Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the Road in Phoenix -Check Out Durant's Steakhouse

I’ve written about steaks before; several times, in fact. Occasionally, it just begs revisiting. This is one of those times. After all, if you had to pick out the quintessential American meal, it certainly would have to involve a steak. As a young boy we made regular visits to Ponderosa Steak House and I believed that was as good as it got. Not only was there a never-ending salad bar but the smell of searing beef met you at the door where you’d get into a line with your tray and prepare to order. You could see the flames rising from the grill behind the counter where the steaks were being prepared. While I admire my parents for introducing me to this meaty atmosphere, I’ve come a long way since then. I do admit to visiting these economical, family friendly steak venues over the years and it is always somewhat nostalgic. The difference between a food lover and a food snob is the ability to appreciate a meal for what it is. Those meals and those days will always hold a special place in my heart. As I’ve grown, however, and had the great pleasure to travel and explore most corners of the US, I’ve encountered lots of beef. I’m sure I’m not the only non-vegan who just gets the craving for a great steak and as time has passed, I realize I’ve eaten at some very coveted steak houses. Many, I’ve blogged about and many I haven’t.

Let me tell you about last night. Durant’s Steak House is a Phoenix, Arizona icon. Established in 1950 in an unassuming, pink downtown building, Durant’s is one of a kind. Bawdy red velvet wall paper and Cherry wood interior is exactly what you’d expect from the era this was born.

I can only imagine the million dollar deals struck in this place over a great martini and a cigar. I’ve heard every celebrity that’s ever visited Phoenix has eaten here –but on this night, it was a mostly jovial, middle-aged, power-broker crowd who appeared to have plenty of disposable income. Stepping in from the valet, you enter through the kitchen on a red carpet. I initially thought we were going in the wrong door since we were actually in the middle of the kitchen but I learned this is part of the experience. We entered the dining room using the same swinging doors that the wait staff uses to usher in the food. I would guess that there has been more than one high priced steak that has met its demise at that door. Our booth was a small, two-seater next to the wonderfully ornate dark-wood bar. After taking in the entire sensory overload, the next thing of note is the service. Our waiter, Jeff, was one of the best servers I’ve ever had. His knowledge of the wine list and menu combined with his perfect timing when checking on us was unparalleled. When we were about to make a mistake by ordering some wines by the glass, he recommended a bottle of wine along the lines of what we wanted that actually saved us some money. By no means a wine expert, I thought this 2007 ZD Napa Valley Cabernet was awesome. I plan to look for it at home.

While waiting on our entrée, we were served a small round loaf of freshly baked bread topped with the most unusual but delicious accompaniment. Braised leeks with lots of garlic and butter made the bread absolutely addicting and it took all I could muster to turn down a second loaf when it was offered. Next was the most unique soup I’ve had in a while. Cheddar and three onion soup was perfectly sweet from the onions with that little bite form the cheddar. It would be so easy for a soup like this to be overly thick or even goopy, but this had a perfect creaminess that made one wanting for more after the cup was empty.

This bread was unbelievable

Now for the steak –Durant’s signature. I always toil over what cut to order. For me, there is no cut more appealing than another. It just depends on the mood. Tougher cuts like sirloin offer a more beefy, hearty flavor while Filet Mignon is more coveted for its butter like texture that can often be cut with a fork. This night I chose to split that line down the center and had the New York Strip. My knife slid through this perfect cut in a one directional slice. Inside, the medium rare center was the perfect balance of beef flavor, juiciness and texture. I polished off this steak and accompanying whipped garlic-mashed potatoes in very short order despite my stomach telling me that I might already be full. This was definitely an undo-the-top-trouser-button kind of meal and I couldn’t be happier. I would love to be able to describe the over-the-top dessert that would certainly have followed but that was not to be. We were done.

While Durant’s was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed, it was by no means exclusive. I’ve eaten at amazing steak houses both home and abroad and last night gave me pause. Where is the best steak? I could go online and order the same restaurant quality prime beef that I’ve eaten out. I even fancy myself a good enough cook to reproduce the perfect steak at a fraction of the cost. But as I gazed around the room last night, I wondered why so many people craved this high-priced environment to enjoy a steak. Is it a status symbol of affluence combined with testosterone-driven need for decadence? Well, in a word… Yes, I think. I didn’t see many 20-somethings. I certainly wouldn’t have fit in to a place like this in my 20’s either. Older and doing OK for myself, a dinner like this is symbolic. I’m good. I made it. I can do this and I guess, in some small way, I want everyone in the room to know it. That was the mood of the room and it explains why places like this exist in every major city in the US.

As I’ve said so many times, food is an experience. I fondly recall Ponderosa Steak House because it reminds me of my mom and dad. In that context, Durant’s has nothing on those memories. But if you’re in Phoenix, I suggest Durant’s for that one of a kind experience.

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