It was the best of prime, it was the worst of prime…. it was aged and toothsome, it was aged and scrumptious….
Ok..that is an atrocious parody of one of the most recognizable paragraphs in the history of British literature but it may be the closest I will ever get to literary beauty of Charles Dickens. I read an interesting blog post from Tori Avey, who did a beautiful job summarizing the attention to detail that Dickens penned in many of his famous works, especially when it came to his description of scenes in which food and drink were the central theme.
The steakhouse has a long tradition in dining folklore. Although a steak is a ubiquitous item on restaurant menus, making it the focal point of an eatery has a history as old as Dickens himself. Traditionally, there are number of key and consistent characteristics which make a steakhouse what it is:
- Mandatory dim lights and oversized tables, presumably to create a more relaxing environment and help with ugly dates. In all seriousness, an interesting study was done by Cornell university in 2012 that demonstrated that dim lighting, white table cloths and soft music resulted in patrons ordering just as much, rating the food higher, eating less and taking longer to finish which could mean more booze.. which can also help with the ugly date.
- A staff trained to remind you everytime…like a stewardess showing you how to buckle a seatbelt, when you order a steak that medium rare is bright pink in middle…every time.
- A menu which includes sleepy items for those who go to a steakhouse and don’t order steak. This usually means chicken, some kind of fish and a token meatless dish in event a hapless vegetarian is in the mix.
- A steak menu which typically doesn’t include anything with the steak (except maybe one of those roasted tomatoes with the bread crumbs on top).
- Sides which include asparagus, mushrooms, creamed spinach and if you’re lucky…brussel sprouts.
- A place where shrimp cocktails and wedge salads never go out of style.
Despite this blueprint, there exists a huge spectrum ranging from old school to modern. In the last month I have gone to two steakhouses which represent both ends of the gamut. On one side is La Castile, the Mississauga landmark which describes itself as “the place to see..the place to be seen”. Toronto’s Jacobs on the other hand, is probably actually the place to see…the place to be seen. Let’s review:
When you go to the La Castile website, you will be serenaded by “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller while watching a slide show highlighting every nook and cranny of the large and twisted mansion. Jacobs on the other hand, offers a silent review of its modernized menu without the need for background music from 1940.
The Piano Bar
Both have a piano bar tab. La Castile offers plush red velvet, dimly lit chandeliers, private alcoves and stained glass windows. This creates a mystical ambiance offering live music from Wednesday to Saturday complemented by rumours of the odd Russian “escort”. Jacobs, on the other hand, simply lists the Tuesday to Saturday lineup on the website and adhere to a bring your own escort policy.
La Castile is quite easy to find. Located along Dundas St East near the 427, the best instruction is to “follow the light” as it next to impossible to miss the flames shooting out of the brick structure surrounding the restaurant. Parking is abundant. Jacobs, on the other hand, is in downtown Toronto on Brant Street right off of King. It’s grey, boxy exterior is rather subtle which is a sharp contrast to the fireworks of its suburban counterpart. Parking is scarce although you could opt for $20 valet parking if you don’t want the hassle.
La Castile has the classic steakhouse setup. Walking in, you’re not sure whether or not you are at church, a funeral home or a museum. Dated carpets, stained glass and plush chairs let people experience what first class in the Titanic would feel like. A dress code is in effect of course which probably includes chain mail armour since I would not have been a bit surprised if I was seated at a table next to Peter Dinklage and served wine in a metal goblet. Jacobs is a lot sleeker, abandoning the white table clothes in lieu of bare modern wood tables and sleek chairs which omit the royal red plush. The concept is much more open and much less distracting. As the dress code, they don’t have to announce it…people just know.
La Castile opened in 1968 and I would be very surprised if the staff weren’t exactly the same as back then. Of course, they have aged since Woodstock but can now easily be referred to as grumpy old men in tuxedos instead of grumpy young ones. Jacobs, on the other hand, has a much younger staff who, instead of looking like they are in a wedding party. are dressed a bit more casually but still quite chic. They were far less grumpy as well.
