For years, when every European neighborhood had its own butcher shop, with women lined up in the afternoons to buy meat for her family’s supper, the butcher took home the cheap, odd bits that no one wanted. These came to be known as “butcher’s cut” and were the best-kept secret in the business. From the steer, there were flaps of meat covered with silver skin and sinew, which, when peeled away, revealed lovely little steaks.
As with many things on the menu that originated from saving scraps or making do, all those cuts are now in demand — and they carry higher price tags than ever. Many land up on bistro menus in the classic French steak frites because the meat turns out to be very flavorful. All those butchers were right! Think of this beef as the antidote to tenderloin (filet mignon or fillet), which lacks real flavor and satisfying texture; the other cuts can be appealingly rope-y, with a little chew, and plenty of meaty taste.
When the phenomenon first caught on, chefs served hanger steak (onglet in French), which is rich and beefy, but there’s one per animal. If you’re a chef using it, you’re probably scrambling to keep up. “It’s been elevated to designer status,” says John Dewar, sales ambassador of T.F. Kinnealey & Co., based in Brockton.
Among the butcher’s cuts is skirt steak, which is very thin and not very steak-looking (it might appear cut-up in Asian and Latin American dishes). Another is the sirloin flap, the beef industry’s dark horse, called “flap meat,” “faux hanger,” and “bavette,” its French name. “Flap meat” doesn’t sound very sexy and faux-anything has a negative connotation, so bavette wins as the catchy title.
At Sycamore in Newton Centre, David Punch’s warm neighborhood bistro, steak frites comes with a 9-ounce bavette, thickly sliced, herb butter like the classic maitre d’hotel, red-wine jus made with the steak trimmings, and house fries (to die for!), hand-cut from russet potatoes, cooked twice in the French style, and served with aioli ($32). The juicy slices of steak have deliciously crusty edges and a slightly smoky taste.
It’s from Painted Hills in Oregon, from cows raised on grass and finished on corn. Punch says the group has a “never-ever policy” about antibiotics and growth hormones.
If you’ve ordered steak tips at a bar, says the chef, “it’s bavette cut into pieces.” He describes the meat, when it comes into the kitchen, looking like a “gigantic skate wing.” He gets four or five steaks from each sirloin flap, and double that for the two flaps on each cow. He might sell a dozen a night; 20 when it’s very busy. When he cooked at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, the price point was so low, he says, “I started to get into funkier cuts, secondary cuts, more out of necessity.”
Sycamore cooks under chef Lydia Reichert remove the silver skin and sinew from the bavette and make Bordelaise sauce with them. They cook the bavette on a gas grill into which they load wood chips, to add smokiness. Punch, who also owns Little Big Diner and the new Buttonwood, both also in Newton, thinks all cooks should use the testing method they’re most comfortable with to check the meat’s doneness.
That means experienced cooks press a steak with a finger, or use a cake tester inserted into the meat, then tapped on the wrist, and others rely on a Thermapen, a favorite chef’s tool for measuring temperatures. “Once you’ve cooked enough of one cut,” says Punch, “you can get a feel for them.”
The Newton Centre storefront where the restaurant is located once housed John Dewar & Co. butcher shop, which carried some of the best meat in the region. Now it turns out beautiful juicy steaks from a once under-utilized cut with a flourish of sauces and unbeatable frites. 755 Beacon St., Newton Centre, 617-244-4445, www.sycamorenewton.com.Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.