Butcher Bloc

Harris', 3101 East Camelback, Phoenix, 508-8888. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Is Phoenix ready for more prime time?
The operators of two new steak houses, featuring pricey, top-of-the-line, prime-graded beef, certainly think so. They've recently set up shop a few blocks apart on pricey, top-of-the-line, prime Camelback Road real estate.

One is Harris', a highly regarded San Francisco operation taking its first expansion step. The other is Omaha SteakHouse, the first restaurant spin-off from Omaha Steaks, the well-known mail-order steak company.

It's a competitive field--Valley carnivores have several prime-beef options. Two national steak-house chains, Ruth's Chris and Morton's, already target money-is-no-object beef lovers in the Camelback corridor. Local landmarks like Don & Charlie's, El Chorro Lodge and the Pink Pony have their loyal fans. And many tony resorts and gourmet restaurants, while not classic steak houses, also offer prime beef on their menus.

But although the field is crowded, it's a long way from being saturated. To steak-house investors salivating over the favorable demographics, the Valley is still a field of dreams: Build it, and they will come.

That's particularly true for the high-end steak-house segment. While beef consumption is way down--Americans are eating only half as much per capita as we did 25 years ago--this narrow restaurant niche is thriving as never before. In a twisted way, it makes sense: Since we don't eat beef nearly as often as we once did, when we do eat it, we want the very best. And it doesn't take more than a bite or two to determine that Harris' marvelous steaks are among the Valley's top cuts.

Harris' doesn't have a typical steak-house atmosphere. Don't come here looking for bourbon-and-water masculine clubbiness--there's no sports-themed art, no wood-accented, polished-brass feel. Instead, Harris' is subdued, almost feminized. The walls are decorated with calming paintings of cactuses, and calming music is piped in from the lounge, where a tuxedoed pianist deftly plays the standards.

Female diners have picked up on it. On both my visits, half of Harris' customers were women, a far higher proportion than you'd find at its competitors. I suspect Harris' non-beef menu items, which include chicken, fish and pasta, also contribute to their comfort. The point was driven home after I ran into a female friend here, a calorie-counting vegetarian who'd normally rather dine at Chernobyl than eat at a steak house. Not wishing to spoil the beefy yearnings of her group, she gamely agreed to eat at Harris'. The vegetarian platter certainly made it easier for her to acquiesce.

The meal builds slowly. Bread crisps and a port-wine-cheese spread are the first nibbles you'll encounter, followed by a basket of fresh bread.

Don't linger over the pricey appetizer list--it's not where you want to fill up or lay out a disproportionate share of your dining dollars. The "traditional" onion soup means it's not French style--no bubbling cheese, no crouton. It's a serviceable broth, no more. Lackluster buttermilk-battered onion rings don't make much of an impression, except an oily one on your fingers. The smoked-salmon plate is a better bet, featuring lots of silky smoked fish teamed with capers and hard-boiled egg. Salads are the best pre-steak option. Caesar salad is well-done, right down to the anchovies. So are the baby greens with caramelized pecans. Go ahead and splurge on the extra $1.75 for a sprinkling of Roquefort cheese--you'll hardly notice the cost by the time you add up the bill.

But Harris' isn't about onion soup, smoked salmon and salads, or chicken, pasta and vegetarian plates. It's about beef. And the beef is superb.

There are no shortcuts here. Harris' has its own butcher. The meat is dry-aged on the premises for about three weeks, an expensive process that elite steak houses have pretty much abandoned. (Dry-aging means hanging beef in an open-air refrigerated meat locker.) These days, steak houses tend to use the less costly "wet" or Cryovac-aging process. Is one method better than the other? No, not really; it's a matter of taste. Dry-aged beef is more likely to have a firmer texture and a somewhat stronger flavor.

Do your own taste test. Harris' signature steak is a bone-in New York sirloin, about a pound of beefy flavor. Like all the beef here, it's grilled over mesquite, and it's astonishingly juicy. At $32, you'd expect great things from the porterhouse, and it delivers. It's probably the best steak here, an invigorating 22 ounces of animal protein. The filet mignon reaches the same heights. Here, perhaps, the differences between dry and Cryovac aging become apparent. Not only was this filet optimally tender, it had much more flavor than you usually find in this cut. Pepper steak isn't in quite the same class as the others. It features a rather small boneless New York strip, crusted with a bit of pepper.

If you're looking for a beef alternative to steak, look no further than the prime rib. Harris' 24-ounce executive cut on the bone is the best piece of prime rib in town. It's mesmerizing, a thick-cut blend of taste and texture that will get all your primal juices flowing.

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