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IHAD A steak for dinner last night. A New York strip, actually.
It was one inch thick and it was served very rare.

I tell you this proudly -- I'm not hiding in any closet. And my question is this: Does eating this hunk of well- marbled meat -- I also indulge in prime rib occasionally -- mean I have to don the scarlet letter "B"?

That's an exaggeration, of course, but it does seem that many of the beef-
ordering folk I've been eating out with lately are defensive about it. We now know that eating an excess of high-fat foods like luxury cuts of beef can contribute to heart disease.

So, typically, we tend to go overboard and avoid them all together.

Or at least think we should avoid them altogether.

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

There are concerns about wholesomeness and hormones, too, but at least one other prominent reason for avoiding beef is just plain silly. Food has become so socially competitive in recent years that some folks think a basic beef dish is just not, well, sophisticated.

Any careful child, the reasoning goes, can grill a steak.

Come off it. Baring medical problems, why not eat what you like at least once in a while? And we do like beef.

What's more, Buffalo is what is often called a "meat and potatoes town."

"But that's not a negative, that's just reality," says Jonathan Dandes, who runs the food service operations for Rich Products Corp.

Dandes takes a broad view, being familiar with Pettibones, a full-service restaurant in Pilot Field, as well as the food stands there. He has also been involved lately with Saki's, a restaurant featuring "Oriental fusion cuisine" that Mindy and Robert E. Rich Jr. have opened downtown.

"Look at Gusto ads on a Friday night," Dandes points out. "A statistical analysis will show the specials featured are almost always steak or roast beef. It's reflective of the community. Yes, there are pockets of excellence here; there are unique restaurants that feature an element of newness. But the peak dollar volume is in steak and potatoes."

"I think people like food they are comfortable with," says Thomas J. Gianturco, who owns Michael's Plum on Transit Road in Williamsville, a restaurant that features a broad spectrum of dishes.

But more than 16 percent of sales are prime rib, he says. (Veal Oscar is second; after that, it's a mixed grill. It goes without saying that the most popular desserts are chocolate.)

Even an upscale French restaurant like Rue Franklin West reports that beef sells well. "We offer filet in a brown sauce," says owner Joel Lippes, "but you don't have to order the sauce if you don't want it.

"And it's a pretty popular dish."

In fact, Lippes bristles when people talk of Buffalo as a meat and potatoes town and mean it disparagingly.

"New York City has plenty of steak houses, and they are well-attended as well as expensive," he points out.

"You ever hear people sneer at Manhattan as a steak and potato town?"

Europeans, says Lippes, don't think that beef is unsophisticated. They always order it in American restaurants.

"Even in Paris, a restaurant called L'Entrecote that offers nothing but steaks has lines of people waiting to get in."

What we are talking about here, I guess, is balance. In choosing one's diet as well as a restaurant menu, moderation (ho-hum) is best. After all, just about every restaurant on the Niagara Frontier -- no matter how carefully it balances on the cutting edge -- is cagey enough to offer at least one basic beef dish. It's a matter of self-preservation.

"We've discovered there are, in fact, many closet sushi fans in Buffalo," says Bob Rich of Saki's. "The Oriental dishes are doing well.

"But we're still selling a lot of steaks."

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