Wake-up call

That hotel feeling interrupts a steak dinner at Delaney & Murphy

When I was a kid, two events were truly special for my sister and me--eating at a steakhouse and staying overnight at a hotel. Often these situations coincided. When our family vacationed, my father might celebrate the occasion with that working-class '70s emblem of aristocratic indulgence--the steak. And we kids, having been raised on the gospel of red meat, couldn't help but become excited at this flirtation with the high life.

When the time came to order our steaks, I was the lone gadfly at the table, invariably requesting my meat bloody rare--or, as my father liked to joke, "cooked only till a good veterinarian could revive it." Well done was and continues to be my entire family's mantra, while to this day I can pass the butcher's counter at a supermarket and feel my mouth water at all those raw, juicy red slabs of beef.

Growing up, in and of itself, doesn't take the fun out of life; it's the accumulation of responsibility that taints your enthusiasm for what were once fascinating safaris into the adult world. I've since come to associate hotels with work-related assignments, not play. And although I can still enjoy a good steak every now and then, I've all but eliminated red meat from my diet because...well, isn't that part of being a responsible American adult?

I tried vainly to let my inner child take the reins for a recent prandial trot through Delaney & Murphy, a new steakhouse that opened beside the Radisson Park Central Hotel at Coit and LBJ Freeway. The combination of expensive beef cuts and vacation accommodations would surely revive the butterflies in my stomach that signaled I was being lifted out of my daily routine and treated to something special. And one of the perks of being a food critic is that my publication picks up the tab just like my Dad did--with the glorious added mandate of trying not one, but several of the most expensive dishes on the menu.

As we were led to a table inside the smoking room of Delaney & Murphy, I wistfully told myself, "Jimmy, you can grow up, but you'll never grow old." Midway through the meal, I'd crashed hard from this Peter Pan trip. The tackiness of the faux luxury atmosphere was so invasive, it even managed to smother my sense of taste. Then again, the generally mediocre fare didn't seem in any condition to go mano a mano with my well-exercised taste buds--I'd had meat of equal quality for half the price at Steak & Ale.

The meal began swimmingly enough with two genuinely scrumptious appetizers. Indeed, scallops wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon may have been the high point of the experience--not good, considering they were the first thing we tried. Served with a small bowl of hot olive oil in the center, the large sushi-like rolls of pork and fish were a delightful contrast of crisp and tender, smoky and subtle. The crab cakes in a rich, creamy coriander and caper sauce were also stellar, each golden-brown cake served on its own round mattress of hashed and browned potatoes alongside a haystack of fresh jicama, carrot, and green pepper.

The road began to get rocky with the cream of wild mushroom soup and brie. The soup was agreeably hot, thick, and studded with dark brown mushroom slices, but my understanding of the adjective "wild" when applied to a mushroom is that the merry little growths are nourished by richer, more varied conditions than supermarket fare. I'd recently eaten wild mushroom quesadillas at a terrific little Tex-Mex establishment that let me know this phrase wasn't merely a marketing tool. Promisingly dark though the mushrooms were in this soup, they weren't much tastier than your average jar of Green Giant caps. The brie would've been an inspired addition--the two fat triangles turned pleasantly stringy in the hot bowl--if the soup's main ingredient wasn't as bland as this nearly flavorless cheese.

Of course, soup is hardly the main attraction at a place like Delaney & Murphy, where carnivorous homo sapiens gather to chew on the proof that we are indeed perched atop the earth's food chain. But the status of predator by proxy is cold comfort when the carcass was prepared about as expertly by your brother-in-law at the last Memorial Day cookout.

Presentation wasn't the problem, since the gigantic slabs of beef, lamb, and fish served sizzling on the plate kick-started our Cro-Magnon hunter's lust. But the intimidating veal chop--cooked, according to my specifications, so rare it practically wrested my silverware away--would've been more effectively sliced with a tree surgeon's instrument than my knife and fork. It was equally tough and stringy. I thought the near-Catholic guilt attached to eating veal would at least be justified with a sinfully tender experience--that we shameless lamb persecutors would be sent to gourmet heaven before we roasted in PETA hell--but no dice.

The grilled North Atlantic salmon didn't suffer from chewiness, but the lingering fishy aftertaste was even more offensive. I've come to rely on salmon, even when it's not the freshest, to avoid that hint of the wharf. Squeezing both a lemon and lime wedge over the ample filet didn't counteract the trouble.

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