For Heaven’s Steak
Another Steakhouse Chain Moves Into Baltimore
Other cuisines and concepts come and go, but, someday, every new Baltimore restaurant will either be an upscale steakhouse or its thinly disguised twin, the upscale seafood restaurant. Café Asia (later Red Coral) and EurAsian Harbor ultimately failed to attract a regular clientele with cool fusion and cooler settings and have been replaced with, respectively, Blue Sea Grill and yet another Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Big Steaks Management emphatically denies the rumor, currently percolating through many local restaurant staffs, that it will be partly expanding its Market Place Ruth’s Chris into the Babalu Grill space, but that such a rumor could gain traction testifies to the powerful mystique steakhouse culture holds in Baltimore.
Area restaurateurs will tell you that Baltimore diners are notoriously conservative and value-conscious, and that portion size trumps precise craftsmanship and culinary playfulness every time. A well-cooked steak served professionally in a fancy setting holds the kind of elastically stretching value that entrepreneurs dream about. Capital Grille is the latest rapidly expanding chain to drop its concept in Baltimore, and it chose a new low-rise Inner Harbor office building.
The space looks appropriately swell, a few shades brighter perhaps than its competitors, with all the reassuringly masculine iconography of the modern steakhouse in place. There’s the patterned burgundy carpeting (it may be sold as “steakhouse” red), the warm mahogany accents, the big glass vessel of pineapple-infused vodka on the bar, the folio-sized menu. (Oddly, as big as it is, the menu omits the encouraging descriptions that are provided on the company’s web site.) The Atlanta-based chain has smartly relaxed its tourist-area dress code and decorated its new rooms with outsize portraits of such Baltimore-connected figures as Johnny Unitas, Thurgood Marshall, and Johns Hopkins. Wardrobe might be one of the few steakhouse areas that allow for some innovation, and Capital Grille’s twist takes the form of cream-colored tunics over long white aprons. (Quick, someone, hire up Santino from Project Runway.)
What most distinguishes Capital Grille from its competitors is, quite simply, that it serves lunch. This gives more of us a chance to check it out and still make rent. Nicely, Capital Grille’s lunch menu includes not only scaled-down versions of its evening fare but also sandwiches (such as a signature cheeseburger, a sourdough club, a lobster-and-crab burger) and luncheon-salad entrées (Caesar variations, along with grilled tuna, salmon, and Maine lobster salads). The Capital Grille is still not a cheap lunch but it’s negotiable, providing you forego the martini and dessert, which we elected to and wound up spending $50 before tip.
Capital Grille serves its lunch patrons in the bar and adjacent areas. Newspapers are fanned out on the bar, a plus for a solitary diner, along with bowls of very salty, thirst-making homemade chips. The only thing disturbing the secret-club, hiding-from-the-boss atmosphere is the winter sunlight seeping through the floor-to-ceiling windows. An ice-cold martini ($7.75, Smirnoff is the house pour) takes the edge off the afternoon. A water request is thoughtfully filled, at no charge, from an imported bottle.
The large-format Caesar salad ($8) has real anchovy flavor in its dressing, a definite plus, and whole fillets are added on at no additional cost. Plenty of good shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano tops chilled and well-chopped romaine hearts, into which have been layered savory shards of cheese-baked croutons. The salad, really, is large enough to stand on its own as lunch.
But then you’d miss out on the dry-aged sirloin steak ($22), which might stand as the city’s new premier lunch indulgence. This is not a lunch-sized steak but some 12 ounces of impressively tender, well-marbled steak. Capital Grille obediently honors rare requests (it even cooks it super-rare, still cold in the center), and can apply one of its signature rubs ($2 extra). The Hawaiian rub crystallizes subtle coffee and sugar flavors on the exterior, giving the steak some welcome warmth and complexity. A way too big side of creamy smashed potatoes—another modern steakhouse staple: oversized sides—accompanies it, along with two gorgeous little marinated cipollini onions.
Only a glutton would want dessert after all of this, and so we tried a (too big) slice of Capital Grille’s unfinishably luscious flourless espresso cake ($5.95) and a cup of coffee served with chilled cream. The steakhouse concept succeeds best only when the food is both perfectly administered and impressively big. Capital Grille plays this game extremely well. And if you can’t make it downtown for lunch, one should be coming your way soon.