You know how it is in this city. You reluctantly tell your friends about a great find, and the next thing you know, your secret destination is mobbed by the masses. So sometimes the true gems pass under the radar, jealously guarded like dragon’s loot.
I dined at one of the latter recently. It is inconspicuous, located at basement level on a block where there are no other places to dine. It’s Prime & Beyond, in the East Village.
Prime & Beyond is fairly small, has a casual-elegant, hip feel, with white painted brick walls, and an open kitchen out back where you can sidle up to the counter and watch flames engulf your steak. It’s not your typical steakhouse in many ways: no through-the-roof testosterone levels, no dark wood or leather, no armies of waitstaff, and no carb-loading (more on that later). There’s a minimalism here that’s refreshing.
The steaks, dry aged to a whopping 50 days, are out of this world. As I was about to find out, dry aging for that long produces flavors that are positively euphoric.
The owner, Kevin Lee, goes above and beyond in pursuit of superlative steaks—he insists on handpicking the cuts himself from the lockers of Master Purveyors, once or twice a week, the same hallowed place that supplies Peter Luger. “I don’t get it delivered. I go hunt my own beef,” said Lee.
The beef is USDA-certified prime, a category that only applies to about 3 percent of all U.S. beef, and goes to only fine, high-end restaurants, hotels, and grocers.
Where Lee goes the extra step, is with the dry-aging process, where enzymes working their magic to break down connective tissues, thus making the meat more tender, where moisture in the meat evaporates, making for concentrated and magnified beefy flavor.
The beauty of Prime & Beyond’s steaks is how long they’re dry-aged. The standard for dry aging these days seems to be 21 to 28 days. But that’s just when things start to get interesting. (A Grub Street article from last summer looked into how long steaks in New York are dry aged: for example, 21 days at Keens, 28 days at Wolfgang’s.)
Rare are the restaurants in the city aging their beef beyond a month, and the reason is simple: Time is money and space is at a premium.
Lee said over the 50 days of aging, the beef shrinks down 25 to 30 percent.
Why then, does he push his dry aging for so long?
“Even though I make a lot of loss, customers will enjoy the flavor and tenderness,” he said. Lee showed my guests and I the aging room downstairs—cuts of beef neatly lined up on racks, at different stages of aging.
Scanning prices on the menu (dry aged T bone, $50), I ask him why he doesn’t charge more for that length of dry aging.
It turns out that Prime & Beyond’s pedigree, originally (and to this day) a butcher shop in Fort Lee, helps. The idea of opening a restaurant there came to fruition in 2003—after clients kept asking for their steaks to be cooked, and then for a Manhattan offshoot that opened in 2011. But as the butcher shop still functions, run by his butcher brother Q, not much goes to waste, which helps keep prices down.
For example, small amounts of leftover steaks after cuts are made go into burgers; while bones are used to make broth, which is sold by the jar at the Fort Lee butcher shop.
At the end of the day, though, Lee wants everyone to enjoy prime steaks. “I’m trying to bring the finest piece to everyone with a reasonable price.”
Porterhouse, T-bone, New York strip, bone-in rib-eye, filet mignon for two, all come dry-aged. And then there the wet aged options: filet mignon, New York strip, and rib-eye. The wet aged steaks are aged for 21 days. In the end, although many steak aficionados sing the praises of dry aged steaks (which was all that existed before the advent of plastic and vacuum sealing anyway), it’s a matter of preference. Those who prize tenderness and flavor should opt for dry aged, which is what Lee personally recommends, since most people will have been exposed to the wet aging of beef in grocery stores.
Looking at the rows of dry aged beef though, you can especially pick out the rich marbling in between the layers of reds and browns—although the muscle meat shrinks down, the amount of fat remains the same through the aging process. The fat flavor, though, does change over time, morphing something like the essence of butter.
The amount of marbleized fat that comes with the prime grade may come as a shock to those uninitiated who are used to lean beef. Even Lee’s leaner cuts, like fillets, are well-marbled. A client once ordered a fillet and was surprised by how fatty it was and sent it back. “What can I say,” he said, ‘I’m sorry, this is the only one I have.”
For the rest of us, who enjoy steaks in all their glorious, well-marbled meatiness, Prime & Beyond offers a piece of steak heaven.
