Red meat retro

Break out carving knife and suspenders and enjoy Capital Grille

click to enlarge SUIT UP: Cindy Argento and Dave Mann enjoy dinner at Capital Grille, which brings traditional steakhouse ambience to International Plaza. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
SUIT UP: Cindy Argento and Dave Mann enjoy dinner at Capital Grille, which brings traditional steakhouse ambience to International Plaza.

It's a bit jarring to walk from International Plaza proper into the semi-attached Capital Grille. Upscale teenage girls cruise the brightly lit mall, sometimes accompanied by their similarly dressed moms. The restaurant — one of the latest additions to this national steakhouse empire — is cool, calm and so dark it takes time for my eyes to adjust. When they do, I feel like I've traveled back in time a couple of decades.

Dark wood, monumental painted portraits of important white guys and black leather booths line the walls. Almost everyone in the place is male, with the loosened tie and half-rolled shirtsleeves that indicate a rough day trading securities or manipulating currency. Some of these guys are even wearing suspenders. Huh? What happened to business casual?

In one sense, the placement of Capital Grille smack dab in the middle of this slightly upscale commerce temple makes spiritual sense. The modern steakhouse was revitalized in the wild and crazy '80s, when everyone had a WorldCom-sized expense account and wasn't afraid to use it. The financial sector's working-class nouveau riche wanted the best, but didn't have the refined tastes to go with it. So they spent their money on the simple steaks and high-priced red wines of the classic steakhouse, emulating the moneyed elite of New York's past.

Now the expense accounts have all but dried up, and paying $35 for a steak — even if you are on Atkins — can't survive as a daily habit. High-end steakhouse chains have become, for most of us, a special-occasion sort of place. Management keeps this in mind at The Capital Grille, going so far as to label the take-home pamphlets "souvenir menus."

That's why it doesn't surprise me to see the manager decorating an intimate table with a healthy sprinkling of fresh pink rose petals. It's for an anniversary, she tells us. They do it all the time. These days, a steakhouse can't live on businessmen alone.

The giant, one-sheet menu holds no surprises. It's not supposed to. Simply grilled meat, fish and lobster are the heart and soul of the steakhouse. When the kitchen does try to push the culinary envelope — even just a little — the result often doesn't make the grade.

That was apparent when we forked into a nightly special — blue crab salad with goat cheese vinaigrette ($15). The giant alabaster hunks of cool shellfish were absolutely perfect, fresh and buttery and, thankfully, unadorned. The dressing on the romaine salad underneath was overwhelmingly acidic, as if tart young goat cheese had been added to the vinaigrette. I began to wish I had ordered the crab salad minus the salad.

Spinach salad ($6.95) was equally disappointing, warm bacon dressing cooled and diluted by what appeared to be wet spinach. Wash, then dry.

Covered in gooey gruyere and crunchy croutons, Capital Grille's French onion soup ($5.95) is savory and sweet in equal measure. It's a staple of the steakhouse repertoire, as is the steak tartare ($12.95). Shaped like an uncooked burger patty, pink ground beef is mixed with onions and capers, supported by a bed of hard-boiled egg. It's fine, but so old-fashioned it's almost food kitsch.

Honestly, though, all this is just a precursor to the main event, easily forgettable and certainly more peripheral to the meal than at most restaurants. These starters only delay the upcoming carnivore's carnival, like a self-imposed waiting period to heighten anticipation. Appetizers indeed.

Surprisingly, we didn't need to wait long. Our otherwise solicitous and exceptionally knowledgeable server (she scored well on our impromptu Capital Grille corporate quiz) had obviously jumped the gun when she told the kitchen to fire up our entrees. She asked if we were finished with our half-eaten first course, and within 30 seconds our meat was hitting the table. I wonder how long they would have let the entrees sit under the heat lamp if we'd wanted to linger over our starters?

A few hastily sliced bites of chicken, steaks and fish immediately made it clear why Capital Grille is worth a visit: The chefs know how to grill, and they are unabashedly unafraid of seasoning. When all you've got is a bare hunk of animal flesh, what's needed most is a liberal dose of salt and an experienced hand at the grill (especially when there are 40-100 items over the flames).

Our sliced filet mignon — with cippolini onions and wild mushrooms ($32.95) — sat in a puddle of its own bloody juices, the deeply caramelized black exterior contrasting with the uniformly rosy red interior. The crust gave the meat a bare bit of salty crunch to accent the medium-rare meat. It was perfect.

Meaty swordfish ($26.95) is often mistakenly cooked just like beef, but not at this steak place. The big white slab of fish is exceptionally moist, grilled just enough to add some opacity to the flesh. The crust was over-seasoned in spots, but the fish was so good we found that minor fault easy to overlook.

Amongst all of these grilled greats, I was surprised to find that the roast chicken ($18.95) — by far the most humble and inexpensive entrée — was hands-down the best. Crisp skin covered juicy meat that was seasoned right to the bone. In some countries, this entrée could feed an entire family — it is, after all, an entire chicken split down the middle for convenience.

Even more surprising was the utterly humdrum Delmonico steak ($33.95). Bone-in rib eye is normally the king of steaks, marbled through and through with succulent fat. Yum. The Capital Grille offering looked great, but it was chewy and a bit dry, with little of the beefy flavor I expected. The fault lies with the buyers, not the kitchen.

Capital Grille does not rely solely on "prime" beef, which may explain the blah Delmonico. Prime is the highest grade offered by the USDA, indicating a higher quantity of marbling by weight. Prime doesn't guarantee quality, but fatty deposits are where the magic happens, so it certainly helps. Especially at $35 a pop.

Sides at these modern steakhouses are ridiculous — giant platters of food designed for sharing, and meant to compensate for high prices. Creamed spinach ($6.50) was fantastic, bright fresh greens balanced with rich béchamel and spicy nutmeg, while roasted mushrooms ($8.95) were a bit overwhelmed by garlic and thyme. The cheesy au gratin potatoes ($8.95) reminded me of a casserole at a family meal.

We weren't really dressed for the place — the Planet HQ is on the casual side of business casual — and after the rushed entrees we thought our server might try to push us out before we scared the locals during prime eating hours. She slowed down with the desserts, though, letting us enjoy a slice of flourless chocolate cake ($5.95) and a mini coconut cream pie ($6.95). The ubiquitous cake is well-done here, more bitter than sweet and lighter than most. A thin layer of coconut pastry cream, overburdened with a mound of admittedly tasty whipped cream, struggled to shine through in the pie.

The Tampa upscale steakhouse market is getting fairly crowded, but The Capital Grille knows how to compete on par with, if not ahead of, its peers. Placed at the mall, maybe it will even attract a bigger crowd of lower-end meat eaters. For all you butter-soaked Outback devotees, just think: For twice the price, you can get food that is twice as good.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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