Here’s the Beef!

McNamara's scores, so long as you stick to the meat.

The word steakhouse conjures up cigars and martinis, girdles and fedoras. Somehow, more than three decades of lightened, brightened, organic-ized Californian cuisine have not consigned the steakhouse to the realm of the Automat and the Brandy Alexander. Like the cocktail, the steakhouse has managed to reinvigorate itself over the past five or six years. It promises diners tradition, class, and yes, high-quality beef. And since the Atkins diet is making half of the people I know retire their bread machines for George Foreman Grills, the twenty-ounce ribeye must once again considered healthful.

Vince McNamara and Doug Garcia, who opened McNamara’s in December 2001, modeled their restaurant after Chicago steakhouses. The duo set out to create a refined, welcoming air by designing the most elegantly monochromatic restaurant I have been to in years.

The floors, the booths, the walls, and the bar are all painted or upholstered a ruddy, purplish brown. The brightest spots in the room are the fireplace near the entrance and the illuminated shelves of liquor bottles at the bar. Each table is wrapped in its own dim bubble of light, and you can barely see across the room. The all-pervasive penumbra transforms a warehouse-size building (formerly the Dublin Fishery) into an intimate restaurant.

The service only enhances the atmosphere. I’ve often found that when you go to a small city’s top dining establishment, the servers like to reinforce the restaurant’s status with a little misguided disdain.

Not here. Our servers joked with us, patiently explained all the cuts of meat to a novice in my party, and hit all their marks.

There’s one catch: Stick to the meat. Everything else wavers in quality.

The appetizers range from 1950s steakhouse favorites like lobster bisque and oysters on the half shell to latter-day California standards like crab cakes and spinach salad. Treat them as cocktail snacks, something to occupy your time while you wait for your steak to cook.

The crumbly, salty crust on the fried calamari distracted us from the overly chewy meat within for too short a time. The jumbo shrimp cocktail was everything I expected: a martini glass filled with a cup or so of horseradish-spiked ketchup and four big prawns, fresh and plump, hanging over the edges. A Caesar salad was tossed with a clean, sharply lemony dressing that tasted bracing and bottled instead of unctuous and pungent.

My tablemates were delighted with their good-girl cocktails: a sidecar, not too sweet, spiked with a healthy dash of Cointreau; and a chocolate martini that started off like a sugar bomb and finished like a dark, rich swig of vodka-spiked cocoa. I ordered from the wine list, which favors Livermore vintners and Californian wines that drink like Julia Roberts comedies — sweet, sunny, and simple.

McNamara’s serves Choice steaks from corn-fed, Midwestern Angus beef. These cattle, distinctive for their all-black hides and lack of horns, are among the most popular breeds in the United States. Sixty percent of domestic beef cattle have Angus genes, reports the American Angus Association. “Certified Angus Beef” was the nation’s first specific brand of steak, and, since 1978, a national nonprofit has monitored the breeding, slaughter, and distribution of beef bearing this stamp. The brand’s success has spawned numerous other branded breeds of beef (including one named Nolan Ryan’s Tender Aged Beef), and more than a dozen Angus microbrands — which is what you’ll find at McNamara’s.

A quick lesson on beef: The USDA bases its meat grading system on the marbling of the intramuscular fat in the meat, one of the main predictors of tenderness. Only 2 percent of beef sold in this country qualifies as USDA Prime, which has the most, and finest-grained, marbling.

Most fine-dining restaurants serve Choice, the next highest grade, while many people buy Select at the store specifically for its leanness. But like my old chef used to say as she dropped a half-pound of butter into a kettle of soup, “The fat’s where the flavor is.” McNamara says the steaks are all from the top of the three grades of Choice.

According to the menu, the chefs age all the steaks at least 21 days. Aging allows the enzymes in the meat to break down the collagen and muscle fibers, resulting in less-metallic-tasting, more richly flavored, tenderer meat. Supermarket beef is generally aged seven to eleven days. Some four-star steakhouses age their beef for more than a month.

Unfortunately for purists — but fortunately for budget beefeaters — McNamara’s wet-ages its steaks. For wet aging, the most common form of aging in the restaurant business today, the steaks are sealed in a cryovac at the meatpacker, then kept between 32 and 40 degrees (the temperature at which bacteria proliferate) in the plastic until they are ready to be cooked.

Traditional dry aging, in which steaks are kept uncovered in a well-ventilated, high-humidity refrigerator, results in a gamier, mellower flavor that steak lovers have long prized. During the dry-aging process, though, the meat loses 15 percent of its weight every week, and develops a crust that must be trimmed before cooking, making it considerably more expensive.

Which is not to say that McNamara’s serves a mediocre steak. Every one I tried was not only generously portioned but decently priced. A large ring of fat surrounded the sixteen-ounce ribeye, keeping the meat incredibly moist. It had been broiled until the exterior charred and crisped and the flesh cooked a textbook medium.

I thought I had tasted a great prime rib at Bosco’s in Sunol three months ago, but my first bite of McNamara’s twenty-ounce rib made me revise my opinion. According to the menu, it’s cooked for seven hours, a feat of engineering that I’m not going to question, because what emerged from the oven was an evenly pink, deeply flavored slab of beef with none of the bland, mushy, or overly fatty spots that often mar the cut.

Lest you think that steaks are the only thing that McNamara’s can do, the kitchen shows the same facility with every other type of meat I tried.

A thick fillet of salmon, rubbed with shallots, soy sauce, and herbs, was pan-roasted. Its mahogany crust, to all appearances overdone, hid succulent pink flesh within. Hickory smoke penetrated to the core of two thickly cut pork chops but didn’t dry them out. However, the cinnamon-apple sauce napped over the chops tasted like canned apple pie filling, oversweet and overspiced. Scrape it off the chops and save it for your ice cream.

A similar problem occurred with the New York strip. The menu gives two options, plain or pepper-crusted with Maytag blue; I tried the latter and recommend the former. A beautiful cut of meat was not just forced to withstand being buried in peppercorns, something it weathered gamely, but also an avalanche of crumbled blue cheese covering it to a depth of two inches. We rescued the steak a bite at a time, dusting each off before downing it. And don’t bother with either of the two sauces, Jack Daniels peppercorn and shiitake mushroom bordelaise, which come in ramekins with all the steaks.

Every entrée is accompanied by lightly blanched vegetables (broccoli, carrots, zucchini — you know the deal) and a choice of baked potato, “smashed” horseradish potatoes, or asiago au gratin potatoes. The smashed potatoes — which I think means unpeeled potatoes rustically mashed — were great, except that I couldn’t taste any horseradish over all the cheese in the smash. The au gratin potatoes came out tender, creamy, and so sharply cheesy that I had to take a sip of water to clear my palate before returning to my main course.

Meals end well with a collection of homey desserts. The massive vanilla crème brûlée didn’t show any flaws. Under the burnt-sugar shell was a milky, smooth custard. The bread pudding, assertively spiced with nutmeg, was neither bready nor eggy but light and reassuringly rich. My chocoholic friend felt like she had successfully sinned with the Chocolate Decadence — fluffy chocolate mousse topping a soft chocolate-cake round.

McNamara’s has captured the timeless appeal of the steakhouse without any of its fustiness. Just take your cue from Robert Atkins and cut out the carbs.

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