High Steaks

What’s a nice grille doing in a place like this?

By Kathryn Robinson January 6, 2009 Published in the June 2008 issue of Seattle Met

CONTRARY TO POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, there is more to restaurant criticism than eating sumptuously in fine restaurants. There is, in the aftermath, actual work.

This is generally straightforward: The critic calls the restaurant and identifies herself by phone and asks the questions her critical visits left unanswered. What is a dry-aged steak? the critic might inquire, after she’s eaten a meal or three at the new Seattle outpost of the Capital Grille, which specializes in the process. Or perhaps, finding herself in a more investigative humor: How is it different from a wet-aged steak? Questions like these can typically be handled by any informed host—a good half-dozen of whom appeared to be roaring about during every one of my visits to Capital Grille. But not even our many servers could supply answers that actually satisfied 
the questions.

“Oh—for that you’ll need to speak with our manager,” chirped the cheerful young woman who picked up my call. “But the manager’s out.” So
 she bumped me up to the sales and marketing manager, and while I marveled that here was a restaurant with a sales and marketing manager, I learned that I needed to direct my inquiry to Capital Grille’s national director of field marketing in Atlanta.

I finally connected with this personage by phone—she had just deplaned in an East Coast airport—and my questions about the dry aging and the wet aging proved sufficiently top-security that the president of the company would need to address them himself. The president of the company!

Now, Capital Grille is a big operation, having burgeoned in its 18-year life from its first location in Providence, Rhode Island, to 33 outposts nationwide. The Seattle branch, which opened in February in the historic Cobb Building at Fourth and University, represents its first foray to the West Coast. That is if you don’t count San Francisco, which opened 10 years ago—then closed. Real estate misstep, Capital Grille president John Martin explained when I at last had him on the phone. Financial district before the new baseball park. Ahead of its time.

Or, I wondered…miscast in a city like San Francisco? A chain trying to make it in a land of beloved hometown steakhouses, like Harris’ and Alfred’s? In that respect, San Francisco isn’t far different from Seattle: foodie burgs spoiled by stunning independents, skeptical of any canned experience, and cynical about restaurants with sales and marketing managers. Indeed, I wondered as I pushed through the revolving door of the 30th iteration of Capital Grille: Would Seattle embrace the 30th iteration of anything?

Who knew the revolving door would deposit me smack in the middle of the Golden Era? The space is the sprawling entry level of the Cobb Building—the luxury apartment built 98 years ago as the first medical-dental office complex west of the Mississippi—and clad in lush carpet, uptown marble, and burnished mahogany. A mirrored bar stretched across one wall. Everywhere were poufy drapes, plantation shutters, oxblood banquettes, gilt-framed portraits. Behemoth amber light fixtures hung from the ceiling in an embarrassment of opulence. Taxidermy smiled pleasantly from the pillars.

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If Seattle’s time-honored Second Avenue steakhouse, Metropolitan Grill, is the clubby bankers’ vault, Capital Grille is the aristocrat’s drawing room—and staffed by a leggy fleet of hosts and more waiters and busers and, apparently, midlevel managers than any establishment I’ve ever patronized.

Past tables and tables of fat cats and big dogs, to the strains of Sinatra and Bublé crooning standards, we were led to our white-napped booth, where our napkins were snapped and draped upon our laps, and, in time, our flatware adjusted to reflect our orders. Mine: the 24-ounce dry-aged porterhouse. My companion’s: the Kona-coffee-crusted dry-aged sirloin with caramelized shallot butter.

Five members of the Fleet marched the food out to our table in a choreographed line worthy of Busby Berkeley, and the minute I slid my knife into my porterhouse I could tell the dry-aged difference. It held a denser, almost grainlike texture, which John Martin told me occurs because the dry-aging process draws moisture from meat, leaving its enzymes to deeply tenderize the muscle. Removing the water also enhances the beefy flavor, the way a reduction sauce deepens as the water cooks away. (Wet-aging, by contrast, is usually done in a vacuum-packed bag, enhancing the texture but not the flavor.) The meat at Capital Grille is dry-aged two weeks in a climate-controlled cooler in the restaurant basement, rendering it, if not the only dry-aged in town (see the Metropolitan Grill, Daniel’s Broiler, El Gaucho, even JaK’s Grill), at least the only one dry-aged on-premise.

And it’s great, if you go in for that kind of thing: the sirloin a masterpiece of flavor (enhanced by its coffee crust and piquant butter), the porterhouse a manful portion of Real Meat. I may be the sole carnivore in Christendom who prefers the texture God gave a cow—variable in its consistencies, a little sinewy here, a little unctuous there. But the Grille deals in regular meat too, notably, a top-notch filet mignon sliced thickly and served in a figgy caramelized sauce with cipollini onions and three varieties of wild mushroom.

Past tables and tables of fat cats and big dogs, to the strains of Sinatra and Bublé crooning the standards, we were led to our white-napped booth.

And the Grille, in the way of steakhouses everywhere, embellishes with all the usual suspects: seafood (an impressive piece of king salmon, since fish, like a steak, is so much about the cooking); salads made with bacon (one a wedge of iceberg lettuce lavished in creamy blue cheese and scattered with bacon, another spinach with warm bacon dressing—both exceptional); and rich sides (a cone of grana truffle fries, a salty but sumptuous potatoes au gratin, greaseless panko onion rings). Appetizers and desserts both merit special shout-outs, each deserving of entire visits in their honor. Aim for the meaty lobster–Dungeness crab cakes with corn salad or the prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella before dinner; the double-chocolate-mint ice cream sandwich or extraordinary vanilla cheesecake after. A tip of the toque to line cook and pastry maestro Hollis Irving, a prodigious talent whom I would follow anywhere—even to the 33rd Capital Grille, which opened last month in (but of course) Palm Beach, Florida. There, I’m sure, one can find a similar decorative opulence, a similarly meaty menu, a similarly vast serving staff managing to convey “overtrained” and “underinformed” in a single sweep of the crumb scoop.

But that property won’t, however, inhabit a landmark Seattle building, or offer a wine list heavy on Northwest labels, or showcase quite the same portraits—there’s Jimi Hendrix, Bertha Knight Landes, Eddie Bauer—in its gilded frames. Make no mistake. For local authenticity, Capital Grille is no Met Grill or Daniel’s—but neither is it a generic franchise like Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s. It dwells somewhere in between, in that happy land where your steak is like butter and there’s bacon in your salad, and hey—who was Bertha Knight Landes anyway?