Maryland Live Casino has opened its version of the Prime Rib, the iconic Baltimore steakhouse that has flourished almost from the second of its founding in 1965 by the Beler brothers.
The new steakhouse is operated by the casino and is technically unaffiliated with the Prime Rib restaurants in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington. The casino operators describe the relationship as a licensing partnership with Buzz Beler. He has, by all accounts, played a significant role in pulling off the casino restaurant, whose chefs received training in the Prime Rib ways in the Washington restaurant's kitchen.
Business arrangements aside, there are other, more meaningful ways in which the new restaurant is at once the Prime Rib and not the Prime Rib. This is true of any reproduction, but the way it plays out at the casino is fascinating.
It's worth going, just to see what the absence of mystique feels like and to appreciate how essential it's been to the Prime Rib experience. Without it, dollar signs start to dance around your $61 steak.
No one would have wanted a museum replica of the downtown restaurant, and the casino's broad and breezy reproduction of the Prime Rib atmosphere is perfectly suited to a high-energy casino environment. But with its leopard-print carpeting, studded leather booths and Louis Icart prints, the casino restaurant is recognizably the Prime Rib.
Much has been gained, beginning just inside the front doors, with an impressively appointed bar and lounge area, with seating for 75. The main dining area has elbow room to spare, too, and the noise level is comfortable.
There are other attractions, like a swell-looking, glass-walled semiprivate dining room, perfect for high rollers, and, just off the main dining room, a drop-dead gorgeous 76-seat patio with a glass fire pit and retractable roof.
Something has been lost, too. The scale is off, with a squared-out feel to the room's dimensions and too-high ceilings. It lacks intimacy, which isn't a requirement for a steakhouse, but there isn't anything in its place, yet. That could change. Table games are on their way to the casino, some of them headed for the area adjacent to the restaurant. So, it could end up being exciting instead of intimate. The patio, when the weather turns nice, should be a destination of its own.
Service is coming along but has a way to go. That's to be expected, and, as bad luck would have it — well, it is a casino — we chose a night when the restaurant's dining room manager, Jean-Jacques Retourne, formerly of Washington's Citronelle, was not present to supervise and inspire his staff.
The service isn't bad. But it lacks the authority and confidence that turns a dinner at the original Prime Rib into an evening out. There is not, at the new Prime Rib, the feeling of being in good hands.
The menu at the new Prime Rib is similar in structure and pricing to the original. Steaks are the main thing, supported by classic preparation of lamb, veal and fish. There are a few dishes original to the casino restaurant. A dramatically produced cold seafood assortment — heads turn when it passes by — is just the sort of controlled flash that will work well.
A new appetizer called lacquered bacon and eggs, which sounded like an original showpiece, turned out to be hard-boiled eggs with a strip of caramelized bacon over toast. The new $36 ahi tuna appetizer delivered nothing more exciting than what's served at a dozen Canton pubs.
When you keep to what the Prime Rib always does well, you're golden. Chilean sea bass, baked in parchment, is a hunk of buttery heaven. Twin lamb chops, double-cut, are meaty, juicy and perfectly cooked. The 16-ounce dry-aged USDA Prime New York strip is the best steak you can find in three counties.
The new Prime Rib should be justifiably proud of the hefty wine list. But dessert items like bread pudding and pecan pie are only ordinary. In a few minutes you'll have forgotten all about them.
A defining element of the original Prime Rib is a regular crowd, which contributes to the atmosphere of excitement and specialness at the downtown restaurant. On a good night, this can feel like love. Regular diners can make servers better, too. They bring high expectations and reward restaurants with loyalty when they're met. But that's missing here.
A regular crowd may start coming to Hanover when the table games arrive. Until they do, dinner at the Prime Rib is a gamble.
The Prime Rib
Rating: ** and a half
Where: 7002 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover