In praise of filet mignon: Maligned by chefs yet still beloved

From www.chicagotribune.com by Bill Daley
In praise of filet mignon: Maligned by chefs yet still beloved

Filet mignon was not the first steak I ever tasted, but it was the first one I really liked. It holds a special place in my gastronomic heart, because this pricey cut, taken from the tenderloin, eventually opened my mind - and mouth - to other beef cuts I had routinely spurned.

Steak was frequently served in my house when I was growing up. My father adored it and was horribly exacting in choosing, cooking and serving it. Grilling the night's steak often fell to me - a fiendish job as my father would pace impatiently around the backyard chain-smoking and with timer in hand. God save you if the steak in question tarried on the grill a second after the timer bell went off. Needless to say, steak dinners were not relaxing occasions for me, and I rebelled by refusing to eat the steak I had been forced to cook. Until that filet mignon.

The meat was cooked rare, as always. Yet this steak looked sanely sized - a tidy round wrapped in a collar of fat tied in place with butcher's twine. One snip of the scissors and the fat fell away, leaving an incredibly tender steak blessedly free of the greasy gristle and chewy char found on the other steaks my parents tried to force on me.

Today, I don't eat a lot of steak. Thanks to that filet mignon, I've learned to appreciate other cuts - even a skirt steak when I want some gutsy texture and full-throttle beef flavor. But when it comes to a special occasion or even just-because, I still look to filet mignon. It's tender, delicious and plays well with various sauces from bearnaise to mustard butter to Worcestershire. It's costly, yes, but is an edible way to show family and friends how much you care.

But be warned: Filet mignon is not a hip, happening cut. Some chefs sneer, faulting its flavor and high price. Still, filet mignon's special status is reflected in the fact that it is the "most frequently menued" steak by full-service restaurants, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Food service operations purchased 169 million pounds of filet mignon/tenderloin in 2017, up 7.6 percent from 2016, the association reports, while at the retail level, filet mignon/tenderloin is the fifth best-selling steak cut dollar-wise from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the classic grilling season. Sales were also up 4.9 percent for the first four months of 2018 compared with 2017, which the association notes is a $241 million increase.

What is filet mignon? "The New Food Lover's Companion" defines it thusly: "This expensive, boneless cut of beef comes from the small end of the tenderloin. The filet mignon is usually 1 to 2 inches thick and 1 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. It's extremely tender but lacks the flavor of beef with bone attached. Cook filet mignon quickly by broiling, grilling or sauteeing."

The tenderloin is one of the two main muscles found in the short loin, which lies in the "middle of the back between the sirloin and the rib," according to the "Companion." These muscles "do little that can toughen them." A tenderloin can be sold as a roast, the "Companion" notes, or cut into steaks and sold as filet mignon.

Allen Brothers' No. 1- selling steak is filet mignon, said Pat Ansboury, vice president of operations for the 125-year-old, Bridgeport-based company. It is also Allen Brothers' most expensive steak, because, as he wrote in a follow-up email, "the tenderloin is the most tender cut of beef and is also arguably the most desirable and therefore the most expensive, especially when it comes to a barrel-cut filet or as you say a 'filet mignon.'"

Watching Allen Brothers butchers expertly trim a whole 7.68-pound tenderloin to obtain three 9-ounce, barrel-cut filet mignon steaks dramatically underscored why the steaks are expensive: There's so little left at the end of the process. But those filets offer a tenderness and a leanness that matter to many. (Ansboury said that if you like one pat of butter on your baked potato, then filet mignon is the cut for you. Four to five pats of butter? Go with a New York Strip or a rib-eye, he said.)

Yet, filet mignon doesn't get a lot of respect, especially in some cheffy circles, because it's believed to lack flavor.

The late Anthony Bourdain put down the tenderloin from which filet mignon is cut in a 2017 video for Business Insider, describing it as "the most boring and uninteresting piece of meat on the animal," a cut considered an industry "joke" that is "looked down on by chefs. We never order it." In a 2013 Thrillist piece on the most overrated and underrated cuts of meat, a number of chefs took aim at either filet mignon or the tenderloin, including Chicago chef Paul Kahan.

"There's no flavor or fat, and the texture is horrible," Kahan said of tenderloin at the time. Today, Kahan chose his words more diplomatically: "It's the tofu of steak."

Faced with a piece of filet mignon, Kahan said he would "sear the crap out of it to get a super-dark fond," which are those extra-flavorful caramelized brown bits you get in cooking. He'd also baste it with "a whole lot of butter when finishing in the pan" and keep the meat pretty rare. The cut is so lean, he noted, that cooking it past medium-rare would make the meat fibrous and unappetizing. He contrasted this work on the filet to "putting salt and pepper on a good rib-eye, and that's as good as it gets."

"It's not my personal favorite," Kahan said. Given the cost, filet "just doesn't taste that delicious.

"People love tenderloin. Who am I not to say it's a great steak?" he added. "It's a great vehicle for added flavors."

Ansboury himself would agree. He calls filet mignon a "canvas" for sauces, toppings and bacon.

That's fine with me, especially the bacon. I've always appreciated the cut's milder flavor. Another who recognizes this quality is chef John Manion of Chicago's El Che Bar.

"I've got a (expletive) rib-eye tattooed on my arm, and I can recognize the subtle beauty of a filet mignon," Manion wrote in an email. "Everything has to be turned up to 11 these days. As I often say, filet isn't for every day, but the days it IS for are pretty great."

Manion told me in a telephone call that "not every cut of meat has to have a big bone and lots of fat. We've turned our backs on subtlety."

He likes to serve filet mignon with a mustard sauce that recalls a dish he enjoyed at one of his favorite cafes in Buenos Aires. A filet can also work with a simple green salad or sliced tomatoes and blue cheese (both options favored by my dad too).

"Our customers love it," he added, noting that of the five cuts of beef offered every night, some 25 percent to 30 percent of the orders are for filet mignon.

"Filet is beautiful," Manion said. "The texture is great; there's a great subtle flavor.

"The filet is not for every time, but for sometimes," he said. "There's room for everything. I'm not dismissing the beauty of a humongous rib-eye. If we're going to honor the cow, everything has its place."

I'd agree. Everything does have its place - even tofu, which in my love of all foods Chinese became an element of my diet and something my father could not and would not ever understand. Yet, for all his fussing and fuming about steak - and his unhealthy habit of eating way too much of it way too often - my father did teach me a valuable lesson about being able to enjoy a variety of meat cuts. For me, filet mignon has become just one steak option I can enjoy when it fits my mood, my appetite and my budget. Thanks, Dad.

wdaley@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @billdaley

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