It’s no secret that Mr Manning and I love steak. This blog is littered with meat, so much so that a vegetarian friend of mine had to point out that he was slightly grossed out by all the pictures of chunks of cow lying around on these posts.
Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to spend a lunchtime cooking, eating, and generally learning about steak, I jumped at it. To mark a recent award for their 12oz Sirloin, steakhouse chain Miller & Carter invited me and a bunch of fellow foodies to a ‘steak school’ event.
Owned by Birmingham-based Mitchells & Butlers, there are now more than 30 Miller & Carters across the country, and five in the Midlands, including the one in the Mailbox – the venue for our meet up. I’ve never been to one before (crazy I know!) and having only been to M&B’s offerings of Harvesters and Toby Carvery, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. What I got was pretty far from a chain restaurant feel. Low-lit, dark and stylish, it has the same mixture of down-to-earth sophistication of the likes of Hawksmoor or Gaucho. There’s a great array of cocktails to start you off, while you struggle to decide what meaty treat to go for, and the staff are not only helpful, but plentiful, which I imagine makes for efficient service on a busy evening.
For this occasion, we weren’t just here to eat. We were here to learn, so had the benefit of a masterclass from Miller & Carter’s kitchen skills trainer Chris ‘Stevo’ Stevenson. With a clear pride in what he does, he took us through the whole process that gets these fabulous hunks of meat onto your plate. I know I, for one, don’t tend to think too much about all the processes that are needed for my steak to get to my plate. Yeah, I know cows are bred, fed, killed, and butchered for my dining pleasure (harsh but true I’m afraid), but it turns out there’s actually quite a bit more to it than that, especially for these guys. I s’pose you’ve got to put the effort in if you expect to beat scoop awards like their recent win in the ‘foodservice’ category of England’s Best Sirloin Steak at the EBLEX Quality Standard Mark Excellence Awards (EBLEX is the organisation for the beef and lamb industry, by the way).
So, how do they do it? Turns out it’s a fairly lengthy 30-month process from start to finish. A labour of love, some might say. For starters, British cows are bred with other continental breeds to give them the right size they need. They’re fed a mix of grain and grass, which apparently is all about the flavour. Everything is ‘red tractored’ – so its standards have been assured. And apparently it’s not just the physical welfare of the cows that’s considered, but their mental wellbeing even down to planning the route they walk to give them the least stress possible. Of course, this is nice for them but also pretty good for us, because apparently if they’re stressed, it doesn’t do the meat any good. Once they’re killed, they’re aged for around 30 days – dry-aged for 12 days, producing great flavour, then ‘wet-aged’ for another 20. Dry ageing is when the beef is hung, or put on a rack to dry. It means the moisture evaporates from the muscle, giving a greater concentration of flavour, and the beef’s natural enzymes also break down the connective tissue in the muscles, which makes it more tender. Wet ageing is when the beef is ages in a vacuum-sealed bag, keeping its moisture. So the combination of the two means you’ve got good flavour, and tender meat that’s still nice and succulent.
After this, it’s off to a special cutting plant in Daventry where master butchers divvy the beasts up into the cuts we get on our table. From there, it’s down to the guys in the restaurant to get it from vacuum pack to plate. This is the bit Stevo compares to a relay race. Everyone else has done their bit, getting you to where you are now, so you don’t want to be the guy in the kitchen who drops the baton by ruining the meat that’s been months in the making. And it turns out it’s not just the cooking that can do this, but even opening the blimin packet, or the way it’s stored.
Each chef at Miller & Carter is specially trained in how to open a packet of steaks. Yes, you did read that right. Woe betide anyone who slashes through the plastic with a knife. ‘Blooming’, the word they give to this process, is far more precise – gently cutting across the plastic with scissors, being careful not to damage the meat, then tenderly lifting each steak out. And you can forget chucking them in the fridge on top of each other. They should be stored on their side, lined up so they’re not putting pressure on each other, until it’s time to cook them.
You should let your meat ‘breathe’ for about 20 minutes before cooking, so it’s at room temperature. It’s then coated in rapeseed oil before it’s popped on the grill to be cooked. And this is where we had the lovely chance of picking out our own badboy and sticking it on the grill ourselves. I’m a die-hard fan of rib-eye, but thought it would be churlish not to try the award-winning sirloin, so picked myself out a beautiful looking hunk of meat, bright red with the trademark strip of fat running along the side, and got to it.
Now, don’t you just love the cross-cross grill marks you get on a steak when you eat out at a restaurant? Sign that a pro’s cooked it hey? Well now I finally know the secret. So, on goes the steak, pointing at 2 o’clock if you imagine a clock face on your grill. Season it well – M&C use sea salt and cracked black pepper (at a 3:1 ratio if you want to be precise). Turn it, and cook for a bit more (obviously the cooking time is gonna depend on how you want the steak cooked). And then, move it round so instead of 2, it’s pointing to 11 o’clock (keeping it on the same side). This will give you that fab diamond shape from the grill. After that, turn one more time to do the other side and bob’s your uncle!
So, enough of the cooking stuff and let’s get to the eating. We were lucky enough to get to try each of the sirloin, rib eye, fillet and almighty chateaubriand. Yeah, I know – wow! Now, I mentioned before that I’m a rib-eye girl, and it was melt-in-the-mouth tender, nicely marbled with all that fatty goodness, and delish as to be expected. But I was surprised when, put side by side, how much I loved the flavour of the sirloin. Yeah, so it wasn’t as tender, but it was a fabulous fabulous flavour – enough to convert me. Of course, it might be that this is Miller & Carter’s ‘cut above the rest, award winning’ sirloin, but I’m going to have to do some more research to see whether I will permanently switch allegiances.
What I loved about Miller & Carter is that you’re not just served a steak, with some afterthought of a few fries and some battered onion rings on the side. This is a well thought-out meal. Each steak comes with fries, a slice of Miller & Carter’s onion load and balsamic glazed tomato, and a choice of lettuce wedge and steak sauce. We were told that the lettuce wedge – literally a massive wedge of lettuce – usually arrives three or so minutes before the steak, giving you a chance to cleanse your palate. Don’t worry, it’s not just lettuce – there’s a choice of dressings, from garlic mayo and Parmesan to bacon and honey mustard.
After that, it’s the main event. The meat comes, resplendent on a board, with little pots of sauce. There’s peppercorn, chimichurri, bearnaise and mushroom chasseur, but my hands-down favourite was the British beef dripping sauce. Yes, I know, not calorie friendly at all, but the concentrated beef taste is just to die for, and further enhances the flavour of the meat.
The onion loaf also gets a massive thumbs up from me. Caramelised onions, baked into an almost bhaji-like texture, and served per slice. I love the addition of onions to things like burgers, steak and hotdogs, I think the sweetness of the onions works really well with meat, but I found this way of doing it far more enjoyable that your average battered onion ring. There was none of that greasy batter that you sometimes get, and you actually got the chance to taste the onion for once.
Miller & Carter serve plenty of other dishes, from burgers and chicken to seafood, salad and risotto, but for me, it’s all about the steak. It is, after all, a steakhouse people, so why would you go there if you didn’t want the cow? After studying the menu, I realised my little lunchtime trip only scratched the surface of the steaks on offer. There’s a whole ‘on the bone’ section I have to try! A return trip is in order, no doubt.
As you probably guessed, I was invited to Miller & Carter to try their steak and learn about it. I wasn’t required to write a positive review, and all the opinions in this piece are honest, and my own.