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Are thin, tough, gristly steaks the norm in France?

I just returned from France, the Alsace region. In five other trips, my girlfriend and I have spent 3 or 4 days in Alsace. In one trip, we spend 4 days in Paris. My girlfriend is (ahem) "unadventurous" about food. So she eats her way through France (well, Alsace, mostly) on steak.

We've eaten mostly at fairly expensive, respectable French restaurants--no five star places, but certainly three and four star. I have NEVER seen her receive a steak that wasn't thin, tough, gristly and expensive. She orders these medium rare, so cooking isn't the problem.

(In contrast, the food I receive is terrific.) None of these places specialize in steak, the way a New York steakhouse does. So my question is, are we just eating in the wrong places for steak? It just doesn't make sense to me that the French can do virtually everything else so well and completely and consistently blow it when it comes to steak.

What are the opinions of you French travelers and Francophiles?

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  1. Steak au poivre is made with filet mignon and isn't gristly or tough. Other than that, the French don't do much of what we call steak, they don't even have their own word for steak or beefsteak, which they call biftek. It may only be on the menu for the benefit of American tourists. When in France I've never eaten steak, so I couldn't say what's normal about how the French cook it. No doubt someone else here can.

    As for the price, in France they slaughter the animals young for veal, and I suppose relatively few are allowed to grow into beef - and maybe not the pick of the herd at that.

    15 Replies
    1. re: John Francis

      John,

      I guess what astounds me most is that this is a culture that has devoted countless hours to making virtually everything that walks on hooves delicious. (It has spent more countless hours making most other things delicious. The French are culinary geniuses.) And yet, here is one of the most prominent food sources in the world--prized throughout the world--and the French seem to have blown off the whole concept of making it edible, at least in its simplest presentation. (They do a great job with more complicated, longer cooked presentations, e.g., beef bourguignon.)

      I anticipated that the answer I would receive from this board would be that I was eating in the wrong places and that the French prepared incredible grilled and pan-cooked steak. Apparently, that is not the case.

      This is akin to the slugger who plasters baseballs into the stand routinely but cannot hit a curveball.

      I will suggest the steak au poivre to her the next time we go to France (at least a year away from now), but I do note that she ordered the steak au poivre at one place this time and it wasn't filet mignon, but rather, the same half or three quarters inch thick chewing gum-like steak, which she received all over the place. (It tasted great, but you just couldn't swallow it.)

      1. re: gfr1111

        Just because its different and your gf didn't find it to her taste doesn't make it wrong. The French do many things differently some will be to your taste others not - that's the beauty of travel and experiencing other cultures.

        I find US bread far too sweet for my taste (there are rare exception from artisan places). But all I do is avoid bread in the US - I simply assume its sweet because that's the local taste it's not because Americans don't know to bake.

        1. re: gfr1111

          You have taken the responses at least a bit wrong. First, a good steak frites can be very nice, but it will not be to American expectations. Lots of people love it, but it is not a 'safe' order for people who expect soft meat with a kind of thickly fatty flavor that gets cooked medium or more. The steak will probably come out blue, and you may have to send it back twice if you want it cooked medium. At that point, it will be overcooked.

          "The French are culinary geniuses." The Chinese, Bengali, Vietnamese, Thai, and many others are not exactly chopped liver - or should I say paté.

          "one of the most prominent food sources in the world--prized throughout the world" The Kenyans and Ethiopians I know don't like our beef. They are used to naturally raised animals, and they object to the fatty residue of flavor that is part of the aftertaste of USA steak.

          1. re: Steve

            Steve,

            Yes, the French are culinary geniuses. So are the Chinese. Food critics around the world recognize the genius of the French, the Chinese, and the Italians. The Bengali, Vietnamese and Thai certainly have a lot of good dishes, but food critics around the world don't praise them the way they do the top three.

            When I said, "one of the most prominent food sources in the world--prized throughout the world," I meant that beef was so esteemed, not necessarily that American beef was so esteemed. My point was that the French have no problem coming up with great dishes using lamb, pork, venison, rabbit, etc., but seem to have a blind spot about beef steaks. Whatever you feed the animals, I am not convinced that tough, chewy, and gristly are ever desirable qualities.

