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Alexander's the Great

New East-West steakhouse could be the best new Silicon Valley restaurant of the year

By Stett Holbrook

SILICON VALLEY doesn't need another steakhouse. We've got plenty, thanks. So when I heard last year about plans for Alexander's Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant near the fading Vallco Fashion Park in Cupertino, I had to stifle a yawn. But just a few steps through the wrought-iron doors of the 5-week-old restaurant and I knew Alexander's wasn't just another expense-account steak-and-martini joint.

While Alexander's gives well-shod carnivores the red meat fix they're looking for and then some, the restaurant transcends the steak and potato concept with superior ingredients, a stunning dining room and an ambitious East-West menu.

Alexander's is a partnership between executive chef Jeffrey Stout and general manager James "J.C." Chen. The two met while working at the California Cafe in Palo Alto. Chen, who adopted the middle name Alexander upon emigrating from China, is a second generation restaurateur. Stout, who went from the California Cafe to become research and development chef for the California Cafe's corporate owner, also worked at fine dining establishments including the Blackhawk Grille in Danville, the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley and Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley. A Bay Area native, he grew up with a Japanese mother and Anglo father, an upbringing he says formed his Asian and European cooking style, a sensibility that's well reflected at Alexander's.

First and foremost, Alexander's is a steakhouse. You know that as soon as you step in the door and gape at the glass-encased wall of meat to your left. The hulking cuts of beef are dry-aged for nearly a month. Dry-aging beef produces a supremely tender, flavorful cut of meat. As the beef ages in a climate-controlled locker, it loses moisture and concentrates flavor. Meanwhile, enzymes in the beef start to break down connective tissue in the muscle, tenderizing the meat. Because of the loss of moisture and the outer layer of mold that has to be trimmed away, dry aged beef is expensive. But if you're after a buttery, flavorful steak, this is where it's at.

Next to the wall of beef, Alexander's operates a retail meat counter that sells many of the cuts of beef on the menu. Behind the meat counter, you can peep into one of the restaurant's two kitchens, a clinically clean room where the restaurant's nonmeat items are made. The meat station, with a grill that can supposedly handle 50 steaks, is a few steps past the restaurant's swank, fireplace-lit lounge and bar.

The dining room, which is divided into a large central area and two smaller rooms, is huge and seats 200 people. There's also an outdoor patio that holds another 60 people, as well as a clubby VIP room up a wide flight of stairs. The orchids set around the dining room, the rice paper-like panels that separate the rooms and the dark, earthy colors give the place an elegant Asian ambience. And I don't know about the ladies' room, but the men's restroom, with its stone trough-style sink, is one of the coolest I've ever seen.

Kobe Shopper

Alexander's will probably be best known for its Kobe beef, an ultrapremium brand of beef imported from Japan. To be called Kobe beef, the meat must come from Kobe and meet strict standards. The beef itself comes from the black-haired Wagyu breed of cattle. The animals are genetically predisposed to produce intense fat marbling, the trait that makes them so flavorful and expensive.

While generally confined to pens, Wagyu cattle live a pampered life. In the hot summer months, the animals can lose their appetite so handlers give them beer to help them get back in the eating mood. They also receive massages to soften and distribute the layer of fat just beneath their hides. Cattlemen use oil or sake to rub them down, giving the cattle a smooth look that can bring a higher price at livestock auctions.

Beef is graded according its marbling. U.S. prime is the highest grade, but Kobe beef is off the charts. The cherry-red meat is streaked with fat, maki ng the meat much more tender and rich. And more expensive. According to Chen, the restaurant pays $85 a pound for its Kobe. At the restaurant's retail meat counter, 10 ounces goes for $100.

My first taste of Kobe beef at Alexander's was the Kobe beef cheeseburger ($20). A $20 burger had better be damned good. And it was. All the elements were there. The 8-ounce patty was cooked perfectly medium rare. The meat fairly melted in the mouth with juicy, teeth-not-required tenderness. A slice of melted truffled cheese further gilded the burger, and the crusty roll held it all together. My only complaint was that the house-made pickles lacked sufficient bite. The burger needed a vinegary counterpoint to offset its richness. But Abbie Hoffman was right: Sacred cows do make the tastiest hamburgers.

If you have a hard time swallowing a $20 burger, you may balk at the $100 Kobe beef entree. That's right, 100 bucks. When I asked our server if it was really worth the money, he of course said yes and began to wax on about the virtues of the dish. To illustrate his point, he presented me with two complimentary slices of Kobe beef sashimi, raw meat wrapped around a sheaf of daikon radish. It was a nice gesture, but then customers considering spending that much money on dinner may need a little coaxing.

