging
Vacuum-packing in plastic keeps the meat contained so it ages in contact with its blood. That gives it a slightly tangy or sour note. It’s such a common practice these days that it’s the flavor to which diners are most accustomed.

Wagyu beef
Refers (historically) to breeds of Japanese cattle, but most often the breeds are raised in the U.S. and cross-bred with domestic stock. Its calling card: highly marbled meat that carries a high price tag.


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Mason Street Grill

Longtime head chef Mark Weber having taken on an expanded culinary overseer role this year with parent Marcus Corp., in late October the company hired Ramses Alvarez – who’s cooked everywhere from Juniper 61 to La Merenda – to be Mason Street’s executive chef. The Pfister Hotel restaurant brass keeps the menu from drastic changes, so Alvarez’s job will be to keep the ship on course. The servers are trained to know the differences between the steaks and why that matters to diners. Of the six options of cuts, two are dry-aged and bone-in – the 14-ounce Kansas City strip, dry-aged for 35 days; and the 20-ounce rib-eye, dry-aged for 75 days. None of those attributes ensure the perfect result. That’s up to the cook. And he did a terrific job grilling both steaks. The Kansas City, cut from the marbled loin, oozed juice from its fleshy middle, and the bone-in steak cut like butter and imparted a pronounced beefy flavor. Like its sister (Milwaukee ChopHouse), Mason Street is investing time and effort into its beef program. And it shows. **

What the Chef Recommends
Mark Weber ● 
Mason Street Grill
“Dry-aged, 32-ounce Tomahawk rib-eye, a perfect medium-rare, with Rodney Strong Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon” 

$38-$56. (425 E. Mason St., 414-298-3131)


Jackson Grill

The combination of the cook and the grill – just an old-style grill, heated by a mixture of applewood, mesquite and briquettes, explains co-owner Jimmy Jackson – transforms an Angus bone-in rib-eye into a marvelously flavorful, juice-seeping beauty. It’s Jackson’s signature, and with good reason – for flavor and texture, the NY strip pales in comparison. Jackson’s pride is evident in that rib-eye, just as it’s written on his face, when he’s seated at the bar – near the wall hung with local celebrity signatures on chalkboards – shaking hands with incoming diners. Occupying an inconspicuous 1930-era house on a quiet block on the South Side, Jackson upholds the old-fashioned supper club vibe combined with the Milwaukeean’s need for value. Steaks include soup or field green salad (unusually limp greens topped by a well-made hot bacon dressing), a grilled Portobello mushroom cap and a potato or pasta side. Upshot: The saving grace was that rib-eye. Neither the starches nor the soup/salad were worth writing home about. While Jackson Grill has old-school charm, the quality isn’t consistent across the board.

$28-$56. (3736 W. Mitchell St., 414-384-7384)


Milwaukee Steakhouse

Soon after this place opened in 2010, the volume of patrons led the owners to double the dining space and accommodate private parties. While all-inclusive dinners – including soup or salad and potato – are getting harder to find, this modest place keeps it going. On our visit, plates and bowls (good tomato bisque) arrived piping hot, and our steaks, from the selection of USDA choice cuts, arrived with a beautifully charred exterior and rested in a well-seasoned au jus. The 21-ounce bone-in rib-eye is your go-to, no toppings needed. This place understands all-inclusive, not missing a beat with the quality of each course.

$39-$55. (6024 W. Bluemound Rd., 414-312-7891)


Illustration by Getty Images.

Illustration by Getty Images.


Milwaukee ChopHouse

Fourteen years ago when the ChopHouse opened at the Milwaukee Hilton, the pricey a la carte steakhouse trend (the low-carb dieter’s dream) was in full swagger. And this masculine, club-like dining room with formal servers in white jackets helped set the tone for decadence and raised the status of the hotel. It’s not easy to keep that momentum going. The restaurant has dropped off some “best” lists since then, but the steaks, of late, much exceeded my expectations. The restaurant offers reserve (USDA prime, dry-aged) and house (choice, wet-aged) cuts from Illinois’ Meats by Linz. What excelled here: the dry-aged 14-ounce “reserve” rib-eye, whose rich swath of marbling was a flavor powerhouse. A good steak shouldn’t need a sauce but each steak includes one and it’s hard to turn down a thick, lemony béarnaise. I went for a bone-in, wet-aged NY strip, and it was perhaps that bone’s marrow that accounted for the smooth, buttery flavor of the meat. The ChopHouse is still on top of its game! **

