I'm not having an affair," a woman sitting behind us asserts. I can't tell if she's defending herself from a lover's accusation or rejecting the advice of a friend. But without craning around I can describe her: a white-blond, shoulder-length coif — platinum, like the jewelry she's wearing. How do I know? With the exception of my dinner guest, there isn't a brunette in the house.
The noise level at Abe & Louie's could be described as "festive." On a Monday night at 8, there isn't a table to be had without a reservation. Ladies are in uniform: jeans and sheer blouses, trippy little heels, and the most expensive handbags they can afford to rent. Their escorts have shaved heads, double-pierced ears, tans as deep as the Mediterranean — and for all I know, their tans have been purchased as dearly as the Cavalli leopard-print purses their dates are swinging.
We've come to Abe & Louie's, the popular Boston steak house now landed in Boca Raton, on the recommendation of our good friend Warren Buffett. "A great steak," Warren pronounced. Warren's opinion was right there on the Abe & Louie's website, along with accolades from Boston foodie Corby Kummer. "The best steak I've tasted recently in Boston," Kummer crowed. I got stuck momentarily on that "recently": Why had Kummer felt compelled to place this qualifier in an otherwise effusive sentence? What was he getting at, exactly — the best steak in the past three days? Two weeks? A year? Abe & Louie's also carried the imprimatur of Christopher Kimball, the man who, through careful instruction in Cook's Illustrated, had single-handedly and with great patience and detail taught me not only how to grill a steak but also how to mix a margarita and roast a chicken until it made my guests squawk with delight. I trust Kimball. I trust Kummer. Buffett is my man. If they claimed to love Abe & Louie's I was willing to crawl down 1-95 on my hands and knees to get there.
"Stop being dramatic," my spouselet said. "I'll drive." Meanwhile, I perused the menu of the Boca Abe & Louie's and wondered why these "great" steaks were wet-aged. I noted that they didn't boast the names of rustic farms either: no "Purple Mountain Black Angus" or "Organic Cloverleaf Lane Wagyu" here. In fact, no Wagyu at all. Just New York strip, porterhouse, and bone-in rib eye from the good ol' Midwest, the heart and soul of American Prime. Abe & Louie's, an old-fashioned steakhouse, evidently spurned pretense. I wasn't going to find "truffle jus" all over my filet mignon (just Portobello demi-glace, the "people's" reduction). They were only committed to dishing up a fantastic piece of beef. Everybody said so.
Let's take a moment to examine the practice of aging meat and see whether the howling about dry versus wet aging is worth the amount of blog-space it commands. If you're going to spend 42 bucks for a rib-eye at Abe & Louie's, you might as well know where you stand on the whole dry/wet debate before you shell out. Dry-aged beef is basically left to rot, very slowly at controlled temperatures, in open air or wrapped in cheesecloth (you can dry age in a vacuum bag also, but that's another story), from a period of two weeks to an extreme of four months. During this time, flavor intensifies as the meat loses water. Before you gag on the idea of "rot," consider that dozens of foods owe their acclaim to controlled ageing: fancy cheeses, expensive wines. Bacon. Dill pickles.
A wet-aged steak, instead of being aired, is sealed in plastic to tenderize in its own juice. According to a study at the University of Nebraska, most people prefer wet-aged beef. I don't happen to be one of them. I do know that the preference for dry-aged steak is one you have to acquire, because its flavor is stronger and more nuanced. I also propose that the average carnivore wouldn't know a great steak if it flew across the grand, brass-fixtured dining room at Abe & Louie's and whomped them in the kisser.
This state of affairs is certainly not the average consumer's fault. Our natural-born abilities to discern the relative deliciousness of meat have been hammered into submission by the American cattle industry. The beef guys sell us the cheapest cuts from steers hopped up on antibiotics and force-fed corn mush; they're dyed with chemicals to obtain the opium-poppy red we've learned to prefer. We want what we're used to — not grass-fed Argentine cattle, not long-lived plow oxen from Spanish farmsteads, not homegrown organic buffalo meat, and God forbid, not ostrich. Our beef is bland and looks red when we unwrap it. We like it tender as a baby's bottom. Give most consumers a piece of beef even a fractional notch above what they can buy at Publix, substitute "Prime" (all-but-unavailable to us mortal meat eaters except at upscale restaurants) for "Select," and we'll rave. Even Warren Buffett will.