            1. re: gfr1111

              The gristly is because the restaurant is bad and serving a bad product. Chewy is something that can be a preference.

              The French don't go out for steak dinner like we do in America. It's a different product with a different flavor profile.

              I don't give a whit about unhelpful (and dubious) generalizations like "Food critics around the world recognize the genius of the French." There's too much fantastic food elsewhere for that to have any practical meaning for me. However, if it were to have any meaning, then it would be for more complex dishes than steak frites. it would be geared toward game, charcuterie, other animal parts, sauces, breads and pastries, herbs, and fresh vegetables.

              When I have a nice vinegary museau with cornichons served in the Auvergne, then I am more likely to appreciate the genius of the French.

              1. re: Steve

                "Different product with a different flavor profile" ......Very well put.

                A mild flavored highly marbled US steak from a younger animal that was finished on a feedlot would tend not to stand up to many french sauces.

                A grass finished steak would tend to be drier & considerably more chewy than a highly marbled US feedlot steak that came from a younger animal when cooked over direct high heat with no finishing sauce.

                1. re: Steve

                  The French don't go out for steak dinner like we do in America.

                  Courtepaille and Hippopotamus would beg to differ.

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    My knowledge is apparently limited; you're right, but consider this:

                    If you wanted to eat nothing but big slabs of steak every night in the US, you could do so by going exclusively to seafood restaurants - yes, they usually offer steak too.

                    1. re: Steve

                      I have no idea what you're trying to say.

                      Courtepaille, Hippopotamus, and Buffalo Grill are steak places where you can go and get a steak dinner.

                      They're all extremely popular, and can be found in every corner of the country.

                    2. re: sunshine842

                      The French love Buffalo grill, don't they?

                      1. re: Busk

                        that they do -- I forgot that one in my list.

              2. re: gfr1111

                I haven't yet taken the time to read all the responses but yes, of course, you've been ordering steak in the wrong places (i.e. the starred restaurants). Although I am not quite sure what you mean by four or five stars — there is one, two and three stars, nothing above.

                Steak is part of the culture in France but not in the same way as it is in North America.
                And starred restaurants with tasting menus and sophisticated cooking are the worst places to order it. It is usually not on their menus. It might well be something they patched up hastily because someone unexpectedly ordered it (nobody ever orders steak at posh Michelin places) and, having stars and all, they feel compelled to deliver.

                Steak in France is simple food, family food, weekend food, bistrot food. If you had stopped in a corner brasserie and had asked an entrecôte sauce roquefort, you probably would have had far better meat.
                And I am not even mentioning the French 'steak houses' and the restaurants specializing in meat. When they're good, they're really good.

                1. re: Ptipois

                  Hi, Ptipois,

                  Thanks for all your comments. I have a much better understanding now of French steaks. As for the stars I assigned to the French restaurants, I was just trying to give the reader a sense of the relative quality rating of these restaurants, from an American perspective. I was unaware that there was an official French rating system for restaurants, although I guess that I should not have been, since there is one for French hotels.

                  1. re: gfr1111

                    Are you reallly not aware of the Michelin guides and their star system..?

                    1. re: gfr1111

                      There is no official rating system like for hotels. Anyone can give out stars if they choose. You can personally rank something with twenty stars, go ahead!

                      However, the Michelin tire company long ago got into the business of promoting travel, and as a mainstay of that is a rating system for certain kinds of restaurants. One, two, or three stars. Very few places even get one star, so it's not like every place is rated. If you open up your own deli in Paris, don't expect the Michelin inspectors to come knocking on your door. There are about 50 one-star places in Paris.

                      The system has gained enough notoriety that when you talk about a 'starred restaurant' in Paris, you are talking specifically about Michelin unless otherwise noted. Many publications have their own system, and when people talk about them they will sometimes say "2 stars from the NY TImes." Or similar.

                      If you care about that sort of thing... then that's the sort of thing you care about.

              3. It is at bad places.

                We can tell you where you can get a steak in France that doesnt suck.

                16 Replies
                1. re: Busk

                  So true. And also how you order it. Sounds like you should ask for advice.

                  1. re: PhilD

                    I was almost always served overcooked steak in France. A renown Chow taught me to order it "bleu mais chaud", which works. Another brilliant guru swears by "crusty bleu". But I think that my accent might blow that one.

