Feel the power of the rooms, dig into the steak


The new Capital Grille already has a cachet that other upscale chain steak houses can only aspire to. This is something of a mystery, because it offers the standards of the genre: big cuts of prime beef with even bigger price tags, a la carte entrees, 1-pound baked potatoes, a wine list as long as the menu is short, cigar-smokers lounging in the bar, and a clubby decor.

But for some reason, Baltimore's newest steakhouse is also Baltimore's newest place to see and be seen. People dress up to eat here -- well, in a manner of speaking. Businessmen in suits are as common as guys in polo shirts. Slim women in little black dresses are tucking into 22-ounce Delmonicos. Children are nowhere to be seen.

To eat here is to be surrounded by the trappings of men's clubs, power and privilege. It isn't subtle. The maitre d' will lead you past the open kitchen through several dining rooms decorated with mahogany, booths upholstered in soft leather, mounted game heads, wall-to-wall oriental-style carpeting and large portraits of famous Marylanders in heavy gold frames. Customers can lease wine lockers with their names on them. (A little ostentatious, perhaps?)

And yet it works.

The reason it works is because there is no pomposity here. The staff is personable, eager to please and very good at it. Wine snobbery is kept to a minimum. You won't get a long lecture on how the Capital Grille dry-ages its steaks in-house (although I suppose your waiter will tell you if you ask).

There are only 17 entrees on the menu, and eight of them are steak. The kitchen pounds peppercorns into some of them and covers others with sauces, but each of them begins with as fine a cut of beef as you've probably ever tasted.

We ordered one, a boneless sirloin, medium rare and the other, a Delmonico steak, medium. One had a rare, red center and the other a juicy pink center, just as our waiter promised. The well-marbled Delmonico was artery-clogging heaven; the sirloin's full meaty flavor made up for its lack of crisp-edged fat.

Our only mistake was to let the kitchen fuss with these wonderful steaks. They should be ordered in all their pristine glory, with only a shake of salt, a sizzle of butter and a few turns of the pepper mill. Instead, we were seduced by a Kona coffee grounds crust for the sirloin (talk about name dropping) and a caramelized shallot butter. They didn't detract; they just weren't needed.

The same could be said of the porcini "dust" rub for the Delmonico and its balsamic vinegar reduction. The faint flavor of mushroom was pleasing, but the vinegar added a note of sweetness a great steak doesn't need.

The Capital Grille has fat, juicy lobsters (the smallest is 2 pounds), dripping with drawn butter. But the kitchen can also handle more subtle stuff, like sushi-grade tuna seared with sesame seeds and served with a bit of three different Asian-accented dipping oils. Gingered sticky rice comes on the side.

Other side dishes need to be ordered a la carte, including a mix of wild and domestic mushrooms cooked in butter, pencil-thin but still firm asparagus (alas, the hollandaise was too stiff to pour out of its pitcher), and ambrosial mashed potatoes so full of butter and cream they couldn't hold a shape.

Start with an order of the restaurant's signature calamari, crisp and gold and tossed with hot pickled peppers. No dipping sauce needed. The lobster and crab cakes paled in comparison. The prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella sticks with local cherry tomatoes were heavy and tough and came in a distant third.

I see no reason to save room for dessert. But if you must have it, there is a coconut cream pie, which is nothing much more than sweetened whipped cream and shaved coconut in a sweet pastry shell. Skip Death by Chocolate; you are already perilously close to Death by Cholesterol. Instead have the seasonal berries.

OK, if you must have chocolate, there is a cake filled with chocolate mousse. But my favorite dessert was the cheesecake made with ricotta and topped with fresh strawberries.

Alas, the after-dinner coffee is not Kona. You can only get the grounds on your steak.

Capital Grille

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: **** (4 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Where: 500 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $11.95-$42.95; entrees: $18.95-$49.95

Call: 443-703-4064

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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