The very model of a modern American steakhouse
Seated in San Ramon in front of an imported A5 Japanese Wagyu steak, a Midwest-sourced filet mignon, a whole Bronzino or the high profile of a thick, 32-day aged pork chop in the sleek surroundings of LB Steak’s newest location at City Center Bishop Ranch, a person can hope Chef Roger Rungpha will come out of the kitchen to introduce the meal.
Having both achieved good fortune and won the gustatory lottery in life, you will listen, rapt in the storytelling as Rungpha recounts each step your meal has taken to arrive on your plate. A recent opportunity to hear his narration provides this example:
Speaking in the hushed, reverential tones of a parent describing a child’s first steps or words, Rungpha said, “I went to the farm in Japan to follow the beef from its origin to your table. I met the farmer; he’s fifth generation. I followed the meat to the transport, to the kitchen, where I cut it by hand.” Tenderly, he issues instructions on the application of four salt or chili-inflected seasoning options for the Wagyu and makes note of a pineapple chutney gently layered atop the chop. Memories of being taught how to tie shoelaces, or how to achieve the delicate balance needed to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time are stirred.
Swiftly on Rungpha heels arrives—if your luck is as dizzying as was mine—Director of Wine and Sommelier Serena Harkey. Harkey, who has worked in the restaurant industry since the age of age 14, is lively and arrives with humor and expertise about wine that is leaps and bounds beyond the time, at age 19, when working at a bar she admits she only knew about wine that “there was red, and white, and stuff that comes in a box.”
Years ago, she found herself taken under the wing of Jan Manni, sommelier and owner of now-closed The Wine Attic in Paso Robles. Harkey today sings a far more refined tune and credits Manni with teaching her to recognize quality wine and to establish price points that insure customers are reassured and trust that the wine they are paying for at LB Steak is worth the expenditure.
“Especially in California, it’s easy to stick with the standards and make that the shining star,” Harkey says about developing the wine list at the San Ramon location. “We honor that, but I also work to expand my own palette and knowledge. Wines from the world that pair well with steak and reflect America as a melting pot are where I started.
“The Canard-Duchêbe, Cuvée Leonie, Brut NV 25 is a champagne I selected because it’s rich, round and textured. It’s live and fresh, but has the backbone to pair with something like a rib eye. For red wine by the glass, the L’Aventure Optimus, 2018 35 from Paso Robles comes from my favorite winemaker. He’s originally from Bordeaux in Southwest France and moved to California because France is so restrictive. This selection is his blend of classic grown varietals and Bordeaux wines together.”
LB Steak was started by Roland Passot, a James Beard-nominated French chef and owner of San Francisco’s recently closed La Folie. The restaurant group includes an LB Steak in San Jose, along with Meso, featuring Mediterranean cuisine, and Left Bank Brasserie, a casual restaurant group offering a seasonal French menu in Larkspur, Menlo Park and San Jose. Executive Chef Jonah Oakden, formerly of San Francisco’s Boulevard and Prospect restaurants, leads the LB kitchen in San Ramon.
The modern, decidedly upscale steakhouse features a bold craft cocktail bar offering, among other selections, Japanese whisky and St. George Botanivore gin and bourbon from the United States, Japan and Scotland. Harkey says, “The bar makes you feel like you’re in an episode of Mad Men, with all of the gold and metal detailing and leather wrapped pillars.” Throughout the restaurant, Oakland-based architectural firm Arcsine has created intricate public and private dining spaces with an interior design reflecting expected cattle rancher themes. A floor-to-ceiling wine wall, purple cowhide-patterned wall covering, modern lighting fixtures and a welcoming outdoor patio including a fire pit seamlessly boost the restaurant’s contemporary West Coast aesthetics and atmosphere.
The understated, unapologetic aesthetics carry over to plates on the table with simple presentations of salads that use color to create the artistry and swirls or poufs made with chocolate sauce or mousse to add texture and dimension to deserts such as chocolate molten cake or caramel chocolate Cremeux. It’s almost as if the kitchen intentionally avoids over-decoration, confident that quality is evidenced in the ingredients, taste and aroma of the food it serves, not in the trickery of performative adornments.
Full disclosure means stating up front that for all the straightforward presentation, a meal at LB Steak is upscale. Which means it comes at a cost. Along with a commitment to serve only USDA Certified Angus, Wagyu rated A4 and A5, only steaks with specific BMS scores—measuring the level of marbling from five to seven or eight to 12—sustainably sourced seafood, premium poultry and superior seasonal produce, there is the impact of Covid on all restaurants. Harkey says shifts made to ensure the safety of staff and customers include extra training for employees, purchasing sanitizing supplies and masks, and more. Additionally, delays in the meat, wine and produce delivery pipeline have products sitting in ports for weeks—or not available at all. “We’re trying to figure out how to take that burden on ourselves with smart purchases,” Harkey says. “We won’t move to a cheaper product. We will always want to put the best meat on your plate and the best wine in your glass.”
It was that second thought, during late November 2020—and the ongoing activities of the Black Lives Matter movement—that caused Harkey to review the LB wine list. “I realized we had no Black winemakers on our menu,” she says. Immediately, she reached out to her contacts and added a few winemakers, but knew it was only the beginning. Harkey developed what she calls her “passion project.” Naming it Flight for Allyship, the program each month highlights under-represented winemakers. Fifteen percent of all proceeds from the sale of Allyship flights provides scholarships and grants aimed at creating a more diverse and inclusive food and beverage industry. During June, Pride Month, the menu featured three winemakers of the LGBTQ community.
“I wanted to honor and highlight them, and that’s how I came to partner with Lia Jones, the executive director for Diversity in Food and Beverage, the charitable organization we partner with,” Harkey says. “I’m trying to pay attention to Women’s History month, Black History month, Latinx winemakers, POC winemakers. It’s constantly changing. Last month we did Asian American, and July is still being planned.”
Harkey, like Rungpha, believes the life lessons learned from elders—from her parents, from Manni, even from the Japanese farmer—can be applied to eating and to food as a source of respect, nurturance and enjoyment. Harkey calls these elements “the glue to the formula of bringing people together.” Rungpha says it is shepherding land and food. Regardless of the label, a meal parented with care is special. At this time in history that feels like no other, a celebration at LB Steak that includes an allyship flight and re-commitment to share bounty with the underserved is one way to find the path to a new, uplifting normal.