To open a new butcher shop headlining prime-beef stars on the order of Kobe, Charolais and grass-fed is tricky enough business, especially without claim to family tradition (say, Stoltzfus, Giunta or Ochs) or prime location (center court Reading market, say, or appended to Di Bruno Bros., 18th and Chestnut).

In fact, the very conjunction of "new" and "butcher shop" has a mildly worrisome ring; you want to buy your meat from a guy with a pedigree, roots, a track record, deep meat history.

So one approaches chef Derek Davis' new prime meat market in a charmless Ardmore strip mall (in a former Quiznos sub shop) with a mixture of admiration for his bravado and a certain show-me skepticism: Is this place (the band saw still on order, the beef piled helter-skelter in the cases) for real?

There's an improvisational quality, wire shelves loaded with gourmet sauces, a few crates of apples, a side of produce, crab meat and organic poultry, pre-frozen Natural Acres grass-fed steaks (from Millersburg, Pa.) thawed and iron-rich-red in their packages.

But it is the prime stuff (only two percent of beef is graded USDA Prime), frankly, that's Main Line Prime's meat and potatoes - the $29-a-pound, dry-aged Charolais steak, for instance, that Davis once served to great acclaim at his Kansas City Prime steakhouse in Manayunk. (He closed it four years ago.)

This is trophy meat. Maserati meat. Bragging-rights meat, testosterone fairly wafting from the cases. I'm in the door just minutes before Davis shares the story of competing sales teams that would hold an annual feed at Kansas City Prime - the winners chowing down on authentic Japanese (not American-raised) Kobe steaks with twice the marbling grade (12) of even prime sirloin, the losers relegated to humble-pie plates of baked beans.

That same white-fat Kobe is in the case now, $199.99 a pound. "For the man who has everything," Davis says with a smile.

He is beefy in countenance, vaguely louche in demeanor, his dark hair flowing in Louis XIV locks. Once he bestrode Manayunk, indeed, like a fresh prince, his fiefdom including, besides the late Kansas City Prime, Sonoma (now reflagged as Derek's), Arroyo Grille (closed), and Fish on Main (closed), where in 1999 he skewed the menu toward seafood, he said, to mirror his own evolving taste for fish.

But Davis has moved on, reinvented himself once again, a monger of red meat now, his former selves as vodka-bar pioneer, edible hemp hustler, red-snapper savorer, and organic late-bloomer fading or subsumed.

Whatever, the fact is that his prime, dry-aged New York strip is full of deep beef flavor you won't find among the less-marbled choice and select grades in the supermarket. His heritage Duroc pork (which promoters bill as the "Black Angus of Pork") is astonishingly juicy - if cooked properly - delicately, uncannily tender stuff.

Then there's his stash of Jamison Farm lamb, sourced from Latrobe, Pa., which consistently ranks among the East Coast's best, most flavorful lamb. (Best to order the boneless legs under four pounds, says Davis.)

A word about the white-coated Charolais, a French breed; "the good stuff," as Davis calls it: I grilled a small hunk the other morning with my (one, cage-free) egg, and, well, it was succulent without being filet mignon-squishy, beefy but not cloyingly rich, and every bit as tender and elegant and memorable as its shameless marketing hype.

As befits the preciousness of the cuts, and their proportionately dear prices (my 10-ounce, 25-day-aged Charolais strip ran about $19), Davis or assistant Colin Leary ties each paper-wrapped purchase in a red-and-gold ribbon.

They are also happy to marinate or rub your steak and vacuum-pack it to travel. ("Ask us how we can rub your meat!" reads the cursive scrawl on the whiteboard on the wall.)

Davis will tell you the ground sirloin is the same as in Center City's Rougeburger, "that they say is the best burger in the city." He will give you the origin of his pre-frozen bison sausage (Mount Joy, Pa.). And suggest a good bottle of red wine be employed to wash down your Kobe because, otherwise, the fat will sit in the back of your throat.

But if you are not in the greater Ardmore orbit, 10 miles west of Center City, or do not feel impelled to visit a new butcher shop before it has been properly aged, stay tuned.

Main Line Prime is setting up a Web site for ordering beef delivered to your door.

So it may be moot whether Derek Davis' new shop is, in fact, for real.

The end game may be a virtual market; the Omaha Steaks option - meat by mail.

No family connections or prime location required.

Main Line Prime

18 Greenfield Ave.

Ardmore

610-645-9500

» READ MORE: www.mainlineprime.com

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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