The following informed opinion offered entirely hormone-, antibiotic- and hyperbole-free: No Torontonian self-described “steak lover” is worth his salt (salt-free also a perfectly respectable option, mind you) if he fails to attend the annual Allen’s Steak Festival, in 2012 running from Feb. 7 – 25. For this extended fortnight, Allen’s is always the destination for steak connoisseurs in our city; it’s a point that is simply beyond debate.
I do not mean to disrespect or offend Toronto’s (mostly) fine steak houses — Harbour Sixty and Barberian’s are perennial, personal favourites — who do an eminently capable job of pleasing the modern Mad Men types and the legitimate elder statesmen that inspired them. Still, those spots offer what we’ll politely term “business steak” experiences, and business can be very, very good. Allen’s restaurant — correct, not a steak house, but a restaurant with a year-round focus on local meat — is less suit-and-tied, to the point of welcoming all but catering specifically to foodies, hence the second-to-none, top-grade steak menu it makes available at this time every year.
That is to say: The menu is technically available. Canny readers will note that the Allen’s hotlink above does not in fact jump to an online bill of fare, rather only a teaser page. Proprietor John Maxwell, who named his Danforth establishment in honour of a former mentor, refuses to print the Steak Festival offerings online. His intention is to welcome steak lovers, not lurkers; he will happily share his “agenda,” personally selected to-a-cut, with those who make the simple effort of crossing his threshold.
Maxwell’s full Steak Festival menu, once in hand in the restaurant, is indeed a read: nine different cuts — striploin, bone-in striploin, tenderloin, bone-in tenderloin, rib-eye, bone-in rib-eye, porterhouse, sirloin and prime rib (11 cuts if you count the sirloin and tenderloin in the Kobe Wagyu category) — combining for a total of 35 possible mains (this number, without counting the appetizer and tartare options). I spent some 10 minutes poring over the thoroughly itemized, inclusively detailed black-and-white laminate. It was that rarest of occasions when a wall of information makes both sensible and enjoyable reading.
For appetizer, both members of my party opted for tartare: Reg Woodworth (Lynden, ON), “Highland” (indicates pedigree, in this case Scottish), $15. Ground to order, the thick cords of moist, perfect-pink tartare were mouth-watering to simply look at, equally salivating, and tenderly textured, to taste. Exquisite. Served with, all-fresh: egg yolk, capers, parsley, red onion, anchovy. Not just a delight to eat, but to mix oneself; I used everything.
For my main, I took up our host’s challenge and ordered the John W. Maxwell (Flamborough Centre, ON) “Dexter” (Irish pedigree), 14 oz bone-in rib-eye; hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass- and hay-fed (note: no corn), aged 45 days, $45 [pictured — well, some of it]. My dining partner also opted for rib-eye, 18 oz, raised to the identical injection-free and feed specs; this steak was the Henry Traynor (Blackstock, ON) “Limousin” (French pedigree), aged 32 days, $38. Sides were available, organic and delectably prepared, I’m sure; two fish options rounded out the menu, top-notch, let’s assume. Nonetheless: With the exception of a small basket of Irish soda bread, my party dined exclusively on meat.
We ordered our steaks blue. Both rib-eyes were pictures of presentation — alas, that we did not take that photo — and transcendent in taste. If it needs to be said, these cuts were thinly charred on the outside, a hint of pepper crust (which I normally prefer to forgo but accepted as-served, and was pleased with the spice’s appropriate hint), and delectably purple and warm in the centre. Emphasis on ‘warm’ because so many restaurants err in agreeing to serve a blue steak cooked straight from the fridge; the result, always, an unappealing, cold centre.
Most noteworthy of both the Traynor and the Maxwell — the latter, selected from a 17-strong herd located a few hours outside of the city at Maxwell’s Wyatt Farm Organics operation, est. 2003; N. B., this cut’s striploin option was completely sold out as of the second day of the Festival — was not just the taste, but the texture. For the record, the following distinctions being incremental at best: I preferred my Maxwell steak for texture, but preferred the Traynor for taste. Nonetheless: these meats were superb.
Post-meal, the amiable and eloquent Maxwell explained his goals: “I am a strong proponent of grass-fed beef. The original impetus in organizing this Festival was to help Torontonians break from the ignorant belief that U.S. prime beef is a gold standard. If one pays attention and devotes energy to taste the beef, it’s incontravertibly the case that grass-fed [versus corn-fed] beef is infinitely more satisfying, and offers a much more intense, complicated flavour than commercial cattle. I also find there is a certain gaminess — if not [a case of tasting] more “beefy,” for want of a better word — and a flavour that’s very real. North American consumers have been directed towards tenderness as a Holy Grail; I prefer taste, and prefer to define tenderness in terms of what I call tooth- or bite-resistance. The steaks in my festival have that: They have taste, and they have texture.”
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I enjoy a dozen or so steaks every year, most of them sourced from my trusted local butcher, Gasparro’s, and cooked by me and only me. I do not think that I have ever so enjoyed a rib-eye as I did on this early (second) day of Allen’s 18-day 2012 Festival. For the record: I dined as a pure customer; neither Maxwell nor the Allen’s staff were aware of my intent to cover this event.
For proof of another pudding: Dessert was available, well-intentioned but as unnecessary as the vegetables; we passed. Arguably, we were saving room for a return visit before the 25th; after all, there remain 33 viable taste/texture options to explore. This is without referencing the reasonably priced and so-thorough-it’s-daunting all-VQA winelist: 150+ different bottles strong, assembling vintages that date back to 1995(!).
Finally, a brief mention of an exceptional craft beer draught list that includes a notable newby, launched last fall: Spearhead Pale Ale, at $7/pint. To date, I’ve only come across this nicely-hopped, award-winning Ontario microbrew at two other establishments in this city, who price-pointed it at $8.50. Allen’s, 143 Danforth Ave., 416-463-3086
Image by Gary Butler.