Behind the Scenes Look at Smith and Wollensky's Prime Rib
"I prefer my beef extra rare so I was surprised when Chavez informed me that the more well-done end cuts are actually the most popular."
I suppose it's a bit morbid to ask what your death row meal might be but on the other hand, the concept of determining one's last bite on earth has a strange, perhaps macabre charm to it. I have eaten an awful lot of high grade beef in the last few years.
More USDA Prime than I can remember, steaks dry aged for as many as 65 days (the standard is usually 21), exotic domestic breeds, and imported Japanese Wagyu that cost $250 for a ten-ounce steak. I have eaten at traditional steakhouses, nouveau steakhouses, Italian, Japanese and Argentine steakhouses.
Yet despite the variety, if I had to choose one final beefsteak dinner it would remain the prime rib at Smith and Wollensky, a cut that I have been enjoying since moving to New York City in the mid 1980s.
I was recently granted behind-the-scenes access to see how the prime rib is brought to table by Smith and Wollesnky's executive chef Victor Chavez, a man whose work I have admired for years but only met for the first time recently. Chavez, a native of Ecuador, is a classically trained chef (he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America) and after working in Europe, he became the sous chef at Alan Stillman's fledgling Smith and Wollensky in 1977. In 1981 he assumed the position of executive chef.
Danny Kissane, a 22-year veteran of Smith and Wollensky, is in charge of purchasing for the flagship location and personally inspecting all the meat served at the restaurant. Smith and Wollensky uses USDA Prime beef exclusively for all of the steaks and chops. Only two percent of cattle in the U.S. is deemed prime and Kissane claims that he only accepts the top 25 percent of that. To achieve this, meat is sourced from several of the top purveyors in the city.
In an average week the restaurant goes through around two tons of beef, but during the winter holiday season that number doubles. The beef is dry aged in a cavernous aging room where tidy rows of metal shelves are stocked with huge sides of beef—porterhouses, "179" NY strips, "107" beef ribs and the "109" beef ribs used for the prime rib. The room stays at just above freezing and has a constant, and turbulent, movement of air provided by a massive ventilation system.
Unlike the fridge at home where the temperature rises and then falls, the refrigeration system here actually has a heating element to "fool" the thermostat into thinking the room is warmer than it is. This is critical because the point of dry aging is to allow a controlled mold to form on the outside of the beef—it will not form correctly if the temperature is too high.
This mold releases enzymes in the beef that tenderize it and enhance the beefy flavor of the flesh. When the door shuts, the room is bathed in an eerie blue light. It's actually an ultraviolet light meant to stymie the growth of mold on the beef. The mold continues to grow inwards, enhancing the beef, but the point is to eliminate the outward growth that appears as a fuzzy mass.
The cuts of beef intended for steak (NY Strip, porterhouse, and ribeye) are dry aged from 22 to 28 days. The beef for the prime rib gets aged for a shorter period of time, usually around 18 days because the cooking method—slow roasting as opposed to the violent searing of a steak—serves to intensify the flavor.
Smith and Wollensky roasts massive 24-pound sides of "109" beef rib for the prime rib. Two whole sides are placed in large, deep bottomed roasting pans and caked in several inches of kosher salt and pepper. Water added to the bottom of the pan forms the basis for the toothsome au jus served with the roast.
The beef roasts at 350°F for three hours, producing a crunchy crust on the side of beef with a deep mahogany hue. Roasting takes place three times a day to meet the demands of both a lunch and dinner crowds. Between five and ten ribs are prepared each day.
When the roast is finished it's put on a chopping block and trimmed. The chef readies the side for slicing by lopping off the charred exterior. Once sliced, the rosy, succulent inner flesh is revealed. A single side will satisfy temperature orders from beyond medium to rare. The closer to the middle of the side, the rarer the beef becomes. I prefer my beef extra rare so I was surprised when Chavez informed me that the more well-done end cuts are actually the most popular.
Whatever your temperature preference, the preparation is the same—a massive 22-plus ounce hunk is portioned on each plate, then has a generous spooning of the hearty au jus.
Naturally, the side to order with your prime rib are the hash browns. Chavez bakes Idaho potatoes the day before then allows them to cool overnight. Peeled and put through a french fry press, they are then mixed with chopped green peppers and onions, then everything gets seasoned with salt, pepper, and Hacomat.
This goes into a pan with a generous portion of clarified butter. Once a dark crust forms on the bottom, the chef flips the potatoes like a pancake and burnishes the other side. While a large amount of butter is used, most gets drained off in a similar manner to how the classic French dish Pommes Anna is prepared.
The result is a potato dish with a buttery, tender, flavorful inner core and a supremely crisp and crunchy crust. The subtle sweetness of the onions and peppers balancing out the salty, savory amalgam of seasoning and scorched butter. The other traditional side you really shouldn't miss is the creamed spinach. Unlike the pale, flaccid incarnation often served at steakhouses, this variety is fresh, vibrant, and creamy.
But as compelling as the hash browns and creamed spinach are, the star of the show is unquestionably the prime rib. The huge slab of beef with its dark, crunchy circumference and ethereally tender rosy flesh is packed full of flavor. While it does not have the over-the-top Roquefort cheese-like funk of dry aged steaks, the flavors are more subtle—musky, almost gamey and more mineral rich.
Witnessing the care and attention to detail that goes into preparing the prime rib has made me respect it all the more. It remains my favorite meal. Now, please call the warden so I can give him my order.