As I sunk into the luxurious leather booths at Julian's, smelling the clean white linen tablecloths and admiring the civilized, sleek curve of the glistening martini glass, I began to recall some of the terrific steaks I have consumed over the years.
One in particular came to mind.
An emergency certainly has a way of imprinting details that otherwise might be forgotten. Maybe that's why I recall so exactly the tender, 16-ounce rib-eye steak served during a country barbecue on a prairie ranch near the tiny village of Bayard, a speck of humanity dwarfed by the rocky badlands of my home state of Nebraska.
Shortly before arriving to the town where the barbecue was to take place, a monstrous black cloud had engulfed our car, nearly blowing it off the road with horrific wind and howling rain. I had just turned onto Bayard's one-block Main Street when I heard the scream of warning sirens. Abandoning the car, I was lucky to find shelter inside a nearby fire station. Minutes later, a tornado slammed into the town, splintering trees with deadly shear and peeling the roofs off 22 buildings. Fortunately, no one was injured.
My poise left like a dog deserts an empty dish. When I finally pulled into the ranch a few miles away, I was still grappling with my emotions but managed to inquire whether the barbecue would be postponed. The grizzled cowboys looked at me quizzically, and a half-hour later we sat down to outdoor picnic tables groaning with huge platters of charbroiled steaks, baked potatoes oozing with butter, bowls of creamed green beans, sourdough bread, hand-cranked ice cream for dessert, and hot coffee as a chaser.
The steak was divine; I remember its every last morsel. For some reason, we didn't even discuss the weather.
It was strange to be thinking about that meal, its locale so wild and empty, as I sat inside the dignified confines of an accomplished steakhouse like Julian's, its expensive array of beef and seafood dishes artistically presented and as complex as Nebraska is flat and bare. Set in a historic home in downtown St. Petersburg, the restaurant is owned by Michael Budowski and managing partner Keith D. Stone.
And though the service occasionally faltered, the restaurant's fare was consistently excellent.
Inside, the dining room is deep brown and beige, booths upholstered with real leather, soft to the touch and warm like human skin. The crowd leans toward formally dressed women and casually dressed men; the atmosphere, unusually quiet and restrained.
Four sets of French doors line the room. In a previous incarnation, they opened outside to a patio heavy with greenery, which flooded the interior with natural light; now, all the doors are shut and covered with brown blinds. Some people might find the dark intimate, but it felt confined to me.
Still, it wasn't unpleasant. For one thing, when the kitchen doors open, you can faintly smell the fire chef Bobby Prichard uses to grill his fine steaks, and perhaps that's what ignited my Nebraska memory.
We started with drinks, the bartender easily passing my "weird drink" test with a precise Side Car ($6.25), the glass' rim jeweled with a ring of sugar. The Martini Tester wanted his usual, but inexplicably became tongue-tied mid-order. The patient waiter, who seemed to divine the problem, began a diplomatic version of Seven Questions.
"Vodka or gin?" the server inquired.
"Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray?"
"Up or on the rocks?"
Another night, we ordered Beaulieu Vineyards' Coastal Chardonnay ($4.95/glass) from the comprehensive, 200-item wine list, honored for its variety by Wine Spectator magazine.
However, during both visits, we had to endure a 10-minute lecture about various cuts and menu specials before we could order food. I am not a fan of this sort of "information," especially if you're with a date. Such a lengthy intrusion kills conversation and disturbs the delicate pace and mood of the evening. And since we were a captive audience pinned in our chairs, there was no polite way to cut it short.
Each table has two servers, which we found confusing. We forgot who was ours, waited too long for drink refills, put up too long with dirty plates, and on one visit, had to ask for bread.
Still, the excellence of the food more than made up for minor service errors.
One night, we started with beef carpaccio tenderloin ($9.95), a thinly-sliced, raw beef appetizer dotted with a homemade mayonnaise, strewn with capers, Asiago cheese and chiffonade spinach — the leaves rolled and lightly julienned to enhance flavorful natural oils. The meat was so tender that the tines of the fork tore its fabric gently, like sheer cloth sometimes splits away from the sewing needle. Another night, I tried cream of crab soup ($5.95), its silken broth a work of art, paired with sherry, heavy cream and a generous helping of fresh lump crabmeat.
But of course the focal point is steak, all USDA prime, aged specimens. The Thursday special, steak au poivre ($24.95), featured a 16-ounce New York strip, crunchy with a thick coat of crushed peppercorns, cooked exactly to medium rare and served with a Brandy-flavored sauce so good I mopped the plate with bread to capture the last drop. We ordered as a side dish asparagus ($4.95), perfect deep-green spears crowned with shavings of Parmesan.
Another night, my dinner partner sampled a plain New York strip ($24.95). It arrived cooked exactly to medium well, branded with grillmarks and dewy with juice. Those who prefer steak with fancy sauce may order with any entree the chef's elegant Bearnaise, Burgundy mushroom, shallot demi-glaze or peppercorn sauce.
Though Julian's is primarily a steakhouse, its numerous seafood offerings are as well done as the beef dishes. My dinner partner one night ordered a tasty red snapper ($19.95) encrusted with chopped olives and fresh tarragon, a healthy piece of fresh fish brightened with a complex sun-dried tomato and artichoke cream sauce and pooled with roasted tomato garlic coulis.
Dessert was a memorable chocolate cake ($7.95), nearly a souffle, with a frozen nugget of Godiva chocolate set inside that melted as it baked. When you cut the cake, molten chocolate streamed onto the plate, hot brown lava muddying with its bittersweet charm two pristine scoops of frigid vanilla-bean ice cream set beside it. Pretty spectacular finish, indeed.
Maybe someday, when I'm sitting out beside an improvised grill made from old bedsprings on the blank prairie of Nebraska, the memory of Julian's cake or its fantastic steak au poivre will suddenly return to cheer me. Now, that would be a surprise.
Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.