Thanks to an invitation from rock-it promotions I had the chance, this week, to sample the offerings at Quinn’s Steakhouse. This restaurant is run by the same genuinely Irish family behind the Irish Embassy, Six Steps, and P.J. O’Briens.
To prepare for my night of beef I re-visited Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay “High Steaks” that what was originally published in Vogue but has been re-printed in his second book It Must Have Been Something I Ate. Steingarten ages a large chunk of rib sub-primal, and travels the United States (well, he goes to the outer boroughs of New York and to Tampa, Florida) in search of the steak he remembers from his childhood growing up in New York City. But, he also has stern words for food writers who waste valuable ink on the width of the floor planks and plushness of the carpet before they manage to get to the main event.
So, first and foremost: the steak at Quinn’s is really good. Cut from Canadian “AAA” beef and dry-aged in house for between twenty-five and thirty-five days depending on the cut. Those five weeks is where Steingarten set his minimum bar and as in New York it is very rare to find this in Toronto these days. For instance, the Windsor Arms’s Prime commits the grievous steak-crime of wet-aging their beef for its full forty days between slaughter and plate. I can taste the more complex slightly mineral taste of dry-aging, especially where lean meets fat near the steak’s edge and definitely don’t miss the gumminess that wet-aging enthusiasts pass off as tenderness.
Full marks on the three categories by which steak execution should be considered: seasoning is just right; it’s rested long enough so that no glorious meat juices are wasted on an unappreciative plate; and the rare-medium-rare (the north by northeast of steak doneness) mark I set is hit. Just enough of the 14 oz striploin’s fatty cap was left attached and sensing that my competitive tablemates would goad me into finishing the whole fourteen I saved this glorious morsel of buttery beef fat for last. Showed them.
The sides were nice and managed to hit all the classic notes that a steakhouse broiled tomato and brussels sprouts, beans and carrots should. Not at all over-cooked the carrots and brussels sprouts could have used a bit less butter. The jacket potato was delicious until I ran out of cheese and bacon (and stomach space) so one smaller than both my fists might have been more appropriate.
Rest assured, there were cocktails and food worth mentioning before we got to the main event. After sampling one of the night’s theme cocktails (a “Corcair”) I reverted to the more traditional whiskey. Here I am a bit of a neophyte so I placed my near-term drinking future in our waitress’s capable hands. Luckily, she suggested the Connemara peated cask strength (that’s just shy of 60% for the similarly uninitiated) which was really good at clarifying my murky impressions of the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskey. The Connemara is smooth with a touch of sweetness that intensifies the further into the glass you get and is generally more subtle than Scotch’s rougher warmth.
From the time I arrived through the evening’s end our server (and other members of the Quinn’s team including Gavin Quinn himself) were engaging, professionally-friendly, and knowledgeable.
On first entering the dining room the smell of woodsmoke–a scent that is absolutely guaranteed to get my eating juices flowing–is just barely noticeable. Since the steaks are char-broiled with natural gas I can only assume that this is from the house smoking (an interesting mental image if taken literally) of the Clare Island organic salmon. Served with his usual buddies (plus arugula) in the choose-your-own-salmon-adventure style the fish is thickly-cut and makes an assertively smoky highlight to the meal’s overture. My only complaint is that I find that lightly toasting the bread (in this case Irish soda bread) provides a better contrast to smoked salmon’s silkiness.
Throughout our meal the wines were impeccably matched. The 2007 Ironstone Symphony (a grape varietal developed in California) “Obsession” offered intriguing fruity notes on the nose and a smoothness that supported the smoked salmon. The smoky vanilla nose and moderate tannins from the 2008 McManis Family Vineyard cabernet sauvignon complemented the steak without distracting attention. With dessert we’re treated to the excellent 2005 Barra of Mendocino “Bella Dolce” petite sirah dessert wine. Like most of the list these three are carefully chosen and aren’t available at the LCBO.
I fully support the idea of featuring local Canadian product but I think we do it best when, as with the cheese course we were served, they stand beside examples of what the rest of the world has to offer. Case in point, while I liked Ireland’s Cashel blue and Dubliner Cheddar, it was Quebec’s Blermite that stole this show for me. It had just enough of that ballsy, nickel-plated revolver in the mouth (see full-dress Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men) taste that marks the upper echelon of blue cheese.
My dinner ended with a brownie that had the properly assertive chocolate throughout that is kept in line by a strong note of espresso. As a rule, I can do without nuts in my brownies (they are included at Quinn’s) because like a good vichyssoise brownies do best went unshackled from the rules of contrasting colours and textures.