                    We don't want to talk about overcooked liver...

                    1. re: mangeur

                      Me, too, regarding overcooked, not because I didn't know how to order, but I do think some restaurants make sweeping generalizations about their clientele. I looked/sounded American, therefore I like my steak more done. Not true! The one time I tried to order it bleu, figuring they'd size me up and cook it more- well they cooked it perfectly as ordered! Go figure. I gave up after that, but I may try some of these tips-thanks,

                      For me, it's like Asian restaurants here at home. They're faced with a pale white chick and dumb down the spice. Big mistake.

                      1. re: mangeur

                        I ask for black/burned on the exterior, blue in the interior.

                        1. re: mangeur

                          "Crousti-bleu" if you want to pronounce it properly (in France, that is).

                        2. re: PhilD

                          Hi, PhilD. I'm asking for advice. How should I order the steak?
                          Thanks, gfr1111.

                          1. re: gfr1111

                            Know the cuts as others have said, and accept the French like their steaks different.

                            For example Onglet is a great tasty cut but if ain't a US cut so is tougher but to me better flavours. It's also common and as "hanger steak" getting more common outside France for people who know their steak. That said gristle is probably a sign you chose a bad restaurant so more careful selection would be good.

                            I always order "a point" for a medium rare, and if possible select a place with a good reputation for their beef - often named on the menu.

                            Also French restaurant don't go past 3 stars so not certain where the three/four star comment comes from?

                        3. re: Busk

                          Hi, Busk:

                          Thanks for commenting. So please do tell me where I can get a steak in France that doesn't suck.

                          Thanks,

                          gfr1111

                          1. re: gfr1111

                            In Paris, you want to order the cote de boeuf at a place like Chez l'Ami Jean.

                            I was also surprised by how good the cote de boeuf was at Astier in April. I was expecting an average meal, but they really did an excellent job with steak.

                            There are a lot of places, but these are two steaks i've had recently that were epic. I'd also try to order them on the rare side of medium rare which would probably be how the house would cook it if left to their own designs.

                            1. re: gfr1111

                              So you want good steak or côte de bœuf?

                              In Paris, just to name the most obvious:

                              Le Severo
                              Le Bis de Severo
                              Chez l'Ami Jean (when they do have beef)
                              Charbon Rouge
                              La Maison de l'Aubrac
                              Christophe
                              Atelier Vivanda
                              L'Ami Louis (to the others: yes I know. But you should go only for the côte de bœuf. Caveat emptor: I'm not sure it's worth the torture of being there.)
                              Chez Denise/La Tour de Montlhéry
                              Astier
                              Le Bistrot Paul Bert
                              Robert et Louise
                              Bistrot Capucine
                              Beaucoup
                              Café des Musées
                              Les Pipos
                              L'AOC
                              etc.

                              And most big corner brasseries and some cafés serve decent entrecôte. This is also true outside of Paris.
                              Why, even the rather pedestrian Café Parisien down my street serves good entrecôte. Beef has become far better in recent years than it was before, during the charolais-über-alles era when beef was always too young, too lean and impossible to age. Now finally good beef from more marbled breeds (simmental, aubrac, limousine, normande) is again becoming available and it is really good. France is one of the few countries where the beef culture revolves around heirloom bovine breeds. Just don't order it in Michelin joints that are not prepared to serve it right, that's all. If you want cassoulet or grilled sausages you don't go to Pierre Gagnaire for that.

                              1. re: Ptipois

                                Pti's list is a real service; but in thinking of where I'd want to return, a thought that stimulates the gastric juices, there's something about the atmosphere and décor or lack of it at both Hugo Desnoyer's new joint in the 16th and the Atelier Vivanda that's more butchery/butcherblockery/meateatery.

                                1. re: Ptipois

                                  "Atelier Vivanda"
                                  Carrier Pigeon arrived - ah you're all too young to know what that means - Google it - with the message that the master-owner-chef Akrame Benallal has let go the line guy and salle woman (who was today at Lazare) so let's have some reports on this great place.

