When it comes to steaks – the classic centrepiece of any good pub menu – size used to be everything. Once upon a time all it took to keep punters coming through the door was a big chunk of steak covering the plate, a few chips and lettuce leaves alongside for colour, and a beer to wash it down.
But modern diners are bringing modern tastes to the table. And that means change.
“I don’t think people are going out and eating massive steaks anymore – or not as frequently,” says Brad Sloane, executive chef at Sydney’s upmarket pub The Buena. “That’s been the trend: smaller steaks. More grass-fed products as well. People are more concerned about where it’s coming from.”
And yet it remains a litmus test for what constitutes great pub fare – and who does it best. Yak Brewing , the brewery behind Fat Yak, is taking it upon itself to find out with a nationwide hunt for the best steak, parma (or schnitzel), burger, fish and chips and pork ribs. Pubs can compete for the crown of best pub meal, and punters can vote for their favourite dishes and go in the draw to win $100 to spend at participating venues.
Sloane might have something to say about it. The chef learnt much of what he knows about meat preparation and cookery from working under acclaimed chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Matt Kemp and at The Buena he has plenty of space to flex that knowledge. It offers a wide variety of quality steaks including a 220-gram grain-fed Scotch fillet, a 250-gram southern prime sirloin and a 300-gram Taijima Wagyu rump. Other options range from grain-fed to grass-fed to hormone- and antibiotic-free.
That’s a real change from when Sloane came of age. “I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says. “Then they didn’t care where it was from. It was just: how big is it and how does it taste? I grew up with cheaper steaks, and Dad didn’t know how to cook them anyway. Mum either. They’d just ruin them on the barbeque.”
Changes to cuts and colour
Besides the movement towards smaller portions – The Buena’s humble 220-gram Scotch is one of its best sellers – smart pubs have begun to offer a much wider variety of cuts, such as flanks, skirt, tri-tips and tenderloin. “The French have been using them forever, but they’re trending [here] now,” says Sloane. “You’re always trialling new products. Once you learn how to cook a steak, it becomes more about what products are out there.”
And what the customer wants. Once upon a time the level of doneness used to be where steak lovers most asserted their personal preference, but these days there are similar battle lines drawn between grass-fed or grain-fed.
“Grain-fed will generally have more marbling and moisture in there, because they’ve been fattened up,”says Sloane says. “Grass-fed is a slightly different texture; sometimes a little more chewy. Some people prefer that flavour, slightly stronger and more beefy. But a lot of people [still] just grade a steak off how tender it is.”
Source is important
Some tongues are more tuned in than others. Hamish Grey, chef at Melbourne’s New York-style steak destination Natural History, says he can “physically taste the grain in the meat, even [when they come] from a similar area and cows.”
Grey prefers grass-fed and the two suppliers to Natural History reflect it. Tasmania’s Wilderness Beef provides a 100 per cent pasture-fed porterhouse and flat-iron, and Victoria’s Sheer Wagyu an animal pasture-fed for the first six months and then grain-fed. The porterhouse remains most popular, but Grey says more Natural History customers are requesting the flat-iron. “A lot of people are moving away from traditional meat and three veg,” he says, “[now that] people can get more of what they want.”
Grey’s preference is medium rare, but the best doneness can depend on the cut. “There are plenty of steaks you can have blue and rare, but with Wagyu it’s always a medium-rare to medium [that’s best],” he says. “You need that fat to start breaking down in the meat and make that buttery juiciness.”
Climate change is real
One part of the reason different cuts are showing up on pub menus is the growing awareness of meat’s impact on climate change. Grey points to responsible feeding and watering of cattle as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, beyond eating less meat or simply smaller (and higher quality) portions of it.
Having weathered so many shifts over the years, will the classic pub steak remain the totem of any good pub? And will steak-lovers continue seeking out the best examples of their beloved dish, despite its fancy name, origin or cut? Sloane believes so. “I think it will keep changing,” he says. “The portions will probably get smaller [but] the quality will just get better.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Yak Brewing. See details of the Australia’s Best Pub Meals competition and how to enter here.