Big Love To Steak

BLT Steak West Hollywood, CA 20 April 10
eat: Steak Sliders, Truffled Mac & Cheese, Popovers, Hanger Steak, Filet Mignon, Frites, Creamed Spinach, Jalepeno Mashed Potatoes
sip: Bourbon Sidecar, Dirty Grey Goose Martinis

Expectations have a profound effect on our experiences. When anticipations are high, the barometer of excellence is heightened as well. For instance, when a movie receives glowing reviews, I presume it is going to be a magnificent tour-de-force. After looking at an online photo of a potential suitor, I assume he'll be equally dashing in person. However, when these prospects fall short - the film is a flop, the date is a dud - the sting of disappointment is stronger than having had no hope at all. Conversely, when a situation has little promise, yet then exceeds my expectations, the outcome is surprising delight.

"Expect the worst. Hope for the best" This was the mantra that ran through my head the other night when I chose BLT Steak after my friends put me to the challenge of finding a "non-Mexican, close-to-home, non-frat boy, good food Happy Hour". To be frank, BLT Steak doesn't fit into my usual dining mold. It is located on the touristy Sunset Strip and it is part of a large, national restaurant conglomerate, BLT Restaurants, which in spite of it's high esteem, I have avoided due to my penchant for local, smaller establishments. However, I was intrigued by their 5 for $5 Happy Hour: a choice of 5 libations (red & white wine, beer, bubbly, cocktail) plus 5 yummy small plates each for a fiver.

As we enter the restaurant, the modern, sleek design feels corporate and cold, yet after a warm welcome by the hostess and bartender, we begin to feel more comfortable. The decor lends itself to a more civilized happy hour - one where you can eat and drink fabulously without breaking the bank. The seasonal cocktail is a Bourbon Sidecar, a twist on the original with Bourbon replacing Cognac as the main liquor. We nosh on Steak Sliders, aka mini Philly Cheesesteaks. They are a messy, yet tasty mound of thick chunks of steak, caramelized onions, and melted Gruyere. Sadly, the Fried Oysters with Pickled Cabbage are a disaster - dare I say that the oysters tasted dirty - but our palates are quickly saved by the divine Truffle Mac & Cheese with Bacon, a stellar, oozy version topped with a golden-brown, shredded Gruyere crust. Even the bar snacks, smoked almonds, paprika dusted-popcorn, and plump olives, are top-notch.

Turns out that happy hour is a mere taste of what BLT Steak has to offer. When I return two weeks later to watch a Lakers playoff game at the bar, my interest in BLT Steak blossoms into a full-blown crush. The romance begins when Andrew, our charming, attentive bartender, brings out an array of amuse-bouche goodies: a glass jar of chicken liver pâté, two grapefruit-size popovers, fresh butter, and sea salt (turns out this duo is a signature to all the BLT Steak restaurants). The intense, rust-hued pâté is wonderfully warm, iron-rich, and meaty which I prefer to other whipped versions. The popovers deserve to have their own post - heck, it's their photo, not the more apt picture of a steak, that I crowned atop this blog. They are a feat of baked wizardry; inflated orbs of airy, soft dough encased in a buttery crust that is reminiscent of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls (in a good way). Alone, the popovers are delectable. Slathered with butter and sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, they are simply naughty. Obviously, I'm not alone in my popover passion; a miniature recipe card is served with them to entice diners to recreate them at home.

In keeping true to traditional steakhouses, the steaks are served a la carte, letting the diner choose their sauces and sides. There is such love for the cow that on the back of the menu, a diagram depicts cuts of meat to the corresponding parts of the cow (i.e. round = backside) An educated eater is a happier eater, so I take a menu home to study my bovine anatomy. I opt for a Hanger Steak (a cut which hangs from the diaphragm) with horseradish sauce. It arrives in a venerable Staub cast iron pan adorned simply with roasted shallots. The steak is picture perfect: blackened on the outside and bloody red inside. This caramelized char is due to the super high temperature (1700 degrees!) at which the steak is broiled. It tastes even better than it looks; normally, I bring leftovers home from a steakhouse, but I devour every last bit of one of the best steaks I've ever had. Russel has the Filet Mignon, which is gorgeously teneder and plump.

In an effort to counteract the meatiness of the meal, we opt for two green sides. The first, Creamed Spinach is full of fresh spinach. I love how this version focuses on the spinach rather than the cream. Rather than have the greens drowning in a giant cream bath, it's as if the spinach has soaked up the cream and created a moist masterpiece. Next, Jalepeño Mashed Potatoes are a beautiful, yet unusual mint green (think Green Eggs and Ham). They are wonderfully whipped and buttery and the heat from the jalepeños adds a nice kick.

Andrew brings us Fries with Parmesan, Truffle Salt, and Lime Cilantro Aioli. One might think this could be a bad case of ingredient overkill, but somehow all the flavors harmonize deliciously. On their own, the double-fried fries would be stellar, but the extra accoutrements are a unique touch.

Next, Andrew brings us a surprise Molten Chocolate Cheesecake. Although we are stuffed, it is a sweet gesture that adds to the welcoming friendliness that has infused our meal. Essentially, the dessert is a gussied up sundae; the chocolate ice-cream like cake is drizzled with dark, melted chocolate and a dollop of vanilla ice cream rests on top. It's an appropriate end to our "haute comfort" meal.

Turns out BLT Steak IS my kind of restaurant. It can be what you want it to be: a celebratory dinner, an intimate bar meal, high-end bites for game viewing, or a refined happy hour. I have learned my lesson. Don't judge a book by it's cover. Don't stereotype. Don't assume. It's funny, looking through my old magazines, I realized that BLT Steak was listed as one of L.A. Magazine's 10 Best New Restaurants in 2009, but I must have ignored their listing due to my snooty aversion to anything non-local. Eat that piece of humble might like what you taste.

Deal Alert: Besides the great 5 for $5 Happy Hour, there is a nightly 3-course $50 Blackboard Menu which veers from the traditional steak menu and features seasonal fare.