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The Meat of the Matter

Why do people go to steak houses? Steak & Chophouse on the Boulevard doesn't know.

Steak & Chophouse on the Boulevard is a steak house that tries to be a fine restaurant but fails to make it even as a halfway decent steak house.

Traditionally, a steak house is a manly, manful, masculine kind of place. The kind of restaurant where the masters of the universe go to bellow over their triumphs and plan their next moves. The kind of restaurant where big politicians and big businessmen eat big meat. Really big meat. Big slabs of sirloin and porterhouse, charred on the outside, scarlet on the inside. With a bacon-wrapped fillet for m'lady. No froufrou. Caesar salad or a ripe beefsteak tomato salad to start. A potato on the side, with maybe creamed spinach or broccoli with hollandaise. Cheesecake for dessert.

Steak & Chophouse, however, aspires to something higher. Under the direction of chef Neil Doherty, it offers complicated appetizers with elaborate presentations. "Gourmet" sauces for the steaks and chops. Decadent modern desserts. Unfortunately, S&C's reach far exceeds its grasp, while the raw ingredients necessary for steak-house greatness are mediocre at best.

The service, by steak-house tradition a careful mixture of gruff and fawning, is decidedly substandard here. When our iced teas arrived sans iced-tea spoons, the waiter informed us that the restaurant did not have such spoons. (Can this be true? Does any dining establishment south of the Mason-Dixon Line lack iced-tea spoons?) Instead, he brought plastic straws to stir the tea.

Appetizers, though beautifully presented, suffer from unnecessarily complicated ingredients and sloppy execution. A case in point: the prawns wrapped in prosciutto and pepper jack cheese ($9.25). The thick layer of dry prosciutto buried whatever flavor the poor prawns might have possessed; we tasted nothing but salt. We might as well have been biting into a pretzel.

On the other side of the spectrum was the "woodland mushroom" ragout with almonds and grapes ($5.95), a stew of shiitake and button mushrooms in a glossy, flavorless sauce, all of it served spilling out of a cheese-wafer cornucopia. The mushrooms lacked "woodland" flavor, and the stew was so bland that the grapes stood out awkwardly. Their discordant sweetness had nothing to play off.

Flavor wasn't the problem with the five-onion soup with smoked provolone; the broth tasted deeply and deliciously of onions. But the soup was served in a hollowed-out onion — a touch that I at first thought was clever. Unfortunately, the opening in the top of the onion was a little too small, and the soup spilled when a spoon hit the onion. Even more unfortunately, the cheese wasn't completely melted and formed a rubbery mass on the top of the "bowl." And because the soup was served in an onion, there was no solid surface to cut the cheese against. One slip of the knife, and the whole soup might end up in your lap.

All the steaks and chops are preceded by a salad of iceberg lettuce with crumbled Gorgonzola. The lettuce wedge reclines in a pool of slightly sweet dressing, a nice complement to the salty cheese.

But steak houses aren't judged by their house salads; they're judged by their meat, and there lies S&C's downfall. The sirloin steak (16 ounces, $29) lacked the deep flavor, the mineral tang, the beautifully aged quality that separates steak-house steaks from their grocery store brethren. The day after sampling that sirloin, I picked up a couple of similar steaks at my local Fiesta.

The porterhouse (24 ounces, $29) probably started as a steak similar in quality to the sirloin, but as it was prepared, I couldn't be sure. Ordered medium rare, the meat arrived gray on the inside. The problem probably lay in the steak's being too thin: To char the outside, the cook had to reduce the inside to leather.

The veal lollipop chop (12 ounces, $29), on the other hand, didn't disappoint. It was a nicely tender chop, with the delicate flavor that one expects of quality veal.

All the steaks and chops are garnished with three garlic-sautéed button mushrooms. They're lovely (although at these prices, you'd think the kitchen would throw in a few more). The diner is also allowed to choose a sauce: ancho chili butter, garlic butter, brandied peppercorn sauce or bernaise. It's too bad that the steaks need the assistance of a sauce, because these sauces don't provide much help. The bernaise and brandied peppercorn sauces (as well as the hollandaise served on the broccoli) tasted distinctly like the kind made with a mix. As for the "garlic butter," the dark sauce tasted like neither garlic nor butter.

The side dishes ($egrave; la carte, of course) were a mixed lot. The herbed mashed potatoes ($3.50) and creamed spinach ($4.25) were both good; I especially enjoyed the rich, fresh spinach. I'd wondered what one could do to a rice pilaf to make it worth $3.50. Not much, it turned out.

At least there was a lot of the salt-baked potato ($4). It was about the size of a football and nearly as tasteless. Beside it, the waiter plopped a stainless-steel holder, containing individual bowls of grated cheese, bacon bits and sour cream — just like at Steak & Ale. (At least at Steak & Ale the potato is included with your entrée.)

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