$32-$50. (633 N. Fifth St., 414-226-2467)


Walking the (Side) Line
Rare. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

The lobster mac and cheese at Rare Steakhouse. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Steaks go particularly well with starchy foods, which help balance the meat’s richness. From the many specimens of baked potatoes, mac and cheese and more served around town, we’ve rounded up the most scrumptious steakhouse sides:

The caramely sweetness of pan-roasted Brussels sprouts complements the richness of a well-marbled steak. – Carnevor

A classic dish with roots in the 19th century, this version of Delmonico potatoes features the tuber sliced and baked in a nutmeg-laced cream sauce. – Mason Street Grill

Crisp-tender seasonal vegetables and Parmesan cheese make this creamy and yet still slightly al dente risotto sing. – Palmer’s Steakhouse

The skin of a baked potato acts as a golden-crisp, incredibly delicious casing that is cut open and loaded with butter, cheddar cheese and sour cream. – Dream Dance Steak

The lobster mac and cheese combines copious chunks of meaty, tender lobster tail with creamy cavatappi pasta and browned breadcrumbs. – Rare Steakhouse


Palmer's Steakhouse. Photo by Chris Kessler.

An 18-ounce rib-eye –flanked by American fried potatoes, twice-baked potato and seasonal risotto – from Palmer’s Steakhouse. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Palmer’s Steakhouse

Swooshing water flows down a creek next to this charming 10-year-old “meat palace” in Hartland’s quaint downtown. Seasonal decorations routinely inhabit the bar and dining room, which also pays homage to our state’s NFL football team. Palmer’s is a supper club that adores steak. The prices are very appealing, and a la carte is rejected in favor of being inclusive. That means soup (creamy mushroom, maybe) or salad (nice chunky blue cheese dressing) and mashed or American fried potatoes with your 12-ounce filet, with the bone intact, a quality that’s supposed to deepen the flavor. It’s something servers talk up, to be sure, and while I didn’t see major flavor enhancement, the texture was tender. The star here was the cut featured as a special – a bone-in prime 24-ounce rib-eye. Another attribute that ran the price up to $60 (compared with the menu’s $38 USDA choice 18-ounce rib-eye) was its happier, healthier prior status as part of a grass-fed, humanely raised cow. The hefty bone and deft cooking kept this steak juicy; the strong beefy flavor builds with each bite. The best steaks in Lake Country.

What the Chef Recommends
Marc Dzian ● 
Palmer’s Steakhouse
“24-ounce grass-fed prime rib-eye, medium-rare, with a Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA”

$26-$38. (122 E. Capitol Dr., Hartland, 262-369-3939)


5 O’Clock Steakhouse

Nostalgia has defined the 5 O’Clock Club since it opened, as just a bar (under the name Coerper’s 5 O’Clock Club), in 1945. The ownership has changed but part of the reason the popularity of this joint hasn’t waned is it’s kept the trademarks intact: Diners belly up to the bar, where they order a drink and place their dinner order before being escorted to a table where that entrée comes with so much more – relish tray, loaf of warm bread with honey and butter, family-style salad and choice of potato. It’s hard to imagine a steakhouse story devoid of a 5 O’Clock mention, even though my recent visit didn’t illustrate the culinary best of this place. Both the rib-eye and NY strip were charred in the familiar 5 O’Clock way, but lacking in flavor. And the au jus was more of a wet distraction than an enhancement. It used to be that the food was as strong a reason to come here as the visually conjured nostalgia (Christmas decorations, dark-red walls, ’50s-era light fixtures). I’m afraid that’s not the case anymore.

$38-$55. (2416 W. State St., 414-342-3553)


Dream Dance Steak. Photo by Matt Haas.

Niman Ranch rib-eye with broccolini and loaded baked potato from Dream Dance Steak. Photo by Matt Haas.

