Bare-knuckle steak

Sullivan's isn't a knockout, but the points add up

Strong Boy took the London Prize Ring Championship in 1882 by knocking out Paddy Ryan in the ninth round. His last bare-knuckle defense of the heavyweight crown came in 1889, when he clobbered Jake Kilrain in the 75th round.

But a new set of boxing regulations, known as the Marquis of Queensberry rules, proved to be Sullivan's undoing. The rules limited the number of three-minute rounds, eliminated gouging and wrestling (Mike Tyson made a valiant attempt to reintroduce such practices a couple of years ago), and made the use of gloves mandatory--moves that signaled the decline and fall of bare-knuckle competition. In 1892, under these rules, Sullivan attempted to defend his title against James J. Corbett, who successfully dodged the heavy blows of the slowing, 33-year-old Sullivan. He was knocked out in the 21st round.

Sullivan recorded an amazing 31 career victories (16 by knockout), three draws, one loss, and one no-decision. He reigned as champion of the world for 10 years; only Joe Louis has held the title longer.

A replica of Sullivan's 1887 championship belt hangs behind the hostess stand in the restaurant. The press kit says Sullivan was a bit of a lush and used the diamond- and emerald- encrusted belt to cover bar tabs, gouging the stones out one-by-one.

I'm not sure what all this has to do with steak and shrimp cocktails, but it facilitates a pretty decent nameplate for a bar. Plus, maybe Sullivan had taken to treating his post-bout bruised body with selected cuts of aged certified Angus beef, the same meat Sullivan's puts on its plates.

Other items on those plates include onion rings--huge things encrusted in a thick golden-brown veneer. Yet these monstrous things were waxy, greasy, and flavorless. Ditto the huge pile of fried calamari, rubbery stuff dressed up in a chalky sheath slithering in grease.

Better to start out your bare-knuckle dining with the seared ahi tuna. Bright pink meat with a grayish rim plopped in a wasabi-infused sauce was satiny and fresh, a welcome departure from the traditional steakhouse heft.

Entrees overall hit the spot like a well-timed punch. Slightly rubbery, the smoked pork chops were moist and chewy with a balanced blast of smoke. Lamb-chop ribs screamed with sweet nuttiness and moist silkiness given spine with a firm, chewy resilience.

But red meat isn't the only thing done well here. Farm-raised salmon steak showed that someone in the kitchen has reverence for this grand sea creature, corralled though it may be. Slip-covered in a thin layer of crispness, the steak center was rich, rare pink and moist with a firm, feathery texture. You'll have a tough time finding run-of-the-mill, down-on-the-farm salmon so exquisitely prepared.

Sides bobbed and weaved. Horseradish mashed potatoes were creamy, but a little on the wimpy side. Au gratin potatoes, cemented in gobs of yellow cheese, were heavy and lumbering. Skillet steak mushroom caps were slimy and bludgeoned from their delicate earthiness with heavy-handed seasoning that covered rather than complemented.

The wine list is a truncated version of the monotony so prevalent in steakhouses today. That is, long, largely unsurprising lists of wines by varietal from California, by region from France, and by color from everywhere else, with the "else" being limited. There's money to be made for the steakhouse willing to break with this monotonous mold and craft a broad, global list inspired by flavors and body rather than plug-and-play regional and varietal slots.

But that is, perhaps, wishful thinking. After all, Sullivan's is the corporate offspring of Wichita, Kansas-based Lonestar Steakhouse & Saloon, the company that owns Del Frisco's and Sipango. There are Sullivan's locations in Austin; Houston; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Charlotte, North Carolina, and the company reportedly hopes to open 80 more such steakhouses nationwide.

When all is said and done, Sullivan's delivers a good steak in a modestly handsome dining room, driven by decent service at a decent price. It's tough when good becomes uninteresting. But generating excitement in Dallas' steakhouse segment may require the gloves to come off.

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