Friday, September 25, 2009

Value for money steaks: Astons Prime

with ieat, sumosumo, Andrew, jems and holybro

How do we figure out what is value? What do we mean when we say value for money? Many business analysts have tackled this problem, and I subscribe to a system which triangulates value into cost, competition and value. Hmm...a bit cyclical, isn't it? Actually it is simple has to cost the right amount of money...affordable under your own circumstances is one way of putting this. Another is who is the competition? If there is no competition, you will often not get good value. And finally, the circular reference to value...this is really determined by yourself...usually based on individual circumstances. Basically, are you prepared to sacrifice something else, and pay for the product. If it is a food item which I find value for money...I will return again and again to eat it...because it is a good balance between cost, taste, competition and value.

Enough theory...on to the steaks.

Chicago Medium Rare...charred on the outside, medium rare and cool inside

In the Singapore worldview of steaks, I have often lamented that possibly because we do not have a strong beef culture, we fall short of steaks served in the US, and even in the Philippines. See my review of Mamou for my personal best steak experience in Asia, and close to the my experience in the mecca of steaks...Peter Luger's in Brooklyn.

But one name consistently comes up for good value. Astons. Their numerous Aston Specialities outlets are well known for long queues, well priced steaks, and sometimes variable service. Aston Soon, the owner extraordinare, is passionate about his food...and recently he moved his flagship outlet - Aston Prime from Joo Chiat to Centerpoint. I have eaten there several times for lunch, and enjoyed the perceived value for money equation being fully satisfied. A piece of regular steak, nicely done, good meat, about 220g is sold for S$18 in the middle of Orchard Road. Does it compare to Mamou? No...but it is absolutely very good value for money.

note the right side is charred almost crisp. This imparts a special charcoal flavour to the meat

Recently he introduced Dry Aged Steaks...regular readers of this blog will know how I often lament the lack of good dry aged steaks in Singapore. I recently tried Bedrock...a swanky steakhouse opened by Keith Loh, of Oriole (and formerly Whitebait & Kale). A 400g cut of USDA Prime dry aged steak is S$110. I think not an unreasonable price if the two other parts of the value equation is similarly judged. But it was not to be. The cut I had that evening did not fully make the grade. While it was acceptable, it did not fully develop the nutty/foie gras flavour and the beefiness did not really come through. Pales in comparison to Mamou's dry aged USDA Prime ribeye.

One of the earlier steaks...cooked to a regular medium rare. We had two rounds of steaks...the first round was lighter, and the latter ones were more charred on the outside.

Aston's version is interesting. Aston has his own specification on how his steaks are to be aged by Indoguna (a very large importer of beef, who also supplies Bedrock with their dry aged steaks). He specifies a particular temperature (4C to 6C), and a specific humidity. As a result, the steaks have started to develop the nutty, foie gras flavour found in the best cuts I have tasted in the US (and Manila)...but not fully. Most American steakhouses age their own steaks. The aging specialist, who can either be a butcher employed by the restaurant or the chef himself is the only person allowed to touch and judge aging of the steaks...and each piece is sliced just at its prime of aging, ensuring best flavour, nuttiness, foie gras, and excellent tenderness.

We had the steaks grilled to Chicago Medium Rare...where the outside is charred...and the insides are just pink, as in medium rare. To achieve Chicago Medium Rare properly, it requires a great piece of meat, well aged, a great chef who is able to judge done-ness totally, and a thick cut of meat.

The regular Dry Aged steaks available at Aston Prime is 220g. And for our special tasting, Aston agreed to do special cuts, at least 1 inch thick, and weighing a min of 350g. But Indoguna made a mistake and did not deliver the larger steaks, but those which are regular - 220g. This made the doneness we wanted - charred on the outside, and medium rare inside even harder to each steak was barely half an inch thick.

However, the flavour was excellent. The nuttiness was begining to show...a little laid back, but I can easily taste the nuttiness and foie gras flavour in the steak. This dry aging quality was much stronger than the Bedrock steak I tried. In addition, the charring helped to fortify this flavour with strong smoky aromas. Even with charring of the outsides...meaning very fierce fires...the insides of the steaks remain cool (about a core temp of 50C). The steaks remained very tender. This was quite excellent steaks. Especially at S$44. Good value. Excellent value.

How does it compare with Bedrock? The charred ones we tasted in Astons is better. But still some ways to go before it competes with Mamou's. Afterall Mamou uses a boned-in cut of ribeye...a more flavourfull cut, an larger steaks...about 1.5 inches thick. Comparison with Peter Luger's is futile...but Peter Luger's has been in business selling excellent steaks for way longer than we have being a in due time, we will rise to the challenge. And passionate steakhouse owners like Aston Soon will help us get there.

Aston's Prime
176 Orchard Road Centrepoint

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