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The last time you ordered steak tartare, a stiff-backed waiter probably didn't deliver a plate adorned with the same French flourishes of ye olde bistro days: a sunset-hued egg yolk, capers and a dollop of Dijon mustard.
Instead, chefs are conjuring up unusual, deliciously unauthentic tartares with curlicues of smoked cheddar and smears of tomato jam. They're taking less inspiration from the stuffy, dated original and more from whatever interests them like, say, brisket.
"It gives it this barbecue note," Jeremiah Stone, the chef/owner of Contra and Wildair in New York City, says of his aforementioned smoked cheddar addition. "It was just an idea I had after tasting a smoked cheddar at Saxelby one day, and it ended up not being smoky enough, so we smoked it more. I thought it went well with the beef."
We took note from today's tartare trailblazers when we dreamed up our own modern version of steak tartare (see the recipe), taking direction from some of our favorite chefs. Here's what they had to say about the brasserie classic.
Old Guard: Ground Beef vs. New School: Hand-Cut Sirloin
Back in bistro days, waiters smashed eye of round steak or tenderloin into an almost creamy consistency, but these days chefs are doing their own thing. "You need to look for a cut like top round or maybe sirloin—something with not too much sinew running through," Stone says. "Lean with deep red color. You don't want a very marbled cut, which could add too much fat or connective tissue into your mix." In our recipe, we rely on sirloin, too, for its ever-so slight fattiness.
And start sharpening your knives, because the ground, store-bought variety of meat ain't gonna cut it. "It's all about the beef, so you want to start with fresh steak," Gabriel Rucker, chef/owner of Le Pigeon and Little Bird in Portland, Oregon, explains. And chilling out is key: "The meat needs to be as cold as possible without being frozen," Matthew Sieger, chef at Bon Marché in San Francisco, says. "Almost frozen is perfect for hand-chopping." We recommend putting sirloin in the freezer for 15 minutes, so it's easier to slice.
Old Guard: Shallots and Capers vs. New School: Fish Sauce
Au revoir, wee little gherkins, chopped shallots and briny capers, and bonjour, or xin chào, fish sauce. Nick Curtola, chef at The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, relies on dry-aged beef for his tartare, but not all of us have the deep pockets for that, so we make like Achilles Heel's Lee Desrosiers to mimic all that umami. Funky, sweet fish sauce adds the same flavorful punch but at a fraction of the price. Desrosiers prefers colatura, an Italian version, but you can use any Vietnamese or Thai variety you've got on hand for our recipe.
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Old Guard: Yolk vs. New School: Cheese
The one mistake chefs see when home cooks attempt the brasserie classic at home: "Overdressing the tartare," Walter Manzke, chef/owner of République in Los Angeles, says. Too much of a seriously good, silky, delicious thing ends up turning the tartare into more of a chicken salad. Instead, we're digging a lighter, poke-like meat-to-seasoning ratio, so we cut back on the yolk for our recipe and upped the richness with an ingredient that's graced more than a few menus. "The egg yolk gives a binding creaminess to the dish, but you can use different things to create this effect," Stone says (his secret: that smoked cheddar again). In Portland, Rucker is doing the same thing but with aged goat cheese. "We added it, because it needed something to round out on the palate that added necessary creaminess," he explains. Cheese. Creaminess. You get the point. So we veered more Italian, topping the dish with little curls of salty Parm.
Old Guard: Baguette vs. New School: Potato Chips and Button Mushrooms
There's nothing wrong with sidling your tartare up next to slices of crusty baguette or melba toast à la James Beard. However, we're more partial to Rucker's train of thought when it comes to adding texture to what can be a chewy dish. "Anything fried—fried oyster, fried root vegetable chips in the fall and winter," Rucker rattles off. We like the high-low mash-up that Bon Marché and République achieve with serving a pile of crisp potato chips with tartare. So we did the same thing but crushed them into the tartare itself with wispy slices of white button mushrooms on top for silkiness and, well, good looks.
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