Of men, meat, and money

Capital Grille lays it on thick

A group of men was leaving through the thick, beveled glass doors--large, beef-eating men in casual business attire. They were grunting, jabbing.

Several minutes later, one of them returned in an anxious flurry. He approached the hostess.

"Oh, yes. Yes, we did find it," she said, moving over to a nearby closet. She pulled out a yellow legal pad with a magazine underneath it and handed him the bundle.

With a big smile, the beef-satiated gentleman held up the legal pad. "This is important," he pointed out to her. Then he lifted the magazine, flaunting the glossy cover in front of her face. "But this is even more important."

It was the latest issue of Playboy.
"Politically incorrect" is the cliched adjective most often applied to Capital Grille, a 12-unit pricey steak-house chain anchored in Atlanta. Red meat. Red wine. Red leather. Billowing gusts of cigar smoke. Walls plastered with portraits of shameless capitalists from the past.

The Washington, D.C., version is regularly packed with rabid, feral members of the vast right-wing conspiracy (Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Haley Barbour). These are not hospitable environs to Brie-nibbling, Chardonnay-sipping compassion fascists.

Then again, politically-incorrect-and-proud-of-it posturing has lost much of its heterodoxical punch since it has been co-opted by former PC enforcement goons. The sort of people who once routinely convulsed with indignation at the slightest misapplication of a personal pronoun or an ethnic classification now employ racial stereotypes to pump up heads of state. (See Toni Morrison's rant in the New Yorker in which she said President Clinton was "black" because he "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.")

Beef-witted leering? Hip. Cool. Sophisticated. Etiquette fit for the bullet-proof limo set. Bring on the girlie mags and ogle through lunch. Judging by the growing number of steak houses sprouting from the earth, going meatless and dry in Dallas is a sure-fire recipe for an open-ended, involuntary hunger strike. Political incorrectness is now PC.

One thing that surprises Capital Grille General Manager Greg Cavanaugh is the enthusiastic reception the Dallas version of this clubby, urban carnivore lodge is receiving from women. He cites a number of reasons: dark floor-to-ceiling paneling has been replaced in part with soft fabric wall coverings; the light, eggshell-hued ceilings; and the attractive chandeliers. "Of course, the women's room is magnificent," he adds. Which is no doubt where many of them end up after a few Stoli Dolis, an infusion of Stolichnaya vodka with pineapples billed as the house specialty drink.

But maybe what's allowing women to comfortably trickle through Capital Grille's vestibule is that the most potent symbols of brazen carnivorous political incorrectness have been strangely toned down for Dallas. For example, glass-enclosed meat lockers with colorfully molding meats impaled on hooks--a front-of-the-house staple in virtually every Capital Grille--are absent here.

"Oftentimes a lot of the guys thought it was all right," says Cavanaugh, "but it wasn't really an appealing feature for women: big slabs of beef hanging up in a dry-aging process."

The collection of portraits, commissioned by the restaurant in every city it lands in to showcase local dignitaries of historical significance, includes the first and only woman in the entire steak-house chain. Sarah Cockrell, a shrewd 19th-century real estate investor who is generally regarded as Dallas' first capitalist, and who constructed an iron suspension bridge across the Trinity River seen as vital to the development of the city, hangs near one of the booths.

Other portraits include cattle baron Christopher Columbus Slaughter (who, according to legend, refused to have a Dallas hospital named in his honor because of the inappropriateness); King Ranch founder Richard King; and banker and Dallas founder William Gaston. There's also Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, who committed suicide after losing a bid for the U.S. Senate shortly after Texas joined the Union. Mounted steer and ram heads join the portraits.

Despite all this seeming excess, the dining room is actually handsomely elegant and comfortable. Magnums (1.5 liters) and Jeroboams (4.5 liters) of California wine are clustered in corners and on banisters.

Service is prompt and attentive, if a little nervous and jagged in an over-caffeinated sort of way. On one visit, our server had the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer, making it nearly impossible to digest his explanations without frequent reruns. Thank God this place has a grunt-for-your-grub sort of menu with a little seafood splashed in.

