The type of beef that a restaurant serves can make all the difference between a memorable meal and a dining disaster.
Beef is graded by the United States Department of Agriculture, and as is the case with school work, grades matter. The higher the grade, the better the beef.
Fortunately, most restaurants realize this and focus on only the two highest grades of beef (there are eight grade levels in all). If you see “USDA Prime” listed on the menu, you’re about to enjoy one of the best steaks of your life. More likely, the restaurant will serve USDA Choice, which is less expensive but still of exceptional quality.
In food and wine pairing, we sometimes match opposites on the aroma and flavor spectrum – for example, an off-dry or slightly sweet wine with a spicy Chinese or Tex-Mex dish. But when it comes to beef, I’m more inclined to pair “big” with “big.”
So if you’re fortunate to be dining on USDA Prime, you may as well go all the way and uncork a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon. This is no time for subtlety.
Likewise, if the beef is USDA Choice, you may opt for a nice bottle of Merlot or Pinot Noir, or perhaps a well-aged Cabernet.
There are other factors to consider. When beef is dry-aged – that is, hung in a cold space for around three weeks – it concentrates the flavors. That calls for a concentrated wine, and that brings Cabernet back to the forefront.
Cooking style also influences the wine selection. If the steak were to be grilled in butter, for instance, you’d be amazed by how nicely it would pair with a big buttery Chardonnay. That’s right: white wine with beef.
Sometimes the greatest challenge is learning what type of beef the restaurant serves. If the grade isn’t listed on the menu, ask. If the manager doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell you, you don’t have to stick around.
After all, you wouldn’t order a bottle of wine at a restaurant without knowing who made it… would you?