Bare-knuckle steak

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

Just by their numbers and consistent rosters, steakhouses have inevitably become orgies of predictability. Everything is so much the same. No surprises. No skyscraper food threatening to puncture your chin. No bizarre sea creatures dressed in mango caviar hiding in the watercress.

Wine lists are hefty enough to crush a stag beetle. Plates are warm. Meat drips. Cabernet splatters. Spinach, mushrooms, and beans arrive in boats. Somewhere in one of the walls, cigars vacation in a humid, temperate climate. Dead men like Sinatra and Cole croon through speakers implanted in the ceiling. Dark wood paneling covers the walls.

Unless your lust for red meat is so ferocious that it'll keep a regiment of cardiologists in fresh Mercedes, it's hard to get excited over a good steakhouse more than a couple of times a year. They're basically all good (it doesn't take a culinary genius to shake a steak with salt and pepper, turn the broiler up past 1,000 degrees, and do finger push-ups on the meat to test doneness). Sides are the same. Salads are the same. They all offer shrimp cocktails and oysters on the half shell.

So you have to absorb other experiences to break the red-meat monotony. Sullivan's Steakhouse has a nightclub called Ringside at Sullivan's, which the press release says offers the best in jump blues and swing jazz. Now, I don't know what jump blues is. Maybe it's a pinstriped one-piece from Brooks Brothers. But the swing band the Lakewood Rats was pretty good (tight horn section). At least the crowd in the bar seemed to think so. There were more North Dallas barflies intently focused on those Lakewood vermin than there were dancers or people trying to one-liner someone into jumping and swinging on the Serta at home.

I was intently focused on the band too, but for different reasons. The stage at Ringside is tucked behind the mahogany bar, with the surface a foot or so lower than the top of the back bar. So I was waiting for the Rats' animated front man, Brian "Daddy-O" Hurley, to lose his footing and kick over a bottle of Stoli or maybe step in the maraschino cherry dish.

I figured a good dose of kinetic excitement like this would help me digest Sullivan's 20-ounce bone-in Kansas City strip, the house specialty. That strip left me feeling burdened with a belly knot of Gordian complexity. Plus, I was suddenly washed with concern for my cardiovascular system. I took no prisoners after I got a hold of that K.C strip, at least none shackled in doggie bags. It was so rich (fat without being fatty), tender, and silky that all that was left was the bone, picked so clean it would bore a hungry husky.

My hope was that a good surge in the heart rate might help my body cope with the sheer decadence of this slab. I was too immobilized to dance. Laughing seemed a good compromise. But Daddy-O never stumbled. Next time I'll buy him a martini.

Ringside isn't always this fun, though. On a visit during one of those precious few bitter Dallas winter evenings, the kind that kills all the plant life the Dallas summer didn't wipe out, we were shuffled there to wait for our reserved seats. The space was chilly. We needed drinks. My companion needed shrimp. Fried, if necessary.

Shivering, thirsty, and famished for bar grub, we watched a server dart between the cash register in the Ringside and the bar equipped with big-screen TVs on the other end of the building. She never once stopped at one of the tables to see if someone might need a double Scotch or a pair of wool socks. So we, against the direction of the Sullivan's hostess team, went to the big screen TV bar to wait for bad service, which geared up just as our table opened.

And this is where we eventually received the fried shrimp, which proved tasty, sweet, and firmly juiced with a coating sizzled to a muscular crunch.

Thankfully, this was the only service blunder at Sullivan's. Save for this bump, execution was uniformly gracious and efficient. And when the servers couldn't answer questions about the menu or the wine list, they offered to find out instead dishing up bull.

On one visit, the fire alarm was tripped, apparently by a glitch in the new heating system, which struggled to get its footing in the sudden chill. Strobe flashes viciously slashed the dining room. A series of rhythmic beeps--like the pulses from a garbage truck in reverse gear--mercilessly punctured the dining-room chatter and clatter. Servers immediately marched through rows of tables chanting: "Remain seated. Everything's OK. False alarm." This is when you really hope there's no server bull.

Sullivan's is a '40s-era-style steakhouse named after boxing hall-of-famer (inducted 1954) John Lawrence Sullivan--hence the "ringside" moniker for the bar. And his thickly mustached mug is everywhere, sometimes with his arms folded tightly across his chest to seemingly to pump up his pecs.

Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and known as the Boston Strong Boy, Sullivan was a legendary boxer--the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion. He dropped out of college and haphazardly boxed his way to professional status, taking on all comers in barrooms, on barges, and in back alleys. He made his professional debut against "Cockey" Woods in 1878.

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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