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I look him in the eye and smile. Is the waiter trying to snow me, or is he really that clueless? When he walks away, I ask the hostess, who has been listening to our exchange, if I can inspect the wine storage room. She kindly takes me inside.
"These are red wines?" I ask, admiring the rows of Bordeaux bottles.
Houston, TX 77056
Steak tartare $12.95
Sirloin strip $31.95
Lamb chops $30.95
Mashed potatoes $5.95
"Yes," she says.
"And what temperature is it in here?"
"It's between 55 and 60," she says, reading the thermometer on the wall. So, I ask her, why do you suppose the restaurant spends money on this wine storage room if red wine can be stored at 70 degrees? The hostess apologizes for the waiter's misinformation. He is really a swell guy, she assures me.
And what about the celebrities who are ruining their rare wines in the lobby? Those lockers are just billboards for the big shots, the hostess confides. Rarely does anybody actually open one.
On my second visit to The Capital Grille, a bottle of Ravenswood Icon arrives at the table at perfect cellar temperature. The Rhône-style red is a blend of 89 percent Syrah, with a little Grenache and Mourvèdre. It's lighter than the South African Meritage I drank on my last visit, but its peppery aromas and spicy flavor are an excellent foil for my all-red-meat meal.
The Capital Grille is one of the only steak houses in town that serves the hand-chopped raw meat mixture known as steak tartare. Made with minced filet mignon and seasoned with capers and garlic, the appetizer comes on a bed of chopped hard-boiled eggs and sliced onions. The meat was evidently molded in a cylindrical vessel, as its appearance bears an unfortunate resemblance to about a third of a can of dog food.
"That's awesome," my dining companion says with his mouth full, loading some more raw meat onto a piece of bread. "It kind of tastes like baby food -- but in a good way." It is, in fact, one of the best versions of steak tartare I have encountered. When I get old and lose all my teeth, this is what I want to gum for dinner.
Before we order our entrées, I ask the waiter which of the steaks on the menu are USDA Prime. He mentions the porterhouse and the strip, but says the filet is USDA Choice. My dining companion gets the sirloin strip, which is disappointingly dry even though he has ordered it in a brandy-cream-and-peppercorn sauce.
Having satisfied my steak cravings with the raw beef starter, I order the double-cut lamb chops, which are phenomenal. After shoving the silly mint jelly to the side, I spoon mashed potatoes and creamed spinach on my plate and use the sides as a dipping sauce for the lamb. The mashed potatoes are very creamy, with a shine on the outside. I recognize that look; it's generally achieved by mixing mashed potatoes with an obscene amount of butter. The thick chops are so juicy, they leave a puddle on the plate as I carve them. They turn out to be the tastiest meat I sample at The Capital Grille.
After several calls to the restaurant and the Atlanta-based RARE Hospitality International, Inc., which owns The Capital Grille in Houston along with 249 other restaurants, I finally get a straight answer about the USDA meat grade. None of the steaks on the menu at The Capital Grille in Houston is USDA Prime. Their steaks are all dry-aged USDA Choice. And no doubt the other waiter is really a swell guy, too.
I came to The Capital Grille thinking I was going to find the best steak in town. What I found was fabulous steak tartare, excellent lobster and out-of-this-world lamb chops. As for the steak, I'll keep looking.
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