Prime Rib no longer seems a cut above


For what the Prime Rib charges, everything about dining there should be prime. Prime service. Prime presentation. Prime food.

It isn't.

The prices are prime. As in $21 for a filet mignon. Or $19 for two crab cakes. No salad. No potato. No vegetable. Those are ala carte. You'll pay $3 for a baked potato, $4.25 for a dish of creamed spinach, $4.50 for a small dish of sauteed mushrooms.

We know the Prime Rib is successful -- try getting a prime-time Saturday reservation there with less than two weeks' notice. But after a recent visit it's difficult to understand why so many people are willing to part with so much money for a meal that -- at least from my experiences -- is no better than those served elsewhere for less money.

We entered with high expectations. It had been more than a decade since we had dined at the Prime Rib and the limited options in getting a reservation with just a week's notice made us think that this must still be one of the premier places to dine in Baltimore.

It certainly is one of the most attractive. Glass doors open into two black-walled rooms that sparkle with elegance.

But the pace was too hurried and the tables too close together for elegant dining.

Despite the dim lights, piano music and luxurious atmosphere, the Prime Rib doesn't seem to want people to settle in. We barely had our menus when the waiter came looking for our orders. Minutes later, we barely had our drinks before he asked again if we were ready to order. That kind of pace continued throughout dinner.

I felt like we were dining with three other couples, none of whom we had come in with. Eavesdropping couldn't be avoided and waiters had to reach across the outside diner at each of the closely packed tables-for-two to serve the person sitting against the wall.

The menu is small and pleasantly uncomplicated with as much seafood as red meat.

We began with Oysters Rockefeller ($8.75) and a Caesar salad ($5).

The five oysters, while huge and topped with a good creamed spinach, rested under cheese slices that tended to pull off in one huge chunk instead of melting into the spinach.

The Caesar, beautiful with its luxurious dark green lettuce, was dominated by a sharp-edged dressing that tasted far more of Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice than of cheese. The unusual treatment was jarring.

For entrees, we settled on the filet mignon and the crab cakes. With them we ordered the mushrooms and the creamed spinach.

The filet was good, but not what you would expect from a restaurant that has built its fame around beef. The menu boasted that the Prime Rib's beef came from the best Midwestern cattle and had been aged for an unusually long time. Neither was evident; the meat had neither the flavor nor the texture of the best of the Midwest.

On the other hand, the crab cakes were superb -- large, beautifully golden and filled with lightly seasoned lump crab. They were among the best I've had.

Both the mushrooms and the spinach were ordinary, as was their presentation, or lack of it. Both had been ladled into small dishes, without garnishes.

None of the desserts is homemade, our waiter said. On his recommendation, my husband tried the Triple Mousse Cake. I had a slice of plain cheesecake.

The mousse cake was barely more than ordinary. Both the bland taste and the spongy texture were what you'd expect from mass-produced desserts. The cheesecake, which had a nice, creamy texture, had even less taste than the mousse. I didn't finish it.

We were surprised when the bill came to see how expensive dessert had been -- $6 for the mouse, $4.75 for the cheesecake. Our bill, with two cocktails, two coffees and a bottle of wine ($20) was about $111.

Despite his pace, our waiter was attentive, pleasant and did make some menu recommendations. The maitre d' was, however, brusque and devoid of charm. Not what you would expect in a restaurant with the Prime Rib's reputation. But, then, neither was the food.

** 1/2 The Prime Rib Calvert and Chase streets (410) 539-1804 Hours: Dinner only, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Reservations: Recommended.

Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.

Handicapped access: Accessible.

Smoking: Separate areas designated.

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