Steak Out

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ife is too short to eat anything other than the best food, and I'm a dedicated beef eater. In my kitchen, in the tall, slender space of the freezer, sit dozens of squarish, white paper-wrapped packages. Forget the paranoia of Mad Cow Disease and the filth of Super Size Me. In my freezer, I have the remains of a cow that spent its life placidly grazing on thousands of rain-watered acres on a mountain slope in Montana. Without the excess fat of grain-raised beef, without the worries of the cow's health and origins, nothing tastes better.

That's the standard I set for the Inland Northwest's three best steak restaurants when I visited them this summer. I ordered their finest steak, and asked a friend to order another. We drank wine and ate side dishes. Occasionally we ordered dessert. But at almost 13 collective feet in height, we were hungry, and we wanted steaks. I didn't necessarily expect them to compete with the beef that I could eat at home. I simply wanted them to give me that high and heady buzz that comes from eating a good slab of steak.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t Hills' Restaurant and Lounge, the beef has both a pedigree and a trade name: Brandt True Natural. Steve Hill, proprietor of the place, gave me the full rundown, emphasizing its natural and well-traced origins. Several of the steaks on the menu were just ordinary beef (a $15 New York strip and a $25 rib eye), but we skipped those and went with Brandt New York strips. At $24, they fit the region's price range for steak at the high end of the menu.

What Hills' adds to that bill, however, depends on what sauce accompanies the meat. Hills' offers 14 different sauces, ranging in price from $1.50 to $6, making the steak section the most confusing part of the restaurant's menu. (Note to Hills': Add a nightly special to make the process less daunting.) Carmelized Walla Walla onions and Port ($3.50) sounded delicious, as did the comforting bistro classic of Gorgonzola demi glace ($3.50). We settled on a saut & eacute;ed mushroom trio ($2.50), a classic b & eacute;arnaise ($3.50) and sauce au poivre ($3.50).

The meat arrived, and though I like my meat to be as rare as possible (while being burned on the outside if that can be achieved), the steaks at Hills' were a little too thin to be able to sustain a true rare interior. That said, the resultant medium-rare was the juiciest steak I ate on our excursion -- not fatty or bloody juice, but a broth-like, nearly clear liquid that began soaking back into the beef almost as soon as it had been cut free. It mingled on the plate with the sauces and vegetables that Hills' serves as accompaniment, making for the most elegant and cuisine-driven of our steak dinners.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hough I can't swear it, I'll bet that the Brandt steaks served at Hills' are from cows raised mostly on grain rather than grass. The difference is subtle -- grain-fed beef is usually fattier and has a slight brown-butter flavor. Grass-fed beef is leaner and has a lighter, almost herbal aroma. Hills' Brandt steaks had the nutty tenderness of premium beef without the excess fat that usually goes along with it.

At Spencer's, the beef is pricier than anyplace else in town, and greasier too. Each of our New York strips ($35.50 for a 12-ouncer and $40 for 16) arrived, slowly sending out an oily puddle in the middle of a plain white diner-grade platter. From the first bite to the last, though there were pleasures to be found on the plate, a slightly greasy film coated my mouth like beefy lip-gloss.

I could say that the meat was "rich." But no excess in the beef can compensate for the salad of dingy Romaine lettuce ($8) that would have been better and cheaper if it had come from a bag in the grocery store. And the "gratin" of hashbrowns ($7.50) arrived as an oily mass of cheese and potato -- the sort of mush that I would expect to find (and avoid) at a greasy spoon.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here is a certain frivolity in spending so much money on one meal, and that is an important part of the steak dinner. At Spencer's, the fatty beef and lowbrow side dishes were accompanied by a bustling, wood-paneled dining room and one of the best domestic wine lists I've seen in Spokane. At the Wolf Lodge Steakhouse, just east of Coeur d'Alene, they send girls in skimpy cowgirl outfits around to wait tables.

But what the cowgirl waitresses carry is serious. The steaks at the Wolf Lodge Steakhouse were the meatiest, best-cooked examples of beef that we found in the Inland Northwest. Grilled to order over an open flame (the smoke from which infused the crowded cubbyholes of the steakhouse), the beef is given nothing more than a spice rub to enhance its flavor. Our waitress set the steaks in front of us and asked us to "cut them right down the middle and make sure they are done the way you like them."

They were. The Wolf Lodge Steakhouse's New York strips ($26) are huge chunks of meat, thick enough to keep the center of the beef cool when you order it rare, yet not so hefty that they don't cook completely. And even the rarest steak receives a little char on the outside. No sauces or overblown accompaniments here, though fresh whole potatoes split into steak fries proved popular. A small roll, looking like a piece of fry-bread that had been squeezed, was also gobbled up. Everything was made from scratch, with a home-style simplicity and aim towards pleasing.

Though I was told wonderful things about the chocolate cake, I did not have any room left by the end of the meal. I also skipped the Rocky Mountain oysters ($15) because, frankly, I prefer them cooked right after they're cut. The custom-made spice rub intrigued me, but an article on the wall warned me away from trying to replicate the flavor myself. I gave up before I started. By the time we left the Wolf Lodge Steakhouse, there was nothing left to crave. We were stuffed and satisfied with the steakiest steaks in the Inland Northwest.