Beef is supposed to be fresh and juicy, right? "Make it moo!" the short-order cook shouts when a ticket for a rare steak comes through.
If that's your preference, what would you think about eating year-old meat? At Citizen Rail, chef Christian Graves thinks you should value maturity — at least when it comes to beef. When his restaurant on the ground floor of the Kimpton Hotel Born opened a year ago, the chef began socking away primal cuts to be served at various ages.
"Twenty-eight days is the sweet spot for us," he says, but he's noticed significant changes at regular intervals. Between 28 and 50 days, the meat takes on a slightly fruity flavor, and the beefiness becomes more concentrated. At 50 to 100 days, hints of mushroom emerge, first as a fresh, button-mushroom essence, deepening to "a dank and woody" taste, similar to foraged morels. Beyond that, flavors of cheese take over, become stronger over the months, until pungent bleu cheese becomes the underlying characteristic.
Citizen Rail celebrates its one-year anniversary beginning September 4 — and so does some of the beef in Graves's dry-aging room. Full beef loins line the shelves inside the small room, kept at an average of 35 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 percent humidity. The youngest cuts still resemble something you might see at the butcher counter, but after a month, the outer surface is significantly dried out and darkened. From there, a visible layer of mold forms, slowly becoming more stonelike and craggy, until at nearly a year the loin looks completely fossilized.
Like Italian salumi, the microflora growing on the beef is a beneficial mold that keeps the bad bugs at bay while regulating the interior moisture of the meat. Unlike salumi, Graves explains, dry-aged beef must keep a certain level of interior moisture to prevent it from turning into beef jerky. Still, after twelve months of aging, a bone-in loin loses about 50 percent of its weight from water loss and trimming away the moldy outer layer so that it can be grilled and served.
In fact, when Graves first started stocking his aging room, he rested several salamis alongside the beef to help jump-start the culture. Because of that, he says, the beef takes on a "hazelnutty, northern Italian" flavor. Now the culture is a permanent part of the room, even though the walls and floors get a weekly scrub-down with bleach.
Citizen Rail sells enough dry-aged beef to go through about one and a half shelves a week, so new loins are added at the same pace. Graves also sets aside lamb cuts, though those undergo a much briefer aging period, since most diners don't like the resulting strong, lamby flavor of long maturation. The chef has also found that grass-finished beef doesn't age as well as grain-finished.
As part of its anniversary celebration in September, Citizen Rail will offer a three-course, prix-fixe dinner menu for $40, which includes a choice of four starters, four entrees and two desserts. The beef entree will be a ten-ounce cut of 28-day dry-aged New York strip, but for an extra $10 you can upgrade to a dish holding five ounces of the 28-day and five ounces of one-year aged beef. Graves says he'll have to limit the number of upgrades sold to make the year-old steak last through September 30 (when the offer ends), so you can book ahead at eventbrite.com.
What to expect? The 28-day steak is slightly beefy, but isn't too much different than standard steak. The twelve-month strip is noticeably altered, however. The cut, even though it weighs the same as the younger version, is slightly smaller because there's less water weight. The aroma is that of prosciutto, and the flavor carries the distinct funk of bleu cheese, complete with a light roof-of-the-mouth tingle. It's probably not for everyone, but goes great with the accompanying mashed potatoes and simple pan sauce. And for a real thrill, ask for a side of Citizen Rail's house-fermented hot sauce, which adds its own notes of funk while staying low on the heat scale.
Citizen Rail is located at 1899 16th Street and serves dinner beginning at 5 p.m. nightly. Call 303-323-0017 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.