                                  1. re: John Talbott

                                    4 of us went last week and tried 3 different meats; pork chop, veal chop for 2 and a pièce de boeuf. All were above average but we felt not as good as the same thing the week before at Hugo Desnoyer's new shop in the 16th and Desnoyer was there in person serving large orders of complimentary charcuterie of excellent quality then placing one of his terrines on the table to serve yourself before the gargantuan cuts of meat that we had ordered arrived. I am a trencherman of moderate repute as my girth indicates and there was no way everything got eaten but they graciously prepared doggie bags for take home.

                                    Back to topic, Atelier Vivenda was good, filled to capacity, but we would have been more impressed had we not just been to Desnoyer.

                              2. I can't comment specifically to steak served in France but much of the beef served in Europe is from grass finished animals which is typically not as tender as beef that is grain finished on a feed lot which is where the majority of North American beef comes from.

                                1. Unfortunately, the reliable steak in France, a huge, thick, juicy rib steak, is usually served for 2 people. So you would have to forgo your adventure in order to help her out.

                                  11 Replies
                                  1. re: mangeur

                                    That is the exact answer. l will not even bother to mention my choice of restaurant for that cut, as it has been maligned too much.
                                    lt is my single favorite meal in the world, and l rarely eat beef.

                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                      Thanks, Delucacheesemonger,

                                      Where can we find this steak?

                                      1. re: gfr1111

                                        It is one of Ptipois choices above, l go no further..

                                        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                          Only for the côte de bœuf. It is indeed exceptional there, while not the best in Paris.

                                        2. re: gfr1111

                                          I'll be bold; the restaurant Delucacheesemonger refer to is L'Ami Louis, a controversial, polarizing bistro on this board.

                                          1. re: PBSF

                                            "L'Ami Louis, a controversial, polarizing bistro on this board."
                                            Well said.
                                            1111 - go to one of Pti's other choices,
                                            Bis de Severo
                                            Charbon Rouge
                                            La Maison de l'Aubrac
                                            Christophe
                                            Atelier Vivanda
                                            and the beat goes on.
                                            The problem with L'Ami louis is well, oh, it doesn't matter.

                                            1. re: John Talbott

                                              1111, listen to the man. Or, the men.

                                              But just to put these recs in context, if your girlfriend insists on ordering "steak for one" and requesting it "medium rare", she is going to continue to be served the same old, same old. To quote you, "thin, tough, gristly and expensive." Cooking IS the problem. These steaks shouldn't be cooked past rare.

                                              To repeat, the most reliable steak is the cote de boeuf cooked bleu. You will have to share her order as these are cut to serve two people.

                                              Go to any of the restaurants M. Talbott or Ptipois has recommended, order appropriately and you should be well served. If you have sufficient means and enough attitude to cut through the service issues at DCM's L'Ami Louis, you should be very well satisfied.

                                              1. re: mangeur

                                                It is quite possible to get an entrecôte for one in most of the restaurants I mentioned. It will be a large, thick one, and now that you can get sufficiently marbled meat you can order it medium-rare, it will still be edible.

                                                The best place for that is Charbon Rouge, which serves beef from several breeds and origins, so you can control your "marbré" and decide on the doneness accordingly. They do have Australian wagyu, Argentinian beef, Limousine from France, Simmental from Bavaria, etc. - and it's all on the menu.

                                                I have a special fondness for the house-produced and house-aged beef at La Maison de l'Aubrac, recently I had a côte de bœuf there and it was stellar.

                                              2. re: John Talbott

                                                Thanks, John Talbott, Ptipois, and Delucacheesemonger.

                                                I will keep this list for the next time we go to Paris. (I've only been there once before in my life.) Mystery solved! I am intrigued by the story behind L'Ami Louis but perhaps that is best saved for another thread.

                                                1. re: gfr1111

                                                  About L'Ami Louis, just google "A. A. Gill" and "l'ami Louis" and you'll find a detailed explanation.

                                        3. re: mangeur

                                          1111; I think you might change your mind if you and she shared a good Cote de Boeuf, what US butchers understand as a "single rib cut."

                                        4. For all the gustatorial reasons to go to France, steak is way down on my list. That being said, I have had some wonderful entrecote in a variety of bistros from Verdun through Strassbourg to Lyon.

                                          And the red housewine was always enjoyable.

                                          Next time have her try the chicken.