Steakhouses are like brunch; there is a unwritten permission to elevate prices slightly to much higher than the norm. This is somewhat the case with La Castile but the ceiling is somewhat limited by its stingy suburban patrons and the fact that most of the regular clientele still think it’s the 1970s. Jacobs, on the other hand, takes advantage of its urban locale to price things in the stratosphere. Twenty dollar Caesar salads and fifteen dollar sides surround steaks that are often $100 and can hit $700 if you want the really good stuff.
La Castile welcomes you with a sectioned silver tray filled with feta, dills and olives (and lots of water poured by Mr. Chucklelopolous to wash down the accompanying sodium).
At La Castile, I had to go for the french onion soup ($9) which fittingly came in a fitting medieval metal goblet/urn atop the same doily I used to slap on side plates when I worked in the restaurant industry in the late 80’s and early 90s. There was no shortage of cheese and the broth was thick with onions. All in all, it wasn’t bad but after the pickles and the soup, I was desperately searching for a diuretic which I was confident one of the many waiters would have had in their pockets along with a nitro pill and maybe a Cialis.
For the main, I resisted the urge to insist to share the Chateaubriand with my table mates and instead opted for the peppercorn steak, which was “deliciously sharp and served with wine sauce”. Now, I’m unclear as to the sharpness but it was nicely seasoned and cooked a tad above a proper medium rare but as a bonus also served with a California mix of vegetables also reminiscent on my 1980’s doily days.
Jacobs, on the other hand, started with their famous complimentary popovers, which are a mild twist on the classic yorkshire pudding (and set the stage for the general theme of a steakhouse with a modern twist). They hardly needed the butter given the fact they had a really rich flavour.
Now, I missed the table side assembly of the $19 caesar salad (I was a bit late getting to dinner) but it was waiting when I got there. I’m missing the picture but I assure you it looked, smelled and tasted like a caesar salad. I will go as far as saying it was one of the best one I’ve had in a long while. The double smoked bacon was thick and delicious and the dressing was heavy with garlic.
The steaks are about quality, not quantity (not to mention the fact most are triple digits in price) so the table shared a local Ontario 12 oz Ribeye ($60) and an 18oz Nebraska bone-in striploin ($81) complemented with sides which included brussel sprouts and walnuts, duck fat fries, mushrooms and sauteed rapini (~$15 each). Upon request, they will slice the steak for you to avoid butchery or fights at the table. I failed to get a picture since there was a mad rush once the steak was placed on the table. I did, however, snap the cornucopia once it was on the plate. The steak was cooked perfectly and was exceptional in flavour. The sides were well prepared as well but I would hope so for the staggering price.
Even the offerings at the end of the meal are indicative of the differences between the two restaurants. While Jacobs brings a small plate of after dinner confections (cookies and chocolates) as well as a sinfully delicious packaged muffin for later to the table, La Castile sets a bowl of jelly beans (reminiscent of the ones I used to beg for out of the vending machine at a grocery store when I was 6 years old) by the door so one can grab a spoonful on the way out.
Although steakhouses across the board share numerous similarities, I think La Castile and Jacobs represent both ends of the spectrum. La Castile comes in with a “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality even though nothing has been fixed since 1968. Whereas some may call the decor nostalgic (of medieval times perhaps), I call it tired but I suppose it works well for suburban johns with a fetish for Eastern Europeans. Jacobs, on the other hand, focuses on aged steaks as opposed to aged decor, offering sleek surroundings in the heart of downtown Toronto and a variety of special occasions steaks that fall well outside a lot of standard dinner budgets.
In the end, any steak house across the board including the many chains including the Keg, Ruth’s Chris, Hy’s, Chop etc, will follow a similar blueprint and inevitably cost you a small fortune. That said, if you want to experience the extremes of this cuisine, I think La Castile and Jacobs represent opposite ends of the spectrum whether it be urban vs. suburban, modern vs. traditional or a desire to hobnob with the cool kids vs cosplaying as Robb Stark in the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones. Something tells me if Dickens wrote “A Storm of Swords” instead of George R.R. Martin, then the description of the butchery of the meal would have been much more detailed than that of King Robb Stark and his ill-fated army.