For a trip to Kobe beef heaven, a C-note is actually a good deal. The dish is a steak-lover's dream. The dish offers Kobe beef served two ways: an eye of rib steak and a coiled ribeye cap, an exquisitely tender cut from the tip of the ribeye. The dish is scattered with shiitake mushrooms and roasted garlic and anointed with kabayaki sauce, a light sauce made of rice wine and soy sauce that marries well with the meat. The steaks are almost tender enough to cut with a fork. In my mouth, chewing it was like eating steak-flavored butter. One hundred dollars is an obscene amount of money to spend on one dish so savor every bite. I did.

For less damage to your wallet, try the 2-pound bone-in ribeye ($39) or 20-ounce New York steak ($39). These hulking, Flintstone-sized cuts of meat showcase dry aged beef in all its succulent glory.

Chef Stout is fond of multiple flavor combinations and preparing the same ingredient different ways on the same plate. A good example is "All 4 Love" ($39), another meat-lover's fantasy. The dish offers skirt steak, prime rib, braised beef and Kobe beef sashimi, each item served on a small square plate, all of which sits on a larger square plate. It's an impressive presentation. Each item tastes different enough that you're impressed without being overwhelmed by beef. "Duck, duck, goose" ($32) is another riff on a theme. The dish combines succulent duck confit, juicy roasted duck breast and a sybaritic slab of seared foie gras. "Melange a Trois" ($36) does the same thing for seafood, an octopus's garden of Maine lobster, tempura shrimp, incredibly rich miso-glazed black cod, tempura vegetables and feathery hijiki seaweed. The dish is served on a custom-made glass plate that looks like an open oyster shell. It's a stunner but too busy once you dig in. Halfway through the dish it became hard to tell what was what.

Culinary High-Wire Acts

It's easy to drop some serious cabbage at Alexander's. If you're there for steak, especially Kobe beef, that's unavoidable. But the restaurant really offers two menus in one; the big-ticket entrees and the small-plate items along the left side of the menu. Not only are these dishes more affordable than the rest of the menu, they're some of the most exciting food the restaurant serves. Marinated hamachi ($11), slices of yellowtail tuna stacked with pickled ginger, avocado and red jalapeño resting on a shallow pool of slurpworthy ponzu sauce, is a visually impressive burst of bright clean flavors. The Hokkaido scallops ($12) could come out of a jewelry story display case. Plump, seared day-boat scallops are topped with a plum compote and crispy prosciutto lapped by a basil oil-dappled buerre blanc sauce. These are culinary high-wire acts that the kitchen pulls off with ease.

Other standouts on the menu include the pea shoot salad with pork belly ($8) from the lunch menu, the truffle oil-accented bacon and asparagus salad ($9) and the superb charcuterie plate ($14), a sampling of foie gras, duck rillet and smoked chicken terrine, and veal tongue terrine.

Alexander's encyclopedic, leather-bound wine list is thicker than some city phone books, but sommelier Eric Entrikin has created a list that is designed to pull you in rather than intimidate. Throughout the list there are suggestions and short personal stories about selected wines that make the wines more accessible.

The restaurant's small army of servers is well schooled in the menu and the wine list, and while they can sound a little programmed as they describe items on the menu, they offer the kind of professional service you'd expect at a restaurant of Alexander's caliber.

Desserts ($8) follow the multi-item style of the entrees. "Déjá Vu" is a tour of childhood desserts gone by—superrich butterscotch pudding, tiny slices of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, s'mores and a tiny strawberry milkshake. The dessert could be a heavy-handed gimmick in lesser hands but it works at Alexander's because of superb technique and ingredients. But "passion for ginger" wasn't quite as successful. The dessert combines a curiously effervescent ginger panna cotta with a too sweet mango cobbler and a stick-in-your-teeth macadamia brittle.

The well-thought-out wine suggestions opposite each dessert are another example of the restaurant's user-friendly wine program.

Alexander's is much more than a steakhouse. It's the most exciting restaurant to open in Silicon Valley in a long time and is on its way to becoming a rare bird in the South Bay—a destination restaurant.

Alexander's Steakhouse
Address: 10330 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino.
Phone: 408.446.2222.
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-3pm Mon-Sat, dinner 5:30pm-10pm Mon-Thu and 5:30-11pm Fri and Sat; brunch 10:30am-3pm and dinner 5:30pm Sun.
Price range: $18-$100.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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