Where was the best steak of Governor Ralph Northam’s life? Right here in Charlottesville.
Northam was in town to speak at the inauguration of James Ryan as president of the University of Virginia, and joined me afterwards for dinner. Given the occasion and guest, I chose Prime 109, which opened last month in the former Bank of America building on the Downtown Mall. From my prior visits, the new steakhouse seemed worthy of the celebration: a spectacular space with food to match. Indeed, our steaks were extraordinary.
But, what makes the steaks so good? Sure, the chefs are part of the answer. It’s the same talented team that runs the acclaimed pizzeria Lampo. The answer really begins, though, with someone who does not even work at Prime 109—their meat supplier, Ryan Ford. For years, Ford has been working on a problem he first encountered while running a butcher shop selling Virginia meat. In short, Virginia has an abundance of great cattle, but no easy path from farm to table.
Ford’s solution is Seven Hills, a Lynchburg meat company he launched in 2015 that instantly became the commonwealth’s largest independent slaughter facility. Ford’s mission is to connect Virginia farmers who care about the quality of their product with consumers who care about where their food comes from. The key is “vertical integration,” Ford says. Instead of processing cattle and returning meat to farms, like some facilities do, Seven Hills buys cattle from farms and handles all the rest: processing, aging, packaging, and distribution.
Relieved of the burden of sales and distribution, farmers can focus on what they do best. “Let the farmers farm,” says Ford. Also benefiting are customers, who have greater access to Virginia beef than ever before. Seven Hills sources only from farms that meet its high standards, and its humane, state-of-the art facility allows it to trace everything it sells back to the originating farm.
Ford’s hope is that this can change the way we eat beef. He envisions a Virginia where consumers expect to know where their meat comes from, whether they’re buying it at the supermarket or ordering it at a restaurant, and even grow to learn which farms they like best. Northam is on board. “As I travel the commonwealth, I see folks making it a priority to know where their food is coming from,” said Northam. “This benefits everyone—prioritizing local farms helps our economy, and customers become better educated about their food choices.”
Prime 109, which buys all of its beef from Seven Hills, is on board too, buying entire animals at a time. This, Ford says, is unheard of among steakhouses, which generally buy pre-fabricated cuts of bestsellers. In a typical 800-pound animal, classic steakhouse cuts comprise just 10-20 percent of the meat. What to do with the rest?
Cue Ian Redshaw, winner of this year’s Best of C-VILLE award for Best Chef. Determined not to waste a thing, he breaks down whole sides of beef and finds uses for it all: roasts, braises, terrines, stocks, burgers, sausages, and more.
As a dinner guest, Northam, whom I had met briefly a few times before, could not have been more pleasant. He grew up on a farm on the Eastern Shore, and nine months as the commonwealth’s most powerful man have done nothing to his affable, aw shucks demeanor. “Hi, I’m Ralph,” he would introduce himself to servers. On being governor, he told me, “It’s almost surreal that I am doing this.”
We sat at the chef’s counter, a marble bar perched beside the open wood-fired grill where we watched Redshaw cook. The concept for the food is familiar steakhouse dishes, enhanced. Unlike many steakhouses, Prime 109 is doing some serious cooking, with a team of cooks who have been head chefs of other top kitchens, including Lampo, Tavola, and Pippin Hill.”
Take Northam’s wedge salad. Iceberg lettuce rests beneath Bayley Hazen blue cheese, pickled onions, confit tomatoes, and beef bacon made from the bellies of beef that’s been dry-aged for 200 days. In a riff on buttermilk dressing, Prime 109 creates an herb dressing from kefir (house made fermented milk), tart and creamy. “Delicious,” Northam said. “Could be a meal unto itself.”
In our Oysters Rockefeller, Northam was thrilled to find Tangier Island oysters. “I am biased, but it’s hard to beat oysters from the Eastern Shore,” said Northam, who once worked on a construction crew that built the runway for Tangier Island’s airport, and after his term hopes to resume growing oysters himself. Covered in sautéed spinach and then broiled, the oysters were topped with a fonduta made by applying nitrogen dioxide to a blend of raclette cheese, cream, and nutmeg. Dehydrated shallots added crunch and punch.
Tangier Island oysters made another appearance in a showstopper of a side, a special that evening: “Oysters and Pearls” stuffing. First, oysters were cooked sous-vide and emulsified, and the resulting liquid was poured over pieces of bread made from Prime 109’s Parker House roll dough, drizzled with beef marrow drippings. Whole smoked oysters were then stirred into the stuffing, and the whole thing was baked and topped with Osetra caviar. “Really nice,” said Northam.
Then there were the steaks. Prime 109 offers meat that’s been dry-aged—a process that tenderizes the beef and concentrates flavor. Meat ages better if hung in very large pieces or as a whole side, which Seven Hills does at its facility and Prime 109 continues at the restaurant for optimal aging. This is a costly process, in part because of the labor, but also because of the weight loss. A 16-ounce dry-aged steak might have been 18 or 20 ounces before aging. Buying whole carcasses and butchering meat in-house allows Prime 109 to cut costs, and pass on savings to guests.
To be sure, this does not mean the steaks are cheap. Prices per steak currently range from $24-86, and toppings are extra. But it does mean that Prime 109 can afford to offer a unique product that, to my knowledge, is available at no other steakhouse: Virginia heritage beef, aged for 60 days or more. As one friend described the experience: “Expensive but underpriced.”
Can you really taste the difference? As a barometer to compare with other steakhouses, Northam chose a classic cut, New York Strip. The verdict? “Best piece of meat I’ve ever had,” he said.
I asked Redshaw to choose mine, and my reward was a 200-day-aged picanha, topped with an indulgent blend of burgundy truffles, onions agrodolce made with fish sauce, house chimichurri sauce, béarnaise, and demi-glace. Oh my. “That looks like a work of art,” Northam said. Tasted like one, too. The toppings might have overwhelmed a lesser steak, but the long dry-aging gave the meat a concentrated, earthy flavor that, like a good blue cheese, held up well. Though I often enjoy steak unadorned, this was one of my best steak experiences in memory.
As governor, Northam considers it part of his job to be an ambassador for Virginia. “We have really been trying to promote farm-to-table,” says Northam. Prime 109 could be his chief of staff.