Thursday, 29 June 2017

Cowboy Star, San Diego

Surely one of the most glorious incarnations of the restaurant, if you are a normal functioning human and enjoy the consumption of red meat and powerful cocktails, is the US Steakhouse. The first place to go looking for these of course has always been, and remains, New York; in a city that knows how to eat better than almost anywhere else, and with a long and happy history of all the ancillary things that make a good steakhouse (slick, old-timey service, plush leather banquettes and the reasonable assumption that steaks should only be served in sizes of "half a cow" upwards), the examples there are the best in the world, and are rightly world famous - Luger's, Keens, the Old Homestead; names steeped in tradition and romance, bastions of civility and luxury in a fast-changing world.

But while New York set the template on how to serve steak, they don't have the monopoly on steak itself, and so it stands to reason that wherever people care about dry-aged, premium cow, and wherever the supply of such will allow it, you will find restaurants taking the cue from the big apple. Some areas take longer than others to catch up - London took its sweet time but now we have Goodman and Hawksmoor and Gillray's and so things are a lot better than they used to be - but with Southern California not being the first place that comes to mind when you think of steak, San Diego's steakhouse culture only really kicked into first gear with the opening in 2008 of Cowboy Star. Fortunately for San Diegans, Cowboy Star is pretty much the only steakhouse you'd ever need anyway.

D├ęcor is a clever fusion of New York tradition - leather booths, open kitchen, nice white tablecloths - and California style (plenty of woodwork and nice high "warehouse-y" ceilings). It feels as serious as it should do for a place charging $50 a main, but with an easy atmosphere thanks to inordinately friendly and capable service (not nearly as much as a given as it once was in the US) matched with that ever-present bright Californian sun.

Everything we had was great. This may not make for a particularly inspiring read, but it is undoubtedly true, especially regarding the gin martini which was served ice cold in a frozen glass and met every single criteria of the perfect martini. There's absolutely no better way of beginning a steak dinner than with a dry martini, but there's always the danger that a lesser example (warm or watery or containing shards of ice) can spoil things. Nothing to worry about on that front at Cowboy Star though.

The Steakhouse Burger is often an institution in itself; think of the Luger's stripped-back version with its huge ball of funky aged mince, or the Hawksmoor (UK) take which was the first time most Londoners (this one included) had any clue how good a burger could be. This isn't the "Ultimate", Cowboy Star's signature burger (which would have been my own choice), but in fact the lunch special "Bison burger" - leaner, gamier and served with roasted chillies. The meat had an incredible depth of flavour and was as loose and juicy as only the very most expertly built burgers can be, the white "cheddar" (I use the word loosely) binding it all together well and the bun having a great taste as well as holding together well. Nice fries too - fluffy inside and with a gentle crunch, rather like In'N'Out's.

I was that close to ordering a $65 bone-in 45-day aged ribeye for my own main but in the end common sense prevailed and I settled (!) for a $50 T-bone. This was a beautiful bit of meat and had been cooked incredibly well, with a nice defined "crust" with no burning or bitterness and a nice smooth pink interior. It was also nice to see such a varied list of steaks on offer - sourced mainly from the US from various ranches in California, Wyoming or Washington state, but also some luxurious Hokkaido Wagyu for a whacking $100 for 8oz. Which I'm sure is quite the thing - they let us gawp at it even if we didn't quite have the pockets for it (that's it on the left):

Steakhouse desserts are notoriously variable, and usually variations on the theme of cheesecake and ice cream, but at Cowboy Star were well worth the effort. Bread and butter pudding was a vast slab of a thing, golden-browned with a sugar crust and topped with rich chocolate ice cream, unsophisticated perhaps but undeniably enjoyable...

...while this strawberry chiffon cake was a far more "cheffy" affair, involving powerfully-flavoured strawberries teased into all kinds of interesting shapes and textures, topped off with a particularly lovely sour cream sorbet.

Understandably - and quite rightly - the T-bone formed the largest part of the bill, but was still pretty good value considering the quality of the offering, and didn't feel like a liberty. And actually $138.36 (once you've added on the practically more-or-less-compulsory 20% service charge) is a pretty reasonable figure to pay for a meal like this, especially as I say given the brilliant service (full disclosure: they comped me a martini, which may have been something to do with seeing me take photos, but may just be because they're like that) and whole silver-service steakhouse vibe.

So despite not being in New York, or even anywhere particularly notable for its beef production, Cowboy Star succeeds on every measurable criteria of a steakhouse and then some by just following the New York template as closely as makes sense in Southern California. I'm worried that this post is going to come across as too relentlessly gushy, as puffy as that strawberry meringue, but sometimes there is such a thing as a restaurant doing almost everything right, and it's probably better I just admit as much rather than inventing fault where there is none. I loved Cowboy Star, and if you are one of those fully-functioning humans I mentioned earlier, you will too.


Cowboy Star Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Unknown said...

Cowboy star was amazing the first time I went... I have been disappointed with poor service and less then memorable meals each time after.

Alicia Foodycat said...

That steak looks perfectly cooked to me! Interesting that all the sides etc seem to be included in the price, unlike here.

charlie said...

You ate all that for lunch (Guests 1)? Respect.

Chris Pople said...

charlie: Didn't see that! No there were 2 of us :) Even I couldn't have managed all that on my own.

Unknown said...

My husband and I have been big fans of Cowboy Star. We even gave a gift certificate to my in laws as a Christmas gift. Well, recently we took my in laws and another couple their for a special occasion. Bone marrow app was devine, salads were delicious and my tenderloin steak was a delicious as I had expected and my friend, who ordered the olive oil poached halibut, swooned over her entree. The others ordered ribeyes and were very disappointed (very uncommon when previously ordered). No perfect crust, lacked salt seasoning. Although there's an expectation of some fat to this cut their meat was just sitting in a puddle of grease. I wish they would have said something. They chose "Not to make a fuss" as the gentleman overseeing food at the passthrough felt so unapproachable. I'll explain...after I went to the ladies room I exited and slid/fell hard onto a wet section of floor (I was actually celebrating my ability to comfortable sit in a restaurant after my knee replacement). I managed to tell a server what happened so that no one else would get hurt. Eventually that man in charge at the kitchen pass through came to me and asked if I needed ice. I said no. He never said he was even sorry that I had gotten hurt and the floor issue was handled. He just dismissively walked off. So, we all ordered Desserts with coffee. Now, I'm not one who has restaurant problems and expects or accepts a free anything when something bad happens. I will say that even the slightest gesture of offering to not charge for me for the coffee as an apology would have gone a long way with me. Especially since my dinner bill for the table exceeded $700! I'll go back again. It was an unusually "off" night for Cowboy Star but wtf?

Unknown said...

Sandra - maybe your on to something, each of the disappointing experiences we have had after the first amazing experience we order the ribeye. It has just been lack luster.

Hollow Legs said...

my favourite thing about steakhouses are the sides - didn't you have any sides?!?!