A 29 Steak
David Friel has been the Head Chef at 29 The Grill Room on Glasgow’s Exchange Square since it opened in 2006.
With spectacular views over Royal Exchange Square, The Grill Room specialises in selected, certified Scotch beef and local seafood, as well as prime USDA beef and Wagyu beef.
Over the years, The Grill Room has accumulated multiple awards and has welcomed many a high profile guest.
In this interview, David discusses the best steaks, food fashions and feeding the famous.
5pm: Who comes to The Grill Room?
DF: We market it as being for everyone. It’s not just the so called ‘movers and shakers’ although we do get plenty of them. We have been fortunate that we have had the last two Labour Prime Ministers for dinner. We have done an awful lot of top end stuff. James (Mortimer), who owns the company, brings a great deal of the top end business but it’s there for everyone.
5pm: I’ve read that when times are tough, say when a recession is on, people tend to order the more familiar or traditional dishes, such as prawn cocktails. Did you see that a few years back?
DF: I think dishes like that are always popular. If I put a prawn cocktail, a steak and a chocolate dessert on the menu on a Saturday night then they would account for around 75% of the sales. They are the three most popular dishes.
Whether it is a traditional prawn cocktail or a more modern interpretation, that is what customers tend to buy. Regardless of what chefs want to do, there are certain dishes which will always sell.
5pm: That must be difficult. Chefs spend ages training; you get the new produce in for each season and you want to innovate. You don’t want to do the same dish all the time, year in, year out. You want to give the customers something new but, at the same time, you have to give the customers what they want.
DF: Exactly! We do sell a lot of others things. There are more customers now than ever who are a bit more experimental and will try different things whenever they are out. They will try something that they have heard about, but never tried. I know I’m like that.
5pm: In Glasgow, at the moment, it can seem as though every second new opening is selling burgers, hot dogs or barbeque. What trends or fashions do you see coming through?
DF: The burger thing is a trend that happened a few years ago and is still there. There are a lot more retro dishes coming back. Old fashioned things like braised beef cheeks. I guess it’s classic stuff with a bit of a twist.
We do a Wagyu burger, which is very popular, very tasty. I don’t think it’s our place to try and compete with the burger places. At the same time, I don’t think a burger is that far out of place on a grill room menu. We are not a fine dining restaurant. We are a steakhouse first and foremost.
5pm: Can you ever see classic French cooking coming back and having the same sort of trendy cult status?
DF: Yeah, I think so. I think there is actually a French fast food group about to hit London. I can’t remember the name (possibly Chez Antoinette).
If you go to France or Paris, there are stacks of places offering a French take on fast food. No-one wants to spend two or three hours to have lunch these days. Instead, there are lots of bistros and so on where it is all relatively fast. I can see that coming here.
We are about to launch our new business lunch. It will be slightly cheaper than the one we already do. It will be available Monday to Friday, noon to three, and, while customers can take as long as they want over lunch, it will have dishes which make it easier for people to come in and out that bit faster if they wish.
All about the cut
5pm: What are the best sellers at The Grill Room?
DF: Steak. Steak is by far the best seller. Our eight ounce sirloin steak is our biggest seller followed by the fillet steak. We do sell a good selection of different steaks.
Over the years, we have tried all of the top end Scotch beef brands. We use Caledonia Crown, which is our most popular one. We have used Orkney Gold, Campbell’s Gold, Buccleuch.
They all provide a top end product and, to be honest, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the brands. If you were having a blind tasting, you would struggle to tell the difference between Caledonia Crown, Buccleuch and Simon Howie’s top stuff.
We also bring in our Wagyu beef and USDA prime graded beef from a company in London. You can really tell the difference between Scotch beef and the American beef. It has been fed on a different diet, a grain diet. Like the Wagyu, it has a very different taste.
That’s why we put it on the menu. We are a steakhouse and if people come here and want to try something different, it’s not going to make a great deal of difference if they try Caledonia Crown one week and Buccleuch Estate beef the following week.
5pm: In what way does the USDA beef taste different? Is it more buttery?
DF: Yes. They are richer. They taste fatter, for want of a better word – they have a more creamy, fatty flavour. That’s not to take away from the Scotch beef. For me, the Scotch beef is by far the best.
5pm: Is there a gender divide when it comes to steak with men ordering big T-bones and woman wanting a smaller sirloin. Is it just size or also cut?
DF: A bit of both. Guys will take their T-bone or a twelve ounce steak and ladies tend to take a seven ounce fillet or the eight ounce sirloin. To be fair, as tables of two go, you tend to get steak/fish, steak/fish, as women tend to eat fish more.
5pm: Is there a divide in terms of how people like it cooked?”
DF: There’s a little bit of that. Certainly, the older generation do like their meat more cooked, but they are becoming more adventurous. We see fewer and fewer steaks ordered cooked through. Not that I have a problem with that at all.
I’ve come across some chefs who turn their nose up at doing a well done steak. I think that is wrong. If customers are prepared to pay £30-40 for a steak, they can have it cooked anyway they like.
5pm: Do you get many steaks ordered blue?
DF: We do. We train the staff to navigate round about that. We sell a few steaks on the bone and a blue steak on the bone can look a bit like a car crash. It’s not very pleasant. In that respect, we would advise the diners to have it served off the bone or to order a steak that is cooked off the bone.
We get all sorts of requests. We might get Americans asking for their steak to be ‘black and blue’ – with a really dark sear on the outside and really pink in the middle.
5pm: What do you use to cook your steaks?
DF: We use an old fashioned char grill. It’s designed to do what we want. It’s really hot at the top so all the rare, medium rare, blue steaks go up there for a short period. The steaks which are ordered more fully cooked are done further down. It takes some getting used to, but once you have the hang of it, it’s a better way of cooking steak.
5pm: Do you get a lot of discrepancy between what you know is the exact technical description for medium rare and so on and what the customer means by the same term?
DF: Yes. That is the most common feedback that we get. We state on the menu what the steak will look like when it is ordered rare, medium rare and so on. We state that quite categorically. However, you can’t tell someone whose wife has been cooking them a steak a certain way for years that they are wrong about it being medium or whatever it is.
Often, people who want ‘medium to well’ really want ‘well done’ but they don’t want to say ‘well done’. The majority of people do not make a big noise about it, they just want their steak cooked a little bit more. We are happy to do that.
5pm: How do you take your steak?
DF: If it’s a rib-eye, I like it cooked medium. I like the fat to be cooked a little bit more as that gets the flavour going. But I’ll take a sirloin or a fillet medium to rare. I’ll even take a fillet rare if I know it’s a really good bit of meat.
If this has whet your appetite, you can view 29 - The Grill on the Square's menus and offers on 5pm Dining.
Learn more about steaks in our video of David talking us through the differences between the varieties of cuts of steaks.