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Steak and Potato Paradise

If you can get past the silly surface, Outback delivers the goods

Into most red-blooded American lives comes the powerful urge for a decent steak dinner that doesn't cost the earth. It should entail a great, simple salad and a respectable potato. The meat should be of a tenderness and heft that do not scream "cheap steak." A glass of good red wine should not be out of the question. A predictable sense of security and well-being should ensue.

Now, if you're sitting down, I'll tell you where to acquire this classic configuration at a price you can live with: the Outback Steakhouse. Yes, it's a chain (230 units and counting). Yes, you have to be able to tolerate the quarter-inch veneer of Australian atmospherics and the grating Aussie menu prose. ("No worries, mate. Have a bo-peep at these treats and ava go!") You even have to be prepared to wait, because these no-frills, wood-paneled suburban bunkhouses can draw a line, especially on weekends.

But the payoff is a remarkably good steak dinner for around 15 bucks -- maybe less. For starters, it's hard to believe an American mass feeder has the nerve to offer a Caesar salad this gutsy: vibrant with anchovy and serious Parmesan, underlain by an insidious garlic burn. Terrific with a lot of dressing, the way the Bay Area Boulevard Outback tends to do it; terrific with just a little, the way the 10001 Westheimer location sent it out on a recent night. One bite brings the palate to full attention.

Outback steaks are cooked so cleverly as to bring the best out of beef that's USDA choice instead of killingly expensive prime. Rubbed with a robust, New Orleansy spice mix and weighted down on a flat griddle, they sear fast and evenly at 400 degrees, producing a thin crust that has an engaging blackened effect. Its contrast with the buttery 9-ounce tenderloin -- a bargain at $14.95 complete -- is particularly effective; both spices and sear pump up the character of a cut that steak snobs love to deride as bland. Guy-guys may want to pop an extra dollar for the 14-ounce New York strip, a bruiser edged with heroic ridges of fat and named, I am sorry to have to report, "The Michael J. 'Crocodile' Dundee."

I even like the el cheapo Outback Special here, a center-cut sirloin billed by an earnestly enthusiastic waiter (the chain seems to employ no other kind) as "12 ounces for 12 bucks!" Nobody would mistake this thick cut for heavily marbled, well-aged prime, but it does the primal red-meat job very nicely. The fact that the price includes a Caesar salad and one of the last of the genuine baked potatoes -- flaky, dry-skinned and dusted with Kosher salt instead of soddenly steamed inside aluminum foil -- makes me like it even better.

So does the fact that the Outback grill people don't screw up on the doneness front: out of four steaks over three visits at two locations, they hit it on the rare or medium-rare nose every time. Bonus points, too, for the selection of Australian red wines by the glass, including a couple of feisty cabernets that have the appealing roughness of a French country red (Rosemount is the edgier of the two; Black Opal the smoother).

There is more to the ideal Outback meal -- namely a sublimely retrograde chocolate sundae that involves a vanilla ice cream ball rolled in crunchy toasted coconut. It's hard to take life (or yourself) too seriously when you're confronted with this sweet blast of childhood. Just be sure to ask them to leave off the whipped cream and the strawberry: this guilt-inducing little item is better pure and unadorned.

The holy steak-salad-potato trinity is what I come to Outback to eat. I certainly don't brave stuffed koalas and waiters in sheep-drovers' hats for the pleasure of dining on the inescapable baby back ribs or such American goop as "grilled chicken breast and bacon smothered in mushrooms, melted Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, with honey mustard sauce." Nor, after a recent encounter at the Bay Area Boulevard Outback, would I return for a brave new menu item called Veggie Pasta Pemberton, whose contemporary cargo of grilled zucchini and peppers, portobello mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes was utterly defeated by the saltiness of its chicken-broth-based "unique semolina sauce." The promised garlic and herbs? Who could tell under all that sodium? Gummy-chewy tubes of penne pasta did not help matters any.

I couldn't help wondering what Outback's consulting guru Warren LeRuth would think. LeRuth, who ran a much-praised temple of fine dining outside New Orleans for many years, tinkers with Outback's new menu items at his current base in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Along with one of Outback's three founders, who trained in New Orleans, LeRuth is responsible for the stepped-up seasoning level that characterizes much of Outback's food; the restaurant's theme may say Australia, but its taste says Louisiana. LeRuth recently told the restaurant trade bible, Nation's Restaurant News, that the Outback founders "want one or two great things a year" to add to their small, efficient menu. I'm not sure the grilled vegetable pasta fills the bill, but perhaps the rack of Australian lamb scheduled for later this year will be more persuasive.

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