Recalling the memory of the steaks, my dining companion got a faraway, glazed look in his eyes. “It was a spiritual experience,” he said, adding that of all the dry aged steaks he’d ever had, the Porterhouse he had at Prime & Beyond—thick, with those delectable bits of charred fat and beef on the outside, meltingly tender, and exuding flavors of butter (a “butter steak,” he called it) blew him out of the water.
On his steak scale, Prime & Beyond scored a 10 out of 10, unseating his previous “best,” a well-known steakhouse, relegating it to a 7 out 10 spot (still pretty good but not up to the same new standards of flavor and tenderness).
Likewise, another dining companion immediately switched allegiances. Instead of his usual Midtown haunts, he’ll be heading to Prime & Beyond for his black-and-blue steak.
I looked at Lee. He is extraordinarily humble; anyone else would be (and rightfully so) shouting about these steaks from the city’s rooftops. There’s no steak sauce on the tables, intentionally. “You won’t want any,” he had said earlier. He was right.
Meat like this needs no hiding beneath sauces or creams. It stands on its own. Even though the steak has such butteriness, Lee doesn’t even use butter to finish the steaks. Just a simple seasoning does it, with a smoky salt (usually some Salish salt slowly smoked over alder wood, from the Pacific Northwest) which adds another layer of depth.
Sides and Extras
You can order an inexpensive tasting of salt ($5), which features artisanal salt to try with your steak.
The steaks here are a good deal, considering not only the minimum 50 days of dry aging, but a number of side dishes are included in the price of a steak. Most other steakhouses serve sides a la carte.
Don’t look for creamed spinach because it ain’t here. Neither is mac ‘n’ cheese. There’s something to be said for those comfort foods that send you to food coma heaven, but what Lee is doing here will make your taste buds ascend to a new place. They are a small part of the menu, but a welcome addition.
It’s clear these dishes aren’t just thrown in mindlessly. The side veggies, which vary from week to week, were grilled to perfection. When I visited, it was asparagus spears, zucchini, broccoli, sweet red peppers, and grilled potatoes. A small bowl of simple but delicious salad, with slivers of sweet red peppers and red onions and cherry tomatoes in a tangy dressing with sweet notes, was also offered earlier on, to tease the palate.
The highlight, though is the scallion salad offered with all steaks; it’s a thing of beauty. The delicate shavings of scallions are intended as a garnish to the steak, and they act as a wonderful foil, with an anchovy sauce and other ingredients to which Lee’s mom holds the secret recipe—not so boldly tangy as kimchi but with enough personality of their own to cut through the fattiness of the steaks.
The salad is an example of another unusual aspect of Prime & Beyond, the Korean dishes influenced by Lee’s heritage, and prepared by his mother back at the Fort Lee location.
You can also order freshly made kimchi ($8), a staple of fermented Napa cabbage in Korean meals, as a side dish. It’s young enough to have a pleasurable fizziness along with a spicy, tangy earthiness.
There’s also bulgogi ($10/$22), kalbi short ribs ($10/$22), and burger rice ($17), a fresh ground patty served with egg over rice.
If you’re a fan of bacon it’s more than worth getting the thick bacon strips ($10), which gives you something wonderful to chew on while you wait for your steak—not just the tease of the crunch but also plenty of toothsome meat. The bacon comes with some spice pairings to try, such as ground Japanese sancho pepper, which provides a nice kick.
One item that intrigued me that I did not have enough space to try after the steak was the dry-aged lamb chops ($42).
Desserts Are a Surprise
I fully expected dessert to be run-of -the-mill—you come to a steakhouse for the meat, after all. But Prime & Beyond offers desserts that would make an assiduous pastry lover travel for them alone.
Lee sources these sweet gems from Sook Pastry in Ridgewood, N.J., which was opened by three alumni of Payard in Manhattan. I sampled a few, including the memorable Planetarium ($12), a glistening half-globe encasing milk chocolate mousse with a lovely pear cream filling. It made for a gentle, sweet ending to the meal—nothing cloying or too bold to take away from the most satisfying memory of the steak.
Prime & Beyond
90 E. 10th St.
Monday–Thursday 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.–midnight
Sunday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.