My spouselet was right there with Warren. She thought Abe & Louie's Prime, wet-aged, 16-ounce New York strip steak, cooked medium-rare in its beautifully marbled interior and sporting a well-seasoned char without, was terrific. She'd ordered it sans any of the sauces (Portobello demi-glace, cheddar, Great Hill blue, hollandaise, chimichurri, $2 extra).
Still, one goes to a steak house for the full experience. We want the creamed spinach ($7), the sautéed mushrooms ($8), the blue cheese mashed potatoes ($6). We demand the mind-boggling selection of wines (A&L's has an extensive list of wines by the glass and half bottle, and a dozen pages of really excellent and fairly priced bottles). We want our surf (shrimp and scallops "Louie," $32) and our turf (braised lamb shank was the Monday night special, also at $32), and occasionally our shellfish tower (market price) or our lobster casserole (market price) to shine as bright as the beef. It's not enough to just grill a great steak; you've got to get the trimmings right too.
This, Abe & Louie's Boca is unable to do. Our waiter was overworked, nervous, and only partially trained (although I love the vaguely Pullman car porter suits they have them wearing). With the exception of an ice-cold plate of bluepoint oysters ($12), everything we ate was terrible. Creamed spinach somehow managed to define both bland and over-seasoned (a magic trick I can't explain). Sautéed mushrooms: rubbery, salty beyond belief, flavorless. Only the blue cheese potatoes passed any kind of test of edibility.
I sipped my Penfolds Shiraz ($12) with real relish while I picked at my steak tartare. That single glass of Australian "Bin 28 Kalimna" packed more flavor than the combined efforts of the half-dozen dishes crowding our table. And Abe & Louie's could take no credit for it.
Consider the steak tartare ($15, "Our recipe, fresh to order").
Abe and Louie's needs to use somebody else's recipe, because theirs is an abomination. You make a steak tartare with good quality raw, ground beef mixed, usually, with mustard, Worcestershire, and herbs, and serve it alongside something yummy to pile it on (anything from homemade chips to crostini). There are many versions of this decadent dish and lots of alternate ingredients. When I was a waitress in Palm Beach in my youth, I used to serve a flawless tartare at the old Peter Dinkle's; they stood by the tradition of topping it with a raw egg. Abe and Louie's dispenses with the egg and instead floods their ground beef with vinegar and mustard. They serve it with stale, dry, little toast points that have less appeal than the stuff you'd get with your ham and scramble at Waffle House. A side of musty raw onion came roughly chopped rather than diced; the adjoining mound of mustard defined the term "overkill." Those pickled capers were just the thing to round out this sour, badly abused pile of beef. The sloppiness, the basic misunderstanding of elementary food preparation — it was all there, in one meaty little microcosm.
Heard enough? Want the details of my well-aged, $32 shrimp and scallop Louie? What's that you say? Shrimp isn't supposed to be aged? Someone in the kitchen evidently missed that class in cooking school, and also the class about how shrimp tastes best barely grilled, just enough to take the cool transparency out but not long enough to give it the texture of a spare tire. I've had better shrimp at Long John Silver's. These were served with a molded round of plain white rice. Brilliant.
I don't usually take bad restaurant meals so personally. But honestly, what does it take to screw up apple pie ($7)? An aversion to using "trans-fats" in the crust, I'm guessing. Abe and Louie's makes the worst pie crust I've ever tasted, a slice of shirt-backing set over an unadventurous mélange of sugared apples, and a huge, coarse, hairy "sprig" of mint. They could send out to Winn Dixie for a better pie, or ask any Mom in the U.S.A. to bake one for them.
On a practical note: If you find yourself through sad circumstance having dinner at Abe & Louie's in Boca, order the raw oysters, any of the steaks, and a fabulous bottle of wine; that way you'll leave with your spirits intact. Otherwise, I recommend absolutely you go either to Chop's Lobster Bar (also in Boca) or north to The Strip House in Palm Beach Gardens for your wet-aged steaks. The Capital Grill in Fort Lauderdale is your place if you're a dry-aged fan. At any of those three joints you can have your steak and eat your spinach too.
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