But it does have an extensive wine list of more than 300 wines from France, Italy, and California arranged from least to most expensive. Included is an "International Reds" section that seems little more than a catchall cache of the not easily classified (Spanish, Chilean, and Australian wines studded with errant California-bottled varietals such as Petite Syrah and Sangiovese). Oddly, the list intersperses reds and whites.

Astoundingly, the wines are served at the proper temperature (reds are cool instead of room temperature, and whites are slightly chilled instead of cold), owing to the floor-to-ceiling, temperature-controlled wine kiosk. This exceedingly rare restaurant touch brightens red wines and opens the whites, making them better food mates, of which the menu is exceptionally worthy.

While the rest of the chain proffers dry-aged black Angus beef, the Dallas and San Francisco locations serve prime-aged steaks. And the prime meat they sling is enough to transform the most self-righteously indignant counterculture weed grazer into a rabid right-wing conspirator with an NRA decoder ring.

Sitting in a splash of jus, the prime-aged sirloin was juicy, tender, and saturated with lusty flavor. This is the spot for diners with busting bloodlust cravings--and belt loops.

Steak au poivre in Courvoisier Cognac cream sauce had the appropriate silky meat texture counterbalanced by a vigorous peppercorn crunch without any grill-burn bitterness. To my palate it seemed overly pummeled with those corns, stifling the sweet richness of the meat with heat. Yet the smooth, silky sauce seemed to buff some of the edges while it pried open a smoky layer in the meat.

The casual meat will spark bloodlust as well. Grille's signature cheeseburger with sliced hamburger dills, lettuce, and tomato and a thin sheet of white cheese was a drooling disk of ground flesh engorged with flavor. Plus, the bun had the muster to hold up to the slobber, so it wasn't as if you were eating a burger love-locked in a bun that had fallen into the sink. Yet this plush patty was saddled with a side of limp, bland coleslaw that tasted as though it just might have spent some time near the drain.

But let's face it. It doesn't take quantum physics to grill steak alluring enough to get red-meat lovers horny. That's why it's doubly good that Capital Grille does seafood and other things just as well.

Farm-raised oysters, with requisite cocktail sauce and a vinegar and shallot dipper, were firm yet tender, with a clean brine flavor. Smoked Norwegian salmon was tender and satiny with vibrantly rich flavors and a forward smoky layer that was never overpowering. A scattering of firm, intense capers and diced onion added crisp polish, but ridiculously small toast points proved a distraction to what was otherwise a noteworthy creation.

For those who just can't avoid great fits of outrage over the plight of our oppressed cow brothers, there's the Grille's hearts of palm salad. Wedge-cut heart-of-palm slices scattered on a rosette of bib lettuce with diced red bell pepper were tender yet resilient. A drizzle of lime-mango dressing washed the flavors with a slightly sweet sparkle.

Even birds fare well here. The smoked turkey club is one of the heartiest, most robustly flavorful sandwiches you're likely to force between your chops--which is what you'll have to do given the width of the thing. Toasted bread was firm and moist--a rarity in this construction--and piled thick with smoked turkey, chewy bacon, tomato, and lettuce. A slathering of cranberry mayo is the touch that thrust it far beyond adequate, adding a subtle fruity sweetness and tang. A side of potato chips was bland, though, and in some cases stale.

Capital Grille's press kit says the company plans to impregnate the top 20 U.S. restaurant markets with its burly style of predatory feeding by the year 2000. Spots they've already chewed include Boston, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, Miami, and Providence, Rhode Island.

But offering great steak with great service in an easy, elegant atmosphere may not be enough in a town where a new steak house is born every 19.5 minutes. In Dallas, a city where if you laid every steak served in a single day end to end, you'd have one hell of a municipal mess to clean up, it will take more than prime-aged steaks and wine lists that make the phone book look svelte to cut through the clutter.

Free Playboy magazines might do the trick.

Capital Grille.500 Crescent Court, Suite 135.(214) 303-0500. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.;Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m.Open for lunchMonday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $$$$

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