The Prime Directive
Food delights, but décor depresses at Timothy Dean's steakhouse
While Timothy Dean may not be the city's s most successful businessman (he's in bankruptcy proceedings for former ventures Timothy Dean Bistro and T.D. Lounge) or Bravo's next Top Chef, let's get one thing out of the way up front. The man can cook. Dean is back in the kitchen of his latest venture, Prime, and the food that comes to the table makes it clear that the culinary arts are where his gifts lie. Lighter-than-air corn soup; crisp, lacy hash browns sprinkled with soft garlic cloves; and yeasty dinner rolls that would make your grandmother proud are among the many treats that emerge from Prime's kitchen, culinary proof of why Dean was chosen for the Bravo cooking competition. He does classic very, very well.
Whether Dean's appearance on Top Chef has affected Prime's business, however, is hard to put a finger on. According to one server, customers claim to have come from Virginia and North Carolina to try Dean's food, yet on a sweltering Friday night, the restaurant feels oddly vacant with only two to three tables filled at any given time. Perhaps it's because it's just too darn hot to think about eating anything but a salad (or a sno-ball) when the mercury hits 100 degrees. Or maybe it's because Prime's exterior and interior are so uninviting.
Of course, some will argue, rightly, that a restaurant's décor and design are secondary to what's on the plate. And who among us (myself included) isn't thrilled to find great grub in a grubby dive? But when a press release reprinted on Prime's web site trumpets "classic upscale fine dining" in "a cozy and inviting atmosphere," one expects "upscale," "cozy," and "inviting." And yet nothing about Prime suggests any of this. The restaurant's front, tucked among other commercial enterprises on this busy stretch of Eastern Avenue, lacks curb appeal.
Inside, a mantel over a fireplace is cluttered with detritus, save two framed photos (one of Dean's mentor, Jean-Louis Palladin, and one of Dean himself), plastic plants sit too close to dining tables, and the deep-brown walls bear white specks of nail holes and plaster that require patching and painting. The dining room is clean, but feels sadly shabby, rather than casual. And the experience of sitting there certainly doesn't feel half as special or satisfying as the food on the plate.
This is disappointing because Prime has many good things going on. The staff is sweet, eager to please, and enthusiastic about the food, and Dean himself easily sweeps through the dining room stopping briefly at each table to make sure folks are enjoying the meal. He doesn't make much chit chat, but you get the impression he's sincerely glad you're there. Prime also boasts relatively modest prices for a steakhouse. No entrée is more than $30, and sides, generous enough for a table of four, are included. Given this, you might not need an appetizer, but then you'd miss the more sophisticated examples of Dean's talent.
That pale golden corn soup ($8) is brought to the table in a porcelain pitcher and poured around a small lump crab cake resting in the bottom of the bowl. Each component is lovely in its own right, but together, they sing. Dean's duck confit with northern white beans ($10) is an equally fine rendition of a classic pairing. With the nudge of a fork, the silky leg meat falls effortlessly off the bone to meld with the beans glazed in duck fat, a totally welcome indulgence. And even a spinach salad ($7), easily large enough for two, avoids being too healthful with the addition of browned Maplewood smoked bacon.
Prime's entrée portion of the menu predictably focuses on steaks, offering five cuts of grilled meat, including 20-ounce porterhouse and cowboy steaks and 12- and 16-ounce portions of New York strip. There are also pork and lamb chops, several seafood preparations, and a roast chicken, which I would definitely try on another visit. Which is not to say the meat isn't good. Both a nine-ounce filet mignon ($29) and 16-ounce ribeye ($28) please as only protein can. Dean seasons the meat heavily (those sensitive to salt, consider yourselves warned), but grills it expertly to crusty exterior and pinkish-red interior (for medium rare). Three plump lamb chops ($28), suitably lean and fleshy, benefitted from a similarly fine preparation, but the catfish and grits ($18), three thin fillets breaded to a crisp and served on cheesy grits studded with fresh nuggets of crunchy-hot jalapeño, elicited the most positive remarks at our table. There were leftovers--including hash browns, old-fashioned macaroni and cheese, and whipped to a frenzy mashed potato sides--and everyone wanted to take them home for tomorrow's lunch. (Creamed spinach, Cajun fries, and poached asparagus are other side choices for the less carb-centric diner.)
In steakhouse mode, Prime offers two restaurant standard desserts: a molten chocolate soufflé ($9) served tongue-burningly hot and an adequate crème brûlée ($10) smothered in fresh fruit. Each is acceptable, though their price tags seem a little high.
Not as acceptable, however, is a truly dull wine list. Quality food deserves quality drink, not mass market brands. And in the same way that Michael Franks' thin voice warbling "Popsicle Toes" over the Prime soundsystem registers as lightweight compared to the rich vocals of classic jazz singers like, say, Johnny Hartman, Prime's drink offerings are generic and bland compared to other steakhouse lists. This, however, could be remedied pretty easily, as could the cosmetics of the building.
Dean clearly has the culinary talents to make Prime the affordable, premier steakhouse he would like it to be. The question is can he pull the rest together to make Prime a top restaurant? I really hope so.