The evolution of meat: how steak is changing in Dubai
We spend an afternoon in the kitchen at Dubai restaurant The Hide and discover why everyone is going crazy for dry-aged beef.Peter Iantorno November 16, 2015
The desire to eat meat is one of man’s most primal urges, dating back to the very dawn of the human race, when primitive hunter-gatherer types would devote almost their entire lives to hunting animals as a source of food.
Of course, meat has come a long way since the early humans feasted on whatever source of protein they could get their hands on, with modern-day iterations of meat often taking a rather more refined appearance.
In recent years most high-end restaurants would serve only the very finest, most expensive pieces of meat, for fear of upsetting increasingly fussy diners who demand a steak so soft and tender that it can be cut with a butter knife.
However, times are changing, and where once the presence of a lesser-known flank or hanger steak on a restaurant menu would be thought preposterous by most, slowly the tide is turning, and people are beginning to appreciate these infrequently used yet flavour-packed cuts.
At the forefront of this foodie revolution is Al Qasr’s new meatery The Hide. With a heavy focus on traditional butchery and high-quality super-dry-aged beef, the restaurant aims to change the way Dubai diners think about meat.
We spent a lunch break helping out Executive Development Chef Nick Cuadrado and Head Chef Brian Voelzing with their dinner prep, and discovered there’s an awful lot of work that goes into your simple steak dinner.
The first sight that greets us as we enter The Hide is that of the giant dry-ageing cabinet, housing a healthy selection of beef shortloins, each measuring well over a metre in length and weighing in excess of 10kg.
How exactly this hulking great slab of meat, fat and bones is turned into a steak dinner is difficult to imagine, but as Chef Brian hands us a hacksaw and points to the desired place of incision, we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re about to find out.
“We visited the farm where these cows are raised in the north of Spain up in the mountains – it’s a beautiful place,” says Chef Nick, holding back a smirk as we struggle to hack through the thick bone of the shortloin with the saw.
“These cows are just up there in the mountains for their whole lives, between seven and 12 years before they’re brought down, fed maize for six months just to fatten them up a little bit because they’ve been burning a lot of fat walking up and down the mountain, and then slaughtered on the farm.”
Considering that the average cow is slaughtered at between one and two years of age, the fact that these cows have lived relatively full lives makes us feel slightly better as the saw finally cracks through the bone of the loin, splitting it into two pieces.
As we ditch the saw in favour of a chef’s knife and begin to separate the meat from the bone and trim the excess fat from the loin, Chef Nick tells us more about why these cows are so special.
“For a cow that age, the dry-ageing process is an absolute must,” he says. “It’s a naturally occurring process where the beef is hung in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for anywhere from 21 to 40 days.
“During this time the enzymes in the meat start to break down, so it becomes tender, and as it dry-ages, it essentially loses weight as the moisture within the tissue disperses. This intensifies the flavour. The meat close to the bone is even more flavourful – that’s why we serve our big steaks on the bone. Tenderness and flavour are the two main reasons for dry-ageing.”
With the meat stripped from the bone and the tough outside layer of fat removed, suddenly the slab of meat we are faced with looks much more like a conventional cut of beef. As we slice it into thick rib-eye steaks, revealing the blushing deep red meat marbled with soft fat (which is apparently where all the flavour is) Chef Nick continues to extol the virtues of this special meat.
“You actually lose 60 per cent of the mass of beef during the dry-ageing process,” he says. “By the time you have trimmed it down, removing outside bacteria and tough fat, there is only 40 per cent of the original product left, but you get all that back in flavour.
“When the beef leaves Spain to come to Dubai it has already been dry-aged for 21 days. It then spends two days in a temperature-controlled fridge in an aircraft, before coming to us, where we put it straight into our own dry-ageing fridge. In there it’s good for as long you like, but we never end up keeping it long as we always sell it so quickly.”
Behind the grill it is scorching hot, and the heat only increases as Chef Brian lightly seasons a hanger steak and an American Black Angus rib-eye, before slapping them on the grill, inducing a burst of flames from the piping hot coals.
And it gets even hotter as we add our own super-dry-aged Spanish rib-eye steaks, causing an inferno of flames as the high fat content immediately begins to drip through the grill and splash on the coals.
“Dry-aged beef can be cooked in the exact same way as any other beef,” says Brian as he expertly manoeuvres his steaks, creating flawless crosshatched char marks, “but the flavour is just so much more intense."
The reason why Chef Brian is preparing his own steaks next to ours is not simply to show up our lack of skill on the grill, but to display the difference between the hanger and US rib-eye and the super dry-aged Spanish. And while the chefs both agree that the Spanish is technically far superior, according to Chef Brian, there’s a time and a place for every kind of different steak.
“I like all the cuts,” he says, “but they are all different and you’ve got to appreciate them for what they are. I just love the flavour of the forgotten cuts. You can almost tell where they come from in relation to the animal. For example, the hanger steak is near the kidneys so it takes on a nice strong almost offal-like taste.
“In Dubai it is all tenderloin [also known as fillet] sales. I think it’s because people perceive tenderness as more important than flavour, also it was always known as the best – the most expensive cut.
“There’s nothing wrong with fillet, but I think it’s fading hard now, because where you need a really good sauce with fillet, with one of the dry-aged Spanish cuts, you could just eat it on its own. It’s not dry, it’s got a lot of flavour and you don’t need to cover it with peppercorn.”
And on that note Chefs Brian and Nick lead us out of the kitchen and into the restaurant to wait for our freshly grilled steaks to rest. After what feels like an age but is actually more like five minutes, the steaks are perfectly rested and can be sliced open, revealing the blushing red meat from the charred outside.
First of all we taste the US rib-eye, from a cow that lived for somewhere between one and two years, and, sure enough, it is succulent, juicy and has a beefy flavour, like a steak should taste. Next is the hanger steak – slightly chewier than the US rib-eye but packing a potent almost offal-like flavour: delicious.
Last but certainly not least, we try the super-dry-aged Spanish rib-eye, taken from a cow that lived for between seven and 12 years in the Spanish mountains, aged for 21 days and then slaved over by our own fair hands. From the very first bite, all we can think is ‘wow’.
An umami-rich, intense, super-beefy flavour unlike anything we have ever tasted fills our palate. A world away from the vacuum-packed, flavourless modern iteration of meat, it tastes like the very origin of steak - like what we imagine the cave men would have eaten back at the dawn of the human race.
And that was with us cooking it. Just imagine how good it would have been if we’d left it to the professionals…