The Triumph of Pomp Over Taste
The Capital Grille
801 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 692-9000.
Here are some things that give me headaches: social circles in which trophy wives are considered reasonable goals, unoriginal art, homonyms. So every time I left the Capital Grille I had to spend the rest of the day in a dark room with a cold compress on my head, which might have turned me against them.
It's not like they didn't give me plenty of warning: In their press packet for this newest branch of the national upscale steak chain there was a quote from a loyal Washington, D.C., customer attesting to just how many trophy wives and would-be trophy wives litter the joint: "We call them 'My Little Ponies,'" said the customer, because "they're cute and you can play with them." (This was the same press packet in which a chorus of food critics from around the country all agree that you can get better steaks at Morton's--and a Capital Grille spokesperson says she loves negative reviews, since people will come to the restaurant purely based on any review's headline and photo.)
As for homonyms, I first imagined that the Capital Grille was themed after the nation's capitol and the regal trappings of democracy, but after a few meals under enormous bronze medallions that replicate the central circles on U.S. currency it finally dawned on me that the Capital Grille is all about capital--like capital gains, capital expenditures, and let's all sop around in giant pools of luscious green capital until our expense accounts run dry. Not that I've ever had a problem with celebratory meals of pricey delicacies, or even ordinary meals of pricey delicacies, but there's something so tacky about a restaurant themed around cash and the iconography of cash (in the same way that the Rain Forest Cafe is themed around cuddly critters) that I would expect it would give all thinking people migraines. But it doesn't, at least to judge by the throngs of people who crowd this inexplicably popular capital palace.
What's the big draw? The enticing headlines and photos of other negative reviews? The 100 percent African mahogany walls? The faux Rembrandts on the walls? The overpriced drink menu? (Call me a socialist, but I think it's the very definition of tacky to charge $14.95 a shot for liquor that costs $29.95 a bottle at Surdyk's, like the Capital Grille does for Booker Noe bourbon. To me this says that they figure their patrons don't have a clue what they're ordering.) There are some truly good things about the Capital Grille--like the knowledgeable, helpful, discreet service, the scrupulously fresh raw bar, and the lovely clam chowder--but surely that isn't enough to blind everyone to the less-than-thrilling food and truly alarming theme.
The lackluster breadbasket is your first clue to the lackluster food that will follow: You get a big, dry cracker, some stale breadsticks, and some other long-ago-sliced breads. Some of the appetizers were very good, especially the pan-fried calamari with slices of hot cherry peppers, a perfect upscale bar food that rivals buffalo wings for being spicy, crispy, and un-put-downable ($7.95). I also liked anything from the raw bar: The oysters were glowing and fresh and the little neck clams were plump, sweet, and utterly delectable--wet, just-shucked beauties. The lobster and crab cakes had several chunks of fresh lobster but were composed mainly of a pallid crab batter that tasted greasy and dull ($12.95). Weirdly, this steak chain's weakest appetizer is steak tartare ($9.95), a mushy, earth-brown pile of meat that was exposed to air for far too long before it reached our table, and in consequence tasted like lukewarm nothing.
Soups are all special; the pea soup ($3.25 cup, $3.75 bowl) is rich, hammy, and tasty as all get out, and the clam chowder is creamy, potato-laced, and full of tender clams that avoid the rubbery-clam trap so often found in chowder ($3.75 cup, $4.25 bowl). As a longtime clam-chowder devotee I can honestly say I've had few better bowls.
As for the main attraction, the steaks, you really can get a far better one at any of the big Ms (Manny's, Murray's, Morton's) or at the Cherokee Sirloin Room. If you're here anyway, the porterhouse ($27.95) is the best cut of beef on the menu; the sections near the bone have traces of the deep flavor and winey strength you expect from a great steak. Avoid the steak au poivre ($22.95 for 14 ounces or $27.95 for 20 ounces) since the meat really can't stand up to the peppercorn crust, and for my money the filet mignon--which I expect to be sweet, buttery, melting, and luscious--was more merely thick and adequate, the kind of steak that makes vegetarians wonder what all the fuss is about. (Filet mignon: 8 ounces at lunch for $13.95, 10 ounces at lunch $16.95; 10 ounces at dinner $17.95, 14 ounces, $21.95.)
The thick, plump veal chop ($25.95) was very good, grilled perfectly, tender and buttery even before the addition of garlic butter or Roquefort butter. The three regular fish options were all very good: My favorite was the blackened tuna with a Remoulade sauce ($19.95), a gorgeous cut of fish that was wisely presented as plainly as possible. The grilled swordfish with lemon butter ($12.95 lunch, $20.95 dinner) and salmon fillet with dill mayonnaise ($11.95 lunch, $19.95 dinner) were both great cuts of fish cooked simply and well.
The best part of the Capital Grille are the side dishes: The creamed spinach ($4.50) is perfectly fresh and silky, and not at all gummy, soggy, or bitter; the roast mushrooms are delicious, and enhance the steaks dramatically; Lyonnaise potatoes ($4.75) are buttery, skillet-fried, flecked with sweet browned onions, and absolutely delectable; and the towering stacks of cottage fries and onion rings ($4.75) are heavenly--on two of my visits my companions finished all the potatoes and packed up big hunks of steak to take home. (All the side dishes can be ordered in half portions.) The asparagus ($6.25) here is pretty much luck of the draw; on one visit it was perfect, spring-green delicate spears that looked like an enamel still life, yet on another visit they arrived bruised and tired-looking, which I suspect simply has to do with the difficulties of produce trucks. In any event the accompanying Hollandaise is always prepared perfectly.
Desserts, except the eggy, lovely crème brûlée ($5.25), all would have seemed more at home at a downscale breakfast chain than at a $50-a-plate dinner: The tiramisu tastes chalky and pre-fab ($5.75); the flourless chocolate espresso cake ($5.95) is more of a light, too-sweet, too-creamy mousse than a cake; the white-chocolate mousse was nearly inedible, toothache sweet and with that weird chemical aftertaste that you get with some brands of bad white chocolate; the key lime pie ($5.25) was also super-sugary and more like a cheesecake than the tart and sprightly dessert the name implies.
The after-dinner teas perfectly sum up my problems with the Capital Grille: They're presented in an elegant, burnished wooden humidor, but when the box is opened the teas inside are standard cafeteria-issue Bigelow--the perfect triumph of pomp and theater over taste. Thankfully, it was over that last cup of tea that I solved my homonym dilemma--I'm not going to call it the Capital Grille anymore. Anybody for oysters at the Filthy Lucre Roast?
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