Restaurant reviews and online resources like Yelp are great ways to find a good place to dine out, but being impulsive can sometimes pay off, too. As Ben Folds sings, “There’ll be times you might leap before you look; there’ll be times you like the cover, and that’s precisely why you’ll love the book.”
A leap of that kind on a cold December night in Denver brought us to a steakhouse, a stop based entirely on the appeal of a 1950s-era neon sign. If we liked the typeface on the sign, we figured, surely we’d like the steaks. As it turned out, the steaks were even better and more unique than the sign outside beckoning us to come in.
The steakhouse, Bastien’s, has a unique specialty. Had we known that the restaurant bills itself as “home of the sugar steak,” we might have just kept on driving, but fortunately they didn’t have room to spell that out in neon. Lucky for us, because while a sweet steak sounds like a terrible idea, if executed properly, it’s delicious. The steak that arrived on the table was even more visually intriguing than the sign outside, with a dark, almost black, shiny exterior that looked like well-seasoned cast iron. The texture and taste were just the opposite, though.
The sugar steak is rubbed with a combination of sugar and some of the spices traditionally used in steak rubs. At high heat, the sugar caramelizes, providing the steak with a toothy crust that seals in the meat’s juices. The sugar rub also contains salt and spices, so the overall taste isn’t sweet at all.
The sugar is also a natural tenderizer, and for best results is applied twice: first, an hour or more before cooking, and then again just before the meat hits the grill. While the sugar has to get hot enough to caramelize, it’s important to keep it from burning, which will give the crust a bitter taste.
Bastien’s technique to avoid burning is frequent turning, over a hot (about 900 degrees) fire. While the standard rule of thumb is to only flip meat on the grill once, the steakhouse turns the meat at least four times so that the sugar melts but doesn’t have time to burn. The restaurant only serves sugar steaks cooked rare or medium-rare in order to keep the sugar from burning, so it’s not a technique that works for those who prefer their steaks just a little pink.
The sugar rub can be used on any cut of steak, either a boneless cut such as a strip steak or a bone-in ribeye, T-bone or Porterhouse. Because it creates such an effective seal that can keep meat from drying out, it’s especially well-paired with boneless cuts, which can get dry more quickly.
While the basic ratio of sugar to salt is designed to produce the darkest, crispiest charred outer coating possible, there’s room for personalizing the other spices, using paprika, cayenne, or onion or garlic powder.