Cafe Reviews

BLT Steak Reinvents the Steakhouse with Sashimi Appetizers and Gruyère Popovers

There are plenty of places to get a gorgeous piece of USDA Prime meat in this town, but BLT Steak at Camelback Inn satisfies more than just carnivorous cravings. And for that, it really raises the bar.

I won't name names, but at some of Phoenix's other high-end steakhouses — where appetizers and side dishes are a predictable rundown of standards, and desserts aren't worth a mention — a seared slab of beef is just about the only reason to visit.

To be sure, sometimes it's nice to chow down on a bloody rib eye, knock back a couple of martinis, and call it a day. At BLT Steak, though, the appeal is much broader. While meat is still the main event, eating here is a memorable experience from the first nibble of warm chicken liver pâté to the last bite of gooey espresso-chocolate chip cookies (both gratis). As a result, you leave not only high on protein, but reeling from a whole feast of sensory delights.

Perhaps it's because this is a steakhouse as interpreted by Laurent Tourondel, a French chef determined to bring a traditional American institution into the 21st century with Gallic panache. ("BLT," by the way, stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel.)

That he's expanded his national culinary presence from the original BLT Steak in New York City to seven additional outposts in just four years — along with BLT Burger, BLT Fish, BLT Prime, and BLT Market — is certainly a feat, but not a surprise, if the month-old Scottsdale location, helmed by executive chef Marc Hennessy, is any indication. It's hip but comfortable, with amiable, attentive service and lots of thoughtful touches — like the famous freebie Gruyère popovers — along with top-notch steaks.

BLT Steak fills the void left by Camelback Inn's long-running Chaparral Room, which closed last year as part of the resort's $50 million renovation. It's a good-looking space, with windows all around, a whimsical chalkboard along an entire wall, dark wood floors, and oversize cylindrical ceiling lamps that cast a warm, buttery glow on cozy circular booths, long banquettes, and exotic wood tables. Even amidst Camelback Inn's tranquil desert landscape, it has an urbane energy.

As for the menu, it's somewhat homey but flirts with haute. You can certainly have mashed potatoes with your hefty Porterhouse, or you can go trendy with some hen of the woods mushrooms and a Japanese Kobe A5 strip steak (which is charged by the ouch, er, ounce; currently $26 per). The dividing line between contemporary and traditional mainly falls between appetizers and side dishes, with single-person portions for the former and family-style sharable plates for the latter.

Starting with sashimi may be unheard of at mainstream steakhouses, but at a cosmopolitan place like this, it made sense. Here, it was slices of hamachi with creamy avocado purée, tart yuzu vinaigrette, and thinly sliced jalapeño for tiny bursts of heat. Tuna tartare also had a fusion appeal, with ruby bits of fish layered on avocado chunks and a pool of soy-lime dressing. Sprinkled with crispy shallots and resting in a square dish on crushed ice, it was an eye-catching presentation.

I also enjoyed the roasted beet salad with spiced candied walnuts, endive, apple slivers, and creamy Gorgonzola — very flavorful, but light enough that I wasn't sacrificing belly room that might otherwise go to steak. One night's special, though, was so rich that I knew it would take restraint not to devour it: veal cheek ravioli with porcini mushrooms and shaved black truffle. Big surprise, my discipline flew out the window after one bite.

I should mention here that BLT Steak's outstanding Gruyère popovers are the biggest potential pitfall if you're trying to save your appetite. And don't think you can limit yourself to just a couple bites. These huge golden poufs are irresistible — crusty and crispy but airy and moist inside, with a heady cheese aroma that wafts out when you tear them apart. They're served with soft butter and a metal canister of sea salt, plus a miniature recipe card, should you decide to make them at home. (I'm tempted to make them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

Side dishes were solid but not as memorable. Braised carrots were tangy and tender; grilled asparagus was ultra-fresh and lightly charred. The menu lists potatoes prepared any number of ways, from gratin to gnocchi, and I went with French fries, which were a disappointment. A killer steak deserves better-than-average frites. Oh, well. Batter-dipped cactus fries, with chipotle dip, were much more interesting.

But, of course, the perfectly cooked steaks held my rapt attention as soon as they hit the table. BLT Steak's signature steaks are broiled at 1,700 degrees, topped with herb butter, and served sizzling in a cast-iron pan with nine difference sauce options, from barbecue to Béarnaise. The sauces were a nice touch — I tried the lip­smacking chimichurri — but honestly, the meat was plenty satisfying unadorned.

A New York strip was deeply caramelized and almost black on the outside, juicy and bright pink on the inside, while a special bone-in filet was luxuriously tender once I cut through the perfectly seasoned crust. Meaty lobster mushrooms and a luscious Périgueux sauce, with Madeira and black truffles, made it utterly seductive. And red wine-braised short ribs were total meat candy — dark, rich, and smoky, with crispy edges that gave way to moist shreds of beef.

It wasn't all about meat, though. One of my dining companions, a part-time vegetarian, tried the sautéed Dover sole and was tickled at how good it was. Me, too: Every bite of the firm, moist fish was a dance of flavors, rich brown butter mingling with tangy lemon-white wine sauce and salty capers. The smell was fantastic, too.

Little details jazzed up the desserts. For the orange and raspberry sorbet sundae, it was vibrant raspberry sauce and a plate of soft, warm madeleines sprinkled with powdered sugar. Peanut butter mousse blanketed in dark chocolate sauce had the perfect counterpoint in a scoop of ice cream that tasted just like fresh bananas. And blueberry-lemon meringue pie, with ripe berries and lemon sorbet, was topped with brûléed meringue balls that resembled mini-marshmallows.

There was also an excellent cheese service, the likes of which I haven't experienced since Mary Elaine's closed. The fromager wheeled over a wooden cart with 10 different choices, each one more interesting than the last, and gave such appetizing descriptions that I had a hard time limiting myself. Then he carefully assembled a lovely cheese board for me, with port-soaked figs, quince paste, candied walnuts, dates, and two kinds of bread. I was thrilled.

Without a doubt, BLT Steak is no neighborhood bistro, but one of the priciest fine-dining spots in town. And since dining there, I think I've figured out why Tourondel was named Bon Appetit's 2007 Restaurateur of the Year.

Anywhere else, dropping this much coin would be masochism, but at BLT Steak, it's more like joie de vivre.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig

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