Dream Dance Steak

The casino hotel high-ender is one of the few local steakhouses
where a sweatshirt and jeans are common attire. But Dream Dance – whose sedate dining room of heavily upholstered booths helps it feel removed from the cacophonic gambling floor – attracts a mixed clientele of game players and destination restaurant goers. Just as when it opened in 2000 (it was originally run by Bartolotta Restaurant Group), the food is a show-stopper, with steaks a big component of the menu. Niman Ranch and Meats by Linz are two of the respected sources of its cuts. Each comes with a sauce and the house truffle mashed potatoes, which I liked for their richness but the truffle oil was too liberally applied. The night I was there, you could order a 5-ounce Japanese A5 Miyazaki Wagyu NY strip for $75.

(That’s a market-value steak.) But my money was and is on two of the less expensive cuts – a prime 14-ounce bone-in filet (lean but nicely charred, with good flavor) and the mild Niman Ranch 16-ounce rib-eye, which led with its luscious texture and got a potent boost of flavor from the horseradish red wine sauce. If you don’t care for casinos, it’s tough to rally the effort to visit, but Dream Dance is worth it.

What the Chef Recommends
Chase Anderson ● 
Dream Dance Steak
“Niman Ranch 16-ounce rib-eye, simply broiled with salt and pepper, and served medium with a glass of 2013 Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon”

$39-$79. (Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., 414-847-7883)


Rare. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Two cozy leather-upholstered booths in the dining room at Rare Steakhouse. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Rare Steakhouse

This ground-floor inhabitant of the new 833 East high-rise marks the return of the very high-end steakhouse where one’s every need is catered to, the spot that warrants jacket-and-tie attire for fellas. Some of its specialties: Caesar salads prepared table-side, private wine lockers for oenophiles and a 28-ounce double bone-in filet mignon (for $120). No wonder former U.S. Sen./one-time Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl was seated a few tables down from me. Attention is certainly paid to details here, including servers who tout the merits of by-the-glass Dom Perignon and meticulously scrape the table of crumbs. There are steak winners here, and they need not be double bone-in filets. From the a la carte menu, I enjoyed the massive, marbled 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye (béarnaise, for a $5 upcharge, served on the side) and the 18-ounce Jack’s Kansas City strip, enhanced simply by the well-balanced au jus. Rare is for the well-heeled diner. **

$27-$120. (833 E. Michigan St., 414-273-7273)


Saucy Language

When you have a great cut of meat, a topping is extraneous. But if you’re looking to amp up the flavor of your beef, try these sauces on the side:

Béarnaise
A classic French sauce made of clarified butter, vinegar, white wine, egg yolks and fresh tarragon. Rare makes a tangy, rich version with just enough herb flavor.

Horseradish red wine
Displaying the depth of a beef demi-glace and a mustard-like pungency. One to try is served at Dream Dance Steak.

Homemade steak sauce
Not to be confused with vinegary A1, a good house-made sauce is slightly sweet (from brown sugar and molasses), thickened but not dominated by ketchup and is rounded out with some Dijon mustard. A little for dipping is all you need at Milwaukee ChopHouse.


Mr. B’s Steakhouse

Photo by Savage.

Photo by Savage.

You gotta hand it to Bartolotta Restaurant Group. Seventeen years after opening this place (and later relocating it from nearby Stonewood Village), Mr. B’s still draws impressive crowds, even on weeknights. Notwithstanding the promise of its name, the restaurant is known for a lot more than steaks (most diners seated near me that night were eating BBQ ribs!). Steaks come with choice of potato and sauce, and except for the nightly steak specials (which highlight prime, specialty beef), the regular menu is composed of USDA choice Certified Angus Beef (CAB), the upper two-third of choice. Here, the lean bone in filet proved the better cut – over the unpleasantly chewy 18-ounce Angus rib-eye. The clean, pronounced beef taste was matched by the glossy grilled crust. But these regular-menu steaks are not as good as those from the early Mr. B days.

$38.95-$52.95. (18380 W. Capitol Dr., Brookfield, 262-790-7005)

‘Steakhouse Stakeout’ appears in the December 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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