CUT: WHISTLING THE SIDES
A few years ago, I read an old review of a Broadway musical. The critic savaged the play for its lousy acting and poor score, but gave due praise to the costumes and staging. He finished the review by stating “the audience left the theatre whistling the scenery”
It’s a brilliant description of how elements of any production, which are supposed to be in a supporting role, can often be given undue prominence to the detriment of the whole experience. It’s also exactly how I felt as Sybil and I wandered out to collect our car after a hugely underwhelming meal at CUT, Wolfgang Puck’s Los Angeles Steakhouse.
It was my own fault, I guess. Sybil had asked me where I wanted to go for the annual celebration of my journey to the grave and the notion of a large steak in smart surroundings seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It appeared that a similar notion also fit the bill of lots of other people as well. Even well in advance, the only reservation we could get on the big day was so early that I half expected to be offered a Pensioner’s menu as we were shown to our seats.
There are no discounts at CUT however, as I soon began to realise as my eyes wandered up and down the menu in search of the largest cuts of meat. Starters ranged from around $20 to a whopping $30 a pop, while the main events leave $50 behind like a fat man running for the bus. Turn to the selection of impressive looking Wagyu and Kobe cuts brought to the table by our server and you wont see much change out of a Benjamin. While we made our mind up, we finished our pre-dinner drinks and nibbled on some excellent gougère, little knowing that they would turn out to be one of the highlights of the meal.
When I posted about my meal on Twitter before setting out, more than one person suggested that I must try the “Bone Marrow Flan with Mushroom Marmalade and Parsley Salad” an interesting twist on the dish that has made Fergus so famous. Indeed the relationship to to St. John’s most famous dish became even more apparent when the plate arrived. The flan had been set inside two narrow veal bones, flanked by two quenelles of the mushroom “marmalade” (do you think any chefs actually know what marmalade really means any more?) and topped by the parsley salad and a hefty dose of the all purpose "fine dining" veal reduction that I thought had gone out of fashion about ten years ago.
It was a pleasing enough plate to look at and the mushrooms had terrific flavour working well with the sharp bite of the parsley salad. Unfortunately, the star of the show had little to recommend it other than a perfect consistency. There was no recognisable marrow essence that either Sybil or I could discern and it merely ended up as a few flavourless blobs of savoury custard on toasted brioche.
Sybil’s starter was a more standard “Big Eye Tuna Tartare” which was obviously made with fish of impeccable provenance and came topped with avocado and surrounded with Japanese accompaniments. While the fish was of superb quality, the whole dish screamed out for the ignition key of citrus and a hefty dose of seasoning to wake everything up. When I asked Sybil what she thought, her shrug was enough to tell me all I needed to know, if not to justify the $28 price tag.
Sybil is no fan of the cow, and I persuaded her to try the Korubata Pork Chop for her main course, while I finally decided on $59 worth of 35 day dry aged Nebraska Corn Fed Rib Eye as my birthday treat. The pork came with a slight char and had all the intense flavour you would associate with Berkshire pigs. Disappointingly, however, although our server had made a particular note to tell us that it was cooked to medium, it arrived at our table well done and slightly dry. A sign, I am pretty certain, that it had sat for slightly too long at the pass while waiting for my steak to rest.
Quite how underwhelming everything had been so far in the meal would have been forgotten if the main event, the steak had lived up to expectation. This does, after all brand itself a steakhouse and, if Mr. Puck can’t get that basic right, then he should spend more of his time in this particular kitchen and less on the shopping network peddling pots and pans.
Well, whomever he has in operating the charcoal grill and broiler definitely knows what he is doing as my steak came out exactly as requested. For the record, that's medium rare with a char. It had also been allowed to rest for the required time (to the detriment of the pork chop) and the inside colour had spread to an even pink. Unfortunately the perfect execution of the meat meant that the real issue with the steaks at CUT became all too apparent. They lack any apparent flavour. At first I thought it was my own fault for deadening my palate with a strong martini and a glass or three of decent Burgundy, but Sybil was quick to confirm that, although perfectly prepared, the steak had as much taste as if I had sucked on a napkin.
The simple fact, I believe is that the bar has been raised in the steak game over the last few years. The 100% corn fed cuts that were once the benchmark for a great steak have been left behind by their grass fed or grass fed/grain finished cousins. It seems to be the case in too many of the steakhouses I visit in the US these days, and I often find myself in the unlikely situation of arguing with American friends that I can now get a better steak in London (at Hawksmoor & Goodman’s two branches) than I can at the majority of their US equivalents. Americans don’t want to believe this to be true, of course, but I know where I would want to go if I wanted my last steak on earth and it would not be CUT.
The side dishes, on the other hand, were spot on, with particular attention being paid to superb creamed spinach, which came topped with a fried egg mixed in at the table. Fries were crisp, salty and delicious and, even though I dislike Mac & Cheese, Sybil gave it her thumbs up of approval. One more note before we move on from the main courses. If a restaurant is going to charge $60 for a steak and $12 for side dishes, however good, for shame on them for gouging an extra $2 from you for small pots of the accompanying sauces.
Desserts were a notch above standard steakhouse fodder with a passable Banana Cream Pie whose plate had been decorated with a birthday message, and a chocolate soufflé that completed the only real task of any good chocolate soufflé, that of being both rich and light at the same time.
Service throughout the meal was exemplary and deserved the 20% tip we added to the bill. Along with our pre-dinner drinks and a $75 bottle of Mercurey, that brought our total to a colossal $410 for the two of us, an amount that was made little better than the arrival of a pretty package of leftovers to take away with us and was certainly too much for a meal where the supposed stars of the show had been found wanting.
We left whistling the side dishes. Not really what you hope for when spending $410.