Still good steak, and still swanky

Sun restaurant critic

Let me introduce you to the restaurant that was the ne plus ultra of dining out when I first arrived in Baltimore almost 30 years ago.

Things are and always have been tres sophisticated at the Prime Rib. The walls are black, the mirrors framed in gold, and the floors covered in swank wall-to-wall leopard-print carpeting. Someone is actually at the piano playing that suave piano music. And note the paintings: just slightly titillating but oh so tasteful, like that naked Leda cozying up to a swan.

Aren't the details perfect? I love the fresh flowers and the small fringed lamps on each elegantly set table.

Yes, it is noisy. But that's not really the restaurant's fault. We happen to be wedged in -- OK, the tables are pretty close together -- between two sets of birthday revelers.

The stage is set. I have my best pearls on, and I'm feeling that little frisson of excitement that happens when you know you're dressed elegantly and have about two pounds of beef heading your way.

This is a dining room that insists you drink a martini. No, I'm working, but you go ahead. We'll follow it with a full-bodied red from the encyclopedic wine list.

You want prime rib? You've come to the right place. The aged beef is superb here, tender and bursting with meaty flavor. If you say you want it pink, you'll get it pink. A couple used to be able to split an order of the Prime Rib's prime rib -- it's more than enough for two -- for a great special-occasion bargain. Nowadays, though, the prime rib and most of the steaks cost $30 (no side dishes included) and there's an $8.50 service charge for split entrees. It's not quite the bargain it used to be.

As for those steaks, I'd recommend getting the New York strip straight up, so to speak. Once the kitchen starts fooling around, it's just gilding the lily. The steak au poivre sports a marchands de vin sauce with shallots and reduced red wine, only the sauce hasn't been cooked long enough and the shallots still taste a little raw. Just scrape them off and enjoy the gorgeous, well-marbled meat.

Go ahead, start your meal with the jumbo lump crab cocktail or the gently smoked trout with mustard sauce and capers. Cost is no object. Which is good, because you get only five small oysters Rockefeller -- each one hardly a bite -- for $13. Still, I love the fresh spinach topping just hinting of anise, don't you? And small oysters are often more tender and flavorful than the large ones.

Funny how sophisticated we Baltimoreans like to think we are these days, what with our nouveau this-and-that cuisines; but we still crave the Prime Rib's hot, crunchy Greenberg potato skins. Why are they so good? They aren't loaded with cheese or bacon, but you just can't stop eating them.

One of the things that always surprises people about the Prime Rib is that, in spite of the name, it has some of the best seafood around. And the offerings have expanded since I was here last; it's almost as much a seafood restaurant now as it is a steakhouse.

We're not just talking crab cakes and stuffed flounder. Here's a Chilean sea bass with a vieille maison sauce. But aren't you surprised that our excellent waiter suggests we get it stuffed with crab imperial and have the sauce on the side? Does he know something we don't?

Good move, it turns out. This vieille maison sauce tastes like canned stewed tomatoes.

Still, the seafood itself is fabulously fresh and perfectly cooked. All in all, a better choice than the rack of lamb chops baked in garlic butter and served -- who knows why -- with both mango chutney and green mint jelly. The lamb is OK, but not world-class like the beef.

Oh dear. Somehow we've run up a huge bill without meaning to, just by ordering side dishes at $5 or more a pop.

Still, what do we care? We're on an expense account, so it seems churlish to complain. Of course, if you come back on your own -- well, you might be justified in complaining about the special side dish of the day, fresh Silver Queen corn cut off the cob and cooked in cream and butter. I'm not saying it is canned corn, but it does taste like canned corn. And how about the house salad with chopped egg, wintry tomatoes and a house dressing with practically no taste?

Haven't the au gratin potatoes gotten kind of mushy because they've been cooked too long? And why cook haricots verts Greek-style with tomatoes and onions? You lose the whole point of the young, tender green beans. But this perfectly seasoned creamed spinach will restore your faith in the kitchen.

Now take a deep breath, because you absolutely must make room for dessert -- even if you have to take a walk around the block first. Try to overlook the fact that the kitchen garnishes some of its desserts with lettuce leaves.

You could get the chocolate mousse cake with three different layers of chocolate, or the best Key lime pie north of Florida. And you won't find a more satisfying slab of apple pie, if you like it hot with a crust that shatters at the touch of a fork.

But I'm going to surprise you. In spite of the black walls and leopard-skin carpet, in spite of the fact that you feel so New York dining here, I'm going to suggest you get the bread pudding. There's nothing sophisticated about it; even the little squirt of whipped cream on top seems kind of silly. But this homey little bowl of bread pudding with its hot, buttery, rum-infused sauce -- well, it will knock your socks off.

Food: ** 1/2
Service:*** 1/2
Atmosphere: ***
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*

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