Seattle Melts in Your Mouth
Seattle in early June was prepared to chill me to the bone. Of course, I did not look at the weather forecast (record-breaking rainfall and all-time-low temperatures), and packed as if for slightly chilly Southern California. Fortunately, a smile of sunshine spread across Washington and I could enjoy the view of Puget Sound without an umbrella in hand. I’m not sure if it was the actual weather or a stomach full of amazing beef and my always-full glass of wine, but I was warm through and through.
The Inn at El Gaucho exudes a swanky 1950s atmosphere and made me feel as though I had stepped back in time. Hues of warm yellow and red with dark wood and leather permeated the lobby and made me feel right at home. I was lucky enough to stay in room 8, the deluxe junior sound suite. That’s right – the suite is decked out with a luxurious leather couch and a 42-inch plasma screen television.
I can’t forget the kind welcome note and fresh-baked cookies. The cookies were chewy and just the thing needed after landing in the gloomy skies of SeaTac. I plopped down on the bed immediately and was greeted by Egyptian cotton and feathers. The plush comfort of the Inn at El Gaucho made me feel like the movie stars adorning my walls. I wanted to wrap myself in a plush robe, order a bottle of wine, and watch the ships sail past on the Puget Sound, but I had dinner plans.
Downstairs from this amazing 17-room Inn you will find El Gaucho Seattle, the quintessential dining experience. This trip was all about Certified Angus Beef, its partnership with El Gaucho, and Chateau Ste. Michelle, so I was prepared for steak and wine. The dinner orchestrated by the El Gaucho staff was anything but just some steak and wine. It was a meal of total indulgence and service to remember. Chef Matt Brandsey and his staff fashioned a wonderful meal that not only highlighted Certified Angus Beef, but also what the El Gaucho experience is all about.
We were seated at a table in the middle of the dining room, facing the exhibition kitchen. While the kitchen is a star with its state-of-the-art open-charcoal grill, the entire restaurant is a stage. There is an excitement in the air as customers watch Flaming Sword Wicked Shrimp, classic Caesar salad, and Bananas Foster prepared tableside.
The piece de resistance of dinner was a Certified Angus Beef trio consisting of filet mignon, baseball-cut top sirloin, and New York strip. It was a great experience to try the meats side by side and differentiate flavor and tenderness. I wasn’t sure I could eat another bite when dessert rolled around, but I finished all of my mouthwatering bananas Foster. Amidst the buzz of entertainment and conversation, I swayed to the sound live piano music in the adjacent open bar, which seals the deal on the show business of El Gaucho. I fell asleep in the cloud of my bed with little filets dancing in my head.
The next morning I was well-rested and ready for more beef. We made the trek out to Woodinville, Washington, the home of Chateau St. Michele. The drive through Washington was beautiful and the 87-acre estate was stunning. Cattle in the Vines was hosted by Certified Angus Beef and Chateau Ste. Michelle as an educational experience for the employees of El Gaucho. It struck a chord with me that these three companies are so dedicated to their product they put together an amazing educational field trip.
We started the morning with a wine-blending session led by Raymon McKee, Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker. Raymon began with a little education about the beauty of Washington grapes. My favorite fact was that Washington grapes are grown on their own roots which allow them to express very strong varietal characteristics and are on average 15 to 20 years old.
The room split into groups and my table consisted of media and Certified Angus Beef staff. We were very fortunate to have vino veterans Amy Sherman and Byron Vaughan lead the development of our blend. One half of the table dedicated themselves to math, science, and taste while the rest of us got put on our thinking hats and produce a label worthy of our award-winning blend. At least that is how we saw it. We created Beau-Vine Black Blend in honor of the delicious Black Angus bovine. Our wine came in second, but I think this firsthand blending experience was entertaining and ingeniously educational.
