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Lowering the steaks

Hot, beefy sandwiches give diners a taste of the steakhouse experience at a gentler price. The steak sandwich has been a regular on pub and casual-dining menus for years. What better way to cross-utilize prime leftovers from dinner or grill up a thinner cut that is not destined for the center of the plate? But lately, this reliable workhorse is getting a spiffy new look. Menu makers at midpriced concepts are upgrading the sandwich with artisan breads, flavorful spreads, and specialty ingredients. And chefs in upscale restaurants are paying more attention to its execution, offering customers a chance to enjoy a high-quality steak without breaking the bank. At the Smith & Wollensky chain, for example, a sliced steak sandwich costs $8 less than the least expensive à la carte steak on the menu.

At The Fireplace, a rustic fine-dining restaurant in Brookline, MA, the wood-burning stone fireplace that greets guests also helps shape the menu. Grilling and roasting are big here, although the cooking is done on a custom grill and rotisserie in the exhibition kitchen—not in the fireplace.

Steak appears in several places on the dinner menu (avg. entree price, $21). Recent selections include Grilled Aged Sirloin with horseradish scallion cream, creamy hash browns & grilled zucchini ($26) and Grilled Flank Steak with new potato salad ($18). Since The Fireplace dry-ages all its beef in-house, it's a natural leap to cross-utilize it in lunchtime sandwiches. In the cooler weather, chef-owner Jim Solomon layers wood-grilled, sliced sirloin and red wine-soaked, sautéed onions on a baguette and serves it with cornmeal-dusted crispy fried onion rings. For summer, he sandwiches the grilled sirloin with sautéed wild mushrooms, porcini gravy, and horseradish cream and tops it with green apple slaw for textural and temperature contrast. The sandwiches run $9-$10.

"I started out using ribeye, but changed to sirloin to keep food costs in line," Solomon says. "We used to cut up the whole sirloin for dinner steaks, but I never felt comfortable selling the ends for the same price as the center cuts, so now we use the ends for sandwiches." He's still working to perfect the bread portion of the sandwich, looking at choices that are closer to brioche. "I want guests to really get their mouths around the sandwich and enjoy all those great juices. The baguette is a little too weighty."

The small plates craze influences the steak sandwich served at Meson G, a 150- seat Hollywood, CA, spot recently opened by husband-and-wife restaurateurs Tim and Liza Goodell. Their chic bill of fare focuses on contemporary Mediterranean fare served in scaled down sizes. In the "meat" section of the dinner menu, Grilled Sirloin with Cabrales blue cheese and melted onions is offered as a small plate for $13. At lunch, the sirloin is marinated, seared, and slow-roasted. Then it's sliced paper-thin and served au jus on Italian country bread for $12. "It's a real traditional French Dip," says Tim Goodell. "The thinly sliced steak is piled high on a ciabatta-type bread and we grill the bread for extra flavor."

Perhaps today's steak sandwich trend can be attributed to the recent success of paninis and other specialty sandwiches. Several concepts have now reinterpreted the classic steak sandwich by clamping it in a sandwich press or grilling it on the flattop. That's the theme at the Willoughby, OH-based Panini's Bar and Grill, a 14-unit, regional casual-dining chain known as "the home of the overstuffed sandwich." Here, a hoagie roll is filled with grilled steak that is smothered in grilled mushrooms and onions and topped with mozzarella cheese. The sandwich is heated on a panini grill to melt the cheese and create the popular Hot Buttered Cheesesteak ($5.59).

And Denver, CO-based Quiznos, the first QSR to toast subs, now offers steak on a couple of its offerings. A trendy addition is Black Angus Steak on Rosemary Parmesan Bread with mozzarella, cheddar, mushrooms, sautéed onions, honey bourbon mustard and zesty "grille" sauce ($4.59-$8.29), on baguette-style bread and toasted golden-brown.

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