For Risk Takers
by Remy Tumin
I was in Paris the first time I had steak tartare. I don’t remember the street name or the restaurant, but I remember sitting outside at a quiet cafe on a warm spring day, sipping some wine with my mom, who was visiting.
Without hesitating, she ordered steak tartare, a favorite of hers, and I internally raised an eyebrow. But I was in Paris and willing to eat as the French do, so I did the same.
Deux, S’il vous plaît.
The tartare arrived in a round white ceramic dish topped with a raw egg yolk, sitting perfectly center. Chives were sprinkled on top. I watched my mom rip a piece of the toasted baguette, cut into the yolk and let it run. I followed suit.
It was creamy and cold, chewy but smooth, all of these contradictions that somehow made sense: risky but comforting.
This is a familiar story for those who dare to try steak tartare for the first time. But a little encouragement can go a long way, just ask Scott Caskey, co-owner of Alchemy in Edgartown, home to the best tartare on the Island.
Scott and Charlotte have owned Alchemy for 17 years; steak tartare has been on and off the menu for 10. Their tartare is based on a traditional recipe.
“I love steak tartare, it’s similar to an Austrian dish and I love Austrian food,” Scott said. “My wife Charlotte and I used to travel to Austria to go skiing. I talked her into it one night in this little place, and she’s been a big fan of it ever since.”
“It’s got that great umami flavor,” Scott said. “We use hand-cut sirloin, it has a little bit of shallots, no garlic—keep the garlic out of it— mustard, Worcestershire, a little anchovy and a little Tabasco.”
Served with hand-cut double-blanched fries, the steak tartare, according to Scott, is best paired with a nice glass of pinot noir.
The steak tartare is one of Alchemy’s most popular dishes. Scott was thinking about taking it off the menu, but then remembered it’s a favorite of one of his best customers.
“She has it every night,” he said.
Even beyond Edgartown, Scott is preaching the flavor of steak tartare. He and Charlotte travel to Ireland in the off-season, and he’s spent quite some time convincing his Irish mates to try it.
“Talking an Irish person into medium rare steaks is a lot of work and I’ve been able to talk these guys into steak tartare,” he said. “When they come back to the Vineyard every summer they order it on their own. After you have it for the first time, you really grow to love it.”
According to The New York Times’ Craig S. Smith, raw chopped beef originally appeared on France’s culinary scene at the turn of the 20th century. Grand hotels featured it on their menus as beefsteak à l’Americaine.
But it became increasingly popular post-World War II, both in Europe and in the U.S. The popularity of the hamburger soon followed.
Traditional steak tartare was served as raw ground meat with a raw egg yolk on top, capers, chopped onion and chopped parsley on the side. And yes, tartar sauce. Back then, tartar sauce was much more like an aioli than what we now associate with a fried fish sandwich. Anything served with it was known as à la tartare.
The legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier listed his beefsteak à la tartare in his cookbook as beefsteak
à l’Americaine without a raw egg yolk on top and served with tartar sauce on the side. The two dishes eventually merged over time. Today, you can see variations of ground beef, shaved beef, or hand-cut and finely chopped beef in cookbooks.
I’ve sat many times upstairs at the Alchemy bar alongside a fellow journalist and now dear friend. Our friendship was quickly sealed by our mutual love for steak tartare. We shared it after work when I was living on the Vineyard, and almost always asked for more bread or fries. A little indulgence in Edgartown is always worth it, especially when it involves Alchemy’s steak tartare.