Wine drinking may have started at 10 am in the name of education, but by noon the steaks were ready to roll out. Course one consisted of tenderloin, filet mignon, and flat iron steak on a bed of lettuce. Accompanying the Certified Angus Beef was merlot, cabernet, Syrah, and the artist series blend from Chateau Ste. Michelle. Course two provided cuts of prime ribeye, strip loin, and top sirloin served on mashed potatoes. Every component was delicious. The purpose of different cuts and the different wines was to give us an opportunity to try them all together. The pairing I enjoyed most was the prime rib eye with the artist series. I think the merging of fruit and structure in the wine complimented the rich, beefy flavor.
Lunch was not only educational to our palates, but we also learned where a lot of the flavor and tenderness in the meat comes from. It is all about the aging. Most beef today is wet-aged for a minimum of five days for the supermarket and up to 21 for most foodservice establishments. This means the meat is put into airtight vacuum packages in controlled temperatures. Aging beef improves flavor just like properly aged wine and cheese.
Some restaurants like El Gaucho distinguish themselves by participating in extensive aging programs. Less than 1 percent of beef is dry-aged today due to the dedicated process and potential yield loss. Beef is stored on racks for more than three weeks in a specific climate to control bacterial growth. The meat undergoes dehydration during dry aging which causes it to lose weight, but concentrates an intense flavor inside. El Gaucho and Certified Angus Beef believe that the dry-aging process is the science that brings their product to its fullest potential.
A live-cattle session followed lunch. While it was the final stop on our education train for the day, Chuck and Julie Boggs of Westbrook Angus Ranch are the start on the Certified Angus Beef production map. The Boggs run a purebred cow-calf operation near Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and brought two steer and two heifers to the Chateau for a wonderful hands-on lesson in animal husbandry.
They shared a passion for breeding registered cows and bulls that begins with trust and cultivates quality. The basic motto of these ranchers was that if we don’t treat it right, we are out of business. That’s the philosophy that underlies the entire production chain. The Boggs herd was very domesticated, and some of the staff was able to get right in and take a picture with the steer. I learned that the Westbrook Angus ranch produces seedstock, which means their herd produces the cattle that will sire livestock sold for beef production. I had no idea there were so many steps to producing quality meat. The rules and registry provided for ranchers like the Boggs come from the American Angus Association.
Rod Wesselman of the American Angus Association put into plain words how the world’s largest beef breed registry uses science to predict consistency. The whole process starts with the parents and their expected progeny difference, which means how their offspring are expected to turn out based on all the data collected from their pedigree. They can calculate the ease of birthing, weight at birth and maturity, and even marbling. The Angus cow is known for its consistency and return on investment. The focused management helps the cattle obtain excellence. Certified Angus Beef LLC uses 10 standards that place its prime beef high above quality. Only one out of every four cattle receives their stamp of approval.
Cattle in the Vines was a college course on quality stuffed into one afternoon, but a nap in luxury pepped me up to experience just a little more Gaucho. Dinner was a refreshing menu of mostly fish served at the wonderful Aqua by El Gaucho. Where El Gaucho is dark and stormy, Aqua is light and enchanting. It is only a few blocks away on the pier, but it definitely seems worlds away. The string that connects this restaurant group is dedication to hospitality. The staff radiates happiness and cannot wait to serve you. The first course was a delectable prime top sirloin carpaccio seasoned to perfection.
The meal could have stopped there for me, but we had so much more to savor. Next we were served a little bit of land and sea – pancetta-wrapped ahi tuna and seared pork belly. It literally melted in my mouth. I went on to enjoy grilled halibut and king salmon, both with flavors bursting in my mouth. Last but certainly not least was the cherries jubilee fired up tableside. I would like to take the cart home and have cherries jubilee on demand.
I learned a little at lunch about the history and mission of El Gaucho from Chad Mackay, president and COO. When I talked to him about the superb time I was having at the Inn, he shared a little bit about his passion. “We wanted to put our hospitality into a hotel, not nickel and dime you,” Chad Mackay. “Hotel guys can’t run a restaurant, but as restaurant people running a hotel we are doing pretty great.” Each company involved in this trip has a dedication to excellence that is rare in today’s society, but something we all want to experience. We’re all seeking quality of life, and I don’t think I have met people more dedicated to quality than the El Gaucho restaurant group, Chateau St. Michele Winery, and Certified Angus Beef.