Dry-Aged Discrimination

The Capital Grille is the place to go for sweet lobster and fabulous steak tartare.
Troy Fields

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.

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, 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.

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.

"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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