By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
I would love to have been a fly on the wall the day that Providence, Rhode Island-based Rare Hospitality International decided Houston was where they wanted to open their eighth Capital Grille. I can hear the conversation now: "So, let me get this straight. We're going to take corn-fed, certified Black Angus beef from the Midwest, slaughter it, ship it to Atlanta, Georgia, let it hang for two to three weeks so that the connective tissue slowly loosens its grip as the meat grows mold and bacteria, then cut off the resulting crust and sell what's left to Houstonians for up to $27 a serving?"
In essence, that's exactly what the Capital Grille has been doing -- and doing very successfully -- since Memorial Day, when the Houston outpost opened its doors. They've been packing in a dinner-only, suited and expense-account crowd eager to fork over an average tab of $50-$75 per person. Located in a newly-built, granite-facade building a stone's throw from Morton's and a three-wood from Pappas Steak House, the Capital Grille is the latest upscale steak house to stampede into Houston -- evidence, if any more were needed, that the age of excess has returned in full force. These places have become bastions of bovine gourmandise, and as at Houston's other shrines to the steer, at the Capital Grille the portions, prices and methods of preparation are all excessive. Not that excessive necessarily means ornate; the meat and side dishes are hardly ever prepared with a sauce or other unnecessary accouterments. Instead, they're simply grilled, with perhaps a sprig of watercress as the sole garnish. But then again, the better the meat, the less it needs.
The Capital Grille oozes the atmosphere of a gentleman's club (or at least what a gentleman's club used to be before those words took on the meaning of an altogether different kind of meat market). There's lots of shiny brass, etched glass, dark, polished mahogany and rich leather; the lighting's dim, and the color scheme a masculine green and maroon. Landscapes and portraits of famous locals and scenes from the area's past line the walls. At least I was told by a friendly manager that the pictures are Houston-related; I must admit, though, I was unaware that Napoleon, pictured in the bar on a rearing steed, ever made it as far as Texas, and the mountain-filled landscapes look nothing like any Houston I know.
Houston, TX 77056
Still, it's a nice thought, and nice evidence that the staff at the Capital Grille is exceptionally well-trained, especially in the art of salesmanship. Before you know it, you'll not only be pining after those Gulf Coast peaks, you'll have ordered enough food to feed more than twice the number of people at your table. The service at the Capital Grille is also nicely unobtrusive -- a waiter is there when you need him, and not when you don't. When a waiter is there, he's likely to take great pride in advising you that the Grille's beef is dry-aged, as well as in describing the process. When I asked whether other places in Houston dry age their beef, I was told no, that this was a Capital Grille exclusive. Calls to a few other upscale steak houses in Houston suggested, though, that this claim fell into the Napoleon-visiting-Texas area; Lynn's, for one, was adamant in pointing out that they, too, dry age their beef.
There are, I discovered, two main ways to age meat -- wet and dry -- and the dry-aging advocates claim the process not only makes the meat more tender, it also imparts a nutty flavor. Maybe so, and maybe someone with a cholesterol level in excess of 300 might be able to taste the difference between something dry-aged and something wet-aged. Personally, I couldn't. (If you're curious, wet aging takes place in a plastic bag and produces meat losses of up to 20 percent. Dry aging takes place in an environment in which temperature, humidity and airflow are all tightly controlled; the meat grows moldy, like a cured ham, and before the steaks are shipped, the moldy sections have to be carved away, which leads to losses of up to 30 percent. And that explains why the dry-aged beef is so pricey. Now you know.)
Ultimately, though, the hype doesn't matter; what matters is the taste. And in that area, the Capital Grille does very well, thank you. To find that out, though, you have to get past the appetizers, which include the uninspired staples of smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, oysters and caviar as well as a couple of more daring offerings, one being the crab and lobster cakes. Large chunks of bright pink lobster are combined with fleshy white crab, onions and seasonings and then pan-fried. Served with a delicious relish made of yellow corn and red and green bell peppers along with a delightfully different tartar sauce made from sour cream and capers, the cakes crumble at the gentle touch of a fork. Less satisfying is the calamari, which, while exceedingly tender, is pan-fried with hot cherry peppers that tend to overpower the squid's delicate flavor. After the first bite, it was hard to taste anything else, and I found it necessary to let my taste buds rest a while.