Skip the Cabernet: Pair Bourbon with Your Steak

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published by the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/16/18

Chef Kyle Johnson & me inside the Bourbon Steak LA kitchen
My quest to grill the perfect steak took me to Glendale a few days ago. Bourbon Steak LA is a Michael Mina restaurant and one of a handful of Bourbon Steak outlets across the country, in cities like Washington DC, Nashville and Las Vegas. At any one of these culinary havens, steak reigns supreme.
I spent the afternoon with Chef Kyle Johnson, a Vegas native and New York City transplant who’s been helming the kitchen at Bourbon Steak LA for four years. The restaurant is located at Americana at Brand, an elegantly cozy shopping complex designed by mogul Rick Caruso (the same man behind the construction – finally! – of the Rosewood Miramar Beach Resort in Montecito) and features a menu of 14-oz New York Strips, 20-oz Cowboy Ribeyes and 32-oz. Porterhouses for two. I came to explore the world of filet mignon.
I learned a lot about this cut, a part of the cow that’s rarely used, which makes it super tender and soft by nature. It’s bright red when freshest, with intermittent veins of fat, and it doesn’t need a whole lot of seasoning beyond cracked pepper and sea salt on all sides to enhance flavors. Chef Johnson sets his filets in a warm butter-and-herbs bath for 20 minutes before setting them on the grill. “It’ll start to warm the steak through and it’ll start to disperse the fats… and really start to melt those down.”
On a really hot grill, he bastes the filet continually with a house-made red wine butter and allows smoke from hickory wood chips to swathe the filet. Two minutes per side for medium rare, and then “let it rest, let it rest, let it rest.” Suffice it to say, this filet mignon (an eight-ounce center cut, accompanied by a seasonal trio set of vegetables, sells for $50 on the Bourbon Steak LA menu) was delectable.
One eye-opener for me during this visit was Chef’s Johnson liquid match for my filet: bourbon. Sure, the name on the marquis should have clued me in to the fact that this restaurant makes more than 50 whiskeys available by the glass. But as a pair for a beautiful steak?
“The high acidity form the alcohol and the heat from the alcohol cuts through a lot of the fat,” says the chef. “There’s a lot of butter, a lot of ample fats… and it helps cut a lot of that.”
And he was right. The bourbon almost acted like a palate cleanser between bites, prepping my tastes buds for the next soft, supple bite of filet. And the subtle sweetness of some of the bourbons we tasted, as well as the fruit-driven aromatics, also added structure and a fair share of nuance to the filet experience.
Sipping bourbon between bites will be different than if you were drinking a big, beautiful red wine, which would have been my knee-jerk reaction choice. With an alcohol content about three times that of wine, you’ll want to taste bourbon slowly and carefully. But the extra bite to each sip actually inspires you to slow your meal down and, in a surprisingly wonderful way, savor even the most delicious cut of meat just a little bit more.
The whiskeys Chef Johnson shared as “three of my favorites,” included Whistle Pig Straight Rye, aged 10 years, made in Vermont and distilled in Canada; Angel’s Envy from Louisville, Kentucky, which is aged in port casks for more depth and complexity; and Eagle Rare, also from Kentucky and perfect for “everyday drinking,” according to the chef, with bold but approachable citrus and honey flavors.
When I pressed him for a red wine match, Chef Johnson turned to Santa Barbara County: the Bordeaux-inspired Habit Red Blend by winemaker Jeff Fischer. The wine is supple and structured, with elegant tannins and integrated flavors of oak and red fruits. A blend of cabernet franc (43%), merlot (27%), petit verdot (14%) and cabernet sauvignon (13%), it’s sourced from the McGinley, Curtis and Grassini Vineyards in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley.
What I learned: red wine or bourbon, if the filet mignon is done well (and when I say “well”, I mean “medium rare”), it all works.
By the way, Bourbon Steak LA features Happy Hour daily from 4-7pm, with many plates discounted 50%, and half-off select bottles of wine every Monday night.

Travelzoo has negotiated an exclusive op with Chef Johnson for dinner for two at Bourbon Steak LA, for visits through October 31, check it out!
Bourbon Steak LA, 237 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. 818-839-4130.
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