These days, bovine lovers are bombarded with cautionary tales of the risks tied to red-meat-heavy diets. Cows, meanwhile, have become the scourge of the modern world because of the staggering energy and resources needed to produce a single primal cut. Yet steak houses in Miami and beyond continue to thrive and multiply. It begs the question of whether we gluttons are cutting off our noses to spite our faces.
The answer is no, at least according to Michael Stillman, who — along with his father Alan Stillman and chef-partner Craig Koketsu — opened Quality Meats Miami Beach in late February. "We're trying to breathe new life into the steak-house genre, which is one we feel has a lot of room to grow," Koketsu says.
If anyone knows this kind of restaurant, it's the Stillmans. They're steak-house royalty. Alan opened Smith & Wollensky in Midtown Manhattan in 1977. The famed restaurant's first location outside New York was in Miami Beach, which opened in South Pointe Park in 1997. The Stillmans cashed out of the business in 2007 to the tune of $90 million, but with licensing rights and ownership of the original location. By that time, they had already partnered with Koketsu on the first Quality Meats, which opened in 2006, followed by a cadre of restaurants that seem to celebrate the heft and showmanship of midcentury dining.
Much of that ethos carries over to their new, 190-seat Miami Beach spot, which is in many ways a homecoming for the Stillmans.
To house the restaurant, they took out a decades-long lease on Collins Avenue's historic and once-dilapidated Bancroft Hotel and pumped more than $5 million into the aging art deco gem. Now, a steer's bust greets diners who stroll in past outdoor seating illuminated by dim string lights shielded from the bustling street by towering hedges. The dining room is awash in a yellow glow thanks to floating orbs suspended from the ceiling over lacquered oak tables lined with oversize napkins and surrounded by auburn banquettes. This isn't the smoke-filled, mahogany-heavy steak house of yesteryear. But neither is it the chichi kind of place that would elicit suspicious stares from those who expect the former.
Such delicate masculinity defines Quality Meats. There are bits and pieces that fulfill modern demands for lighter, more composed items. But at heart, the restaurant remains an old-school steak house.
The kitchen deploys a 1,200-degree infrared broiler that blasts cuts of dry-aged beef supplied by celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda. They're then moved to a cooler cooking chamber, allowing them to come to temperature before they're rested and served.
The process works well on a 24-ounce tomahawk steak that arrives with a crisp crust wrapped around a Neanderthal-size rib bone. At many tables, it's an instant photo opportunity — a clever move in a world where dishes quickly make their way onto social media. More important, however, it's a flavorful cut with a slight mustiness thanks to aging. Equal parts fatty cap and lean eye are cooked to a perfect medium-rare.
The steak sauce prepared tableside is a welcome addition and improvement on the perfunctory bottled stuff, which often appears at even the best restaurants. A server rolls a cart to the table and pulverizes rosemary, black pepper, and garlic confit with a mortar and pestle. Then a tangy raisin molasses is added and finished with tomatoes cooked down with garlic, chilies, and Dijon mustard.
The sauce goes well with a bavette steak culled from below the cow's bottom sirloin. The off-cut, which is similar in texture to a skirt steak, has become increasingly popular over the past decade thanks to its full flavor and gentler price. It's not as marbled as other cuts, but the sauce helps. Meanwhile, a tousle of parsley, shaved red onion, and knots of cured orange slices round out each bite.
The list of sides to fill out a meal favors starches like gnocchi and cheese or crisp potatoes presented sizzling in a shallow pool of garlicky butter. Yet simple trumpet mushrooms stand above the rest. They're broken down into thick slices, seasoned, and roasted; later they're sautéed in shallots, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, creating a rich side that isn't at all stifling.
Other parts of the menu are more playful than what tradition demands, giving the place some leverage over its competitors that don't stretch further than a crabcake or a tartare (though both are available here). Servers ply tables with a slab of house-cured bacon alongside chunky peanut butter and an apple-jalapeño jelly. Yes, it sounds goofy, but it's too intriguing not to order. The spicy-tart chutney cuts right through the rich peanuts and the fatty pork slicked with miso caramel.
An everything-crusted branzino is about as Tri-State Area as it gets. The mixture of dehydrated garlic and onions, along with poppy and sesame seeds, clinging to the delicate fish is shockingly reminiscent of a hot bagel. However, the skin on one of the two fillets wasn't crisped enough, leaving it chewy and oily. But the smear of smoked cream cheese, the pickled onion and beets, and the dots of herb purée with chives, parsley, dill, and tarragon fully fleshes out a good thought.
Just as fun are little paper cups filled with burnt-marshmallow ice cream and graham crackers that seem to end a meal around a campfire. Another cup bearing coconut ice cream flecked with dark chocolate is akin to a strategic Girl Scout cookie reserve.
Quality Meats' straightforward plates are just as noteworthy. A trio of diver scallops is precisely seared and rested atop a velvety black-garlic purée made of fermented cloves whipped into an aioli that brightens and spices the creamy bivalves. Again, a smart touch of lightness is added with a smattering of grassy celery leaves. A Green Goddess chopped salad is a happy throwback thanks to a combination of salty kalamata olives, tart Granny Smith apples, hardboiled eggs, sunflower seeds, avocado, and oven-dried tomatoes. The 1950s-style dressing is amped up with anchovies, tons of fresh herbs, and a squirt of lemon.
By mixing some creativity with tradition, Quality Meats makes good on its promise to push the steak house forward. At times, it's sad to see the days of the staid old version of the classic restaurant slipping into oblivion. But Koketsu and the Stillmans preserve what's most important while gently easing diners into the future.