Capital Idea

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?"

"That's right."
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.

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.  

They were revived by the Capital Grille's pea soup, which is an excellent example of its kind -- thick and green, with a nice smoky ham flavor. My only caveat is that this soup is a hearty, warming wintry one, and really isn't meant for the dog days of summer in Houston. That criticism could also be levied toward French onion soup, but that's a dish for which I'll always make an exception, especially if it's as exceptional as the one at the Capital Grille. Served in a huge crock, enough for two people, it's a densely flavored beef broth with sweet, caramelized onions, on top of which perch slices of French bread made soggy by the liquid. Melted Gruyere cheese seals the top, and also makes it a challenge to eat politely, since the cheese always has a tendency to hang from the spoon, no matter what you do.

But the appetizers merely get in the way of the real reason people come to a place such as the Capital Grille -- meat, and lots of it. Seared on the outside, pink at its core with blood-red juices flowing freely from its mass, ready to give our teeth a workout. The 20-ounce Delmonico is quite a hunk, covering three-quarters of a generous-size plate. It suffered, however, from sitting on too much jus, which caused the underside to become almost soggy. The 24-ounce -- that's a pound and a half, folks -- porterhouse is the largest piece of meat on the menu, and it suffered a bit from having too much fat left on it. It sat there on the steak's perimeter, as if someone had forgotten to trim it. Though my palate was unable to discern the nutty, sour and musty qualities that proved what I was eating had been dry aged, the tenderness was easy to discover. The steak knives, which would make Crocodile Dundee proud, were simply unnecessary. And both steaks were cooked to exacting perfection.

The veal chop is also no dainty piece of meat, its huge size almost contradictory to its delicate flavor. Two preparations are offered, one with a simple garlic butter, the other with a Roquefort sauce. I opted for the garlic butter and was more than pleased, since plenty of veal flavor came through. My only problem was that this cut, too, suffered from having too much fat left on it. And since the color of the veal and its fat are very similar when cooked, and since the Capital Grille opts for subdued lighting, determining which was which wasn't easy. In this case in particular, it would be a lot easier for the kitchen to do the trimming, rather than leaving the task up to the customer.

Since everything on the menu is a la carte, the side dishes are plentiful -- as are the portions served. I couldn't decide which potato dish was the best. Sam's mashed potatoes are, without a doubt, the creamiest I've ever experienced. Skin-on spuds are expertly combined with milk, cream and seasonings until they form a heavenly mass, complete with the occasional lump. The cottage fries and onion strings, on the other hand, is a much bolder accompaniment. Potato slices fried almost to a crisp are served with onion strings that put all others to shame. They're both crisp, tasty and almost greaseless. The only problem I ran across is that there's no delicate way to serve or eat them, since they tend to bunch together like an endless string of spaghetti. If this were a less august place, I would have had no problem simply digging in with my hands, but in a modest show of decorum, I restrained myself and ate them with a knife and fork. I did, however, take home a substantial doggy bag filled with the onion strings, and devoured them as I pleased.

Two of my favorite vegetable side dishes were the creamed spinach and the roasted seasonal mushrooms. The former is a decadent way to serve this humble leafy vegetable; if it had been given to me this way when I was a child, I would have learned to like my greens a lot earlier. My only complaint is that it's served with a little too much nutmeg; still, the creamy texture is hard to beat. The mushrooms, and there are a lot of them, contained at least three different varieties: morel, chanterelle and plain button. It was wonderful to experience the combinations of flavors the three have to offer.  

Desserts are large and simple. The key lime pie is one of the tartest I've ever had, and was the appropriate shade of yellow, indicating that it was made with real key limes. The pie, taller than I'm accustomed to, is rich and creamy. It's also served with pistachios on top, which as far as I can tell serve no useful purpose. The strawberries Capital Grille add another dimension to fresh strawberries and whipped cream with the addition of Grand Marnier liqueur. The cheesecake was not the institutionalized smooth kind but had a nice, almost gritty texture, suggesting it was made with lots of ricotta cheese. My favorite dessert, however, was the white chocolate mousse. Appearing in an oversize wineglass, it was also the most elegant dessert, its simple white swirls adorned with shaved slivers of dark chocolate.

Despite a touch of pretension here and there (one night the maitre d'hotel remarked to me, "You know, this place isn't for everyone. There are lots of people who cannot afford to eat here. Besides, they wouldn't feel comfortable here, and neither would we." As he said this, I wondered, is he perhaps referring to me?), service is an important part of the overall experience at Capital Grille, and it's apparently more than just a marketing gimmick. They really do practice what they preach. For the first time in my restaurant experience, at the end of the meal our server gave us his business card and suggested that, if we liked his service, we ask for him by name next time. And at the conclusion of one meal, I asked a busboy to box up some remaining cheesecake, which was simply too good to waste. After we had waited a few minutes, our waiter came over to see if there was anything else he could help us with. Granted, his attention wasn't purely altruistic; we had long since paid and the crowd in the lobby was anxiously eyeing our table. But once I explained the situation to him, he went off to see what was causing the delay. He returned moments later to explain that the busboy had misunderstood my request and had thrown my leftovers away. On the waiter's lips was an apology; in his hands was a fresh whole slice of the cake, boxed and ready to go. It's this kind of commitment to quality service that will almost definitely ensure my return -- if the maitre d'hotel will have me.

Capital Grille, 5365 Westheimer, 623-4600.

Capital Grille: crab and lobster cakes, $12.95; French onion soup, $4.50; dry-aged sirloin (14 oz.), $21.95; Delmonico steak (20 oz.), $21.95; veal chop, $26.95; creamed spinach, $4.25; roasted mushrooms, $8.95; cottage fries and onion strings, $4.50; Sam's mashed potatoes, $4.25; key lime pie, $5.25; white chocolate mousse, $5.25; cheesecake, $5.50.

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