By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Flames are shooting out of the high-tech stainless-steel broiler at The Capital Grille on Westheimer. And thanks to the open design of the restaurant's kitchen, I get to watch the fire without leaving my comfortable chair at a corner table in the adjoining dining room. Like the original Capital Grille in Washington, D.C., the steak house chain's Galleria-area outpost resembles a posh men's club. There's a cigar humidor in the bar, a glass case full of aging meat behind the hostess stand and rows of private wine lockers in the lobby. The dark wood walls sport works by taxidermists and portrait painters. Hanging directly over my head is a likeness of that overstuffed plutocrat Jesse H. Jones.
A chef with a fire extinguisher approaches the flaming oven while I sip an exotic red wine called Umkhulu from the Titan vineyards of South Africa. The rounded edges of the Bordeaux-style Meritage suggest some Merlot went into the blending, although there is enough tannin to give the wine structure. At a little more than $50, it's one of the best bargains on The Capital Grille's extensive wine list.
The chef with the fire extinguisher stands at the ready, while another chef opens the oven door. Stoked by the fresh air, an impressive fireball roars out. The broilers at The Capital Grille operate at extremely high temperatures. The heat sears the steaks quickly, which keeps the meat juicy -- that's the theory, anyway. The steaks currently in the oven are likely to emerge as cinders. Luckily, we had already been served when the broiler caught fire.
Houston, TX 77056
Steak tartare $12.95
Sirloin strip $31.95
Lamb chops $30.95
Mashed potatoes $5.95
One of my dining companions ordered a broiled two-pound Maine lobster, delivered to the table with the meat separated from the shell. It's a stunning presentation; the glistening white lobster meat sits alluringly naked in a copper pan over a glass fish-shaped plate with a small pond of melted butter on the side. The broiling caramelizes the natural sugars of the crustacean, making the sweet lobster meat taste even sweeter.
My dinner date and I split The Capital Grille's signature steak, a 24-ounce "dry-aged" porterhouse. I prefer the chewier strip side, while she likes the melt-in-your-mouth filet. The truth is, it's a tender and flavorful steak regardless of which side of the T-bone you frequent. But while the dry-aging has given the steak a wonderful texture and nutty flavor, the meat is not as rich as I expected.
Over in the kitchen, one chef tries to get a couple of steaks out of the fire with a long fork, with no luck. Finally, the other chef blasts the fire extinguisher straight into the oven, quickly putting out the blaze. I get the impression this isn't the first time the broiler has caught fire. As a backyard barbecuer, I sympathize with the kitchen staff. I've torched a few steaks myself. When you cook well-marbled meat, quite a bit of fat squirts out, causing a fire hazard.
The level of marbling, or internal fat in the muscle of the steer, is the primary factor in the USDA's beef-grading process. When I saw the word "dry-aged" on The Capital Grille's menu, I immediately assumed that meant dry-aged USDA Prime, the highest quality of steak (see "Aging with Grace [and Science]," August 30, 2001). USDA Prime has roughly 15 percent more marbling than USDA Choice.
Dry-aged beef develops a fuller flavor but loses weight because of evaporation during the aging process. Wet-aged steaks are stored in Cryovac plastic bags, which retain moisture and give the meat a juicier but bloodier flavor. Palm, my favorite steak house in Manhattan, serves dry-aged USDA Prime steaks. The Houston location of Palm, on the other hand, was serving wet-aged USDA Prime steaks the last time I ate there.
Since the higher price of dry-aged USDA Prime versus wet-aged USDA Prime is what separates many of the top-end steak houses in the country, at first glance, I thought The Capital Grille was among the best in Houston. But after eating my steak, I give the menu a second and more careful reading, and I find no mention of a USDA meat grade anywhere. The steaks at The Capital Grille are marbled enough to set the broiler on fire, but based on the flavor, I wonder what grade of beef they really are.
On my way out of the restaurant, I have to wait for a few minutes in the lobby while a coat-check mix-up gets resolved. I look carefully at the lockers in which regulars store wine bottles from their own private collections. A brass plaque on the front of each wire-mesh-covered door announces the name of the owner. I see Jeff Bagwell's name on one wall. On the other, just above a locker occupied by Roycebuilders.com, is a plaque bearing the name George Bush. Behind the hostess stand, which faces the wine lockers, are two glass windows. One looks into the meat-aging locker. And the other looks into a temperature-controlled wine storage room.
"Why do these big shots keep their wine in lockers out in the lobby at room temperature when the restaurant has temperature-controlled wine storage facilities?" I ask a waiter who is standing nearby. He says the lobby is a fine place for the wine, since reds are properly stored at 70 degrees, while white wine is stored at 55.