Poor man's prime

Dunston's smokes out affordable steak

I read a blurb recently in a Windy City magazine about actor Scott Jaeck. He was lovingly described as "movie star handsome" and "as wonderful [kind, sensitive, intelligent] as he looks." Jaeck is poised to assume the role of Peck, the male lead in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive at Chicago's Northlight Theatre. But what hit me upside the head like a pound of frozen ground beef was this Jaeck quote: "Theater is life, movies are entertainment, and television is furniture."

I immediately struggled to apply this analogy to the culinary arts. But could such places as the French Room, Laurels, and Nana Grill, theatrically sophisticated though they are, seriously be called "life"? How well do places like Star Canyon and Fogo de Chao plug into the "entertainment" pigeonhole? Nothing seemed to fit. Then I happened upon Dunston's Prime Steakhouse. There, on Harry Hines Boulevard and Regal Row, I'd found my avocado Naugahyde recliner: Absolutely comfortable, but not the kind of place that would knock the socks off your feet with pretentiousness--though when you leave Dunston's, you may want to strip and hang your clothes in a wind tunnel for a few hours, because you'll smell like a smoked turkey.

You see, Dunston's grills its prime steaks in massive mesquite grill stations that sort of function as beef incense burners. And interesting things they are. Three grill platforms with stone bases are positioned in front of Dunston's open kitchen. Wide, black grills hold sizzling meat under an overhead support boom. Cooks spin large, spoked steel wheels to raise and lower the large grills. The cooks then lock them in place with hooked chains. Owner and founder Gene Dunston invented these visually striking contraptions, and they saturate his beef, as well as his patrons, with smoke.

A muscular mesquite aroma fills the dining room: a large semicircular space with dark wood paneling and walls holding individually lit paintings of western scenes plus a portrait of John Wayne. Simple booths, chairs, and tables populate the area.

Those tables typically harbor a forest of longnecks: Bud Light, Miller Lite, maybe the rich greenery of a Heineken or two. Wineglasses seem a rarity, but it's not because the wine list, shy on a good selection of complex reds, isn't priced well. A bottle of Simi Cab can be had for $34; Jordan Chardonnay, $39. Most of the reds, though, inhabit the bright, fruity sliver of the spectrum: stuff perhaps more suitable to spaghetti or sloppy Joes than prime steak.

And that's what throws me a little here, that this meat lives up to the "prime" designation. The bulging 22-ounce porterhouse, with a filet on one side and a New York strip on the other, was riddled with fat globules and a modest amount of gristle. It had good flavor and bled good amounts of juice when pressed. Plus, the smokiness struck perfect balance with the meat flavor. But those gelatinous gobs and endless grommet chews were distracting. The tenderloin side, especially, was a little dry and stiff.

Grilled pork chops picked up on this note, but it wasn't nearly as distracting. Savory and balanced with a firm blast of mesquite, the flesh was nonetheless parched and chewy with nary a hint of pink.

The rest of the offerings slipped further from prime expectations. Petite bacon-wrapped tenderloin, more runt medallion than dainty portion, was shy on flavor, save for the smog. The rib eye was hollower: a cloud of smoke hovering over a slab of chewy meat fibers flattened and drained of richness. Perhaps the bright red candied apple rings on the plate--something I haven't seen since my aunt's last canned-ham cook-off--were added to compensate.

Accoutrements rarely reached higher than adequate, when they arrived, that is. On one visit, a side of french fries and sauteed mushrooms never reached our table. Caesar salad was oily with virtually all hints of tang or anchovy conspicuously blunted. Shrimp scampi struggled in a deep reservoir of butter shocked with lemon. House salads were better, with crisp iceberg lettuce and a fresh tomato slice. But while the smooth blue-cheese dressing was fairly good with discernable chunks of tangy cheese, the Italian, a light vinaigrette, had that hollow, sweet flavor found in cheap bottlings. Bread pudding in a Jack Daniel's sauce proved a good ending to Dunston's smoke-infused meat. Moist and rich, the thick, satisfying dish had a good surge of nutmeg on the nose and finish.

This is a clean, casual place with a temperature-controlled meat display case near the entrance where cuts of beef, vacuum-sealed in plastic, wet-age. Display-case glass reflects flame tongues flicking from a large fireplace just in front of the door. Dunston's Prime Steakhouse is a 6-month-old ground-up replacement for the Dunston's that occupied the corner of Harry Hines Boulevard and Regal Row for some 43 years. Owner Gene Dunston operates four additional restaurants on West Lovers Lane, on Forest Lane, on Lake June Road in Balch Springs, and in Lebanon, Oklahoma.

The prices are good. The most expensive steak (the porterhouse) reaches $18.95, a full 10-spot less than most Dallas steakhouses proffering prime.

On the back of one of my Marty's sampler place mats, someone scrawled this wine: Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, half bottle. A curious scrawl, because according to the wine department, Marty's doesn't even carry a Brunello (grown around the town of Montalcino and considered one of Italy's finest red wines) from this producer. But they did tell me this wine in a half bottle would empty the wallet by $18.75 retail. If this wine were on Marty's WineBar list, that's exactly the price you'd pay with a full-service dinner--none of the double or treble markups you'd find on lists at some of the city's finest restaurants.

This is the beauty of Marty's. Yet perhaps the best thing about Marty's WineBar is what's on the front side of that place mat: flight markers for four whites (or reds) with regional descriptions, flavor profiles, and menu-pairing suggestions. When you order a sampler flight, you'll receive 2-ounce pours of each wine for $6.95--a steal in the pursuit of wine knowledge. This creates a no-fuss, interactive process from which to compare grape varieties, as well as the same varietals from different parts of the world. For example, on both visits each sampler (one wine changes roughly every two weeks, while the entire sampler is redrafted once a quarter) included a California Chardonnay and a white Burgundy, as well as a California Pinot Noir and a red Burgundy. (Marty's isn't big on Bordeaux, so the same comparisons with Cabernet or Merlot are not possible--yet). Noting such similarities and differences, especially once the food arrives, can significantly elevate any dining experience.

Not surprisingly, wine is the best thing about Marty's WineBar, which opened in the 55-year-old wine and gourmet shop last spring. Service is near the top as well. Not that there is anything seriously deficient with the food. It's quite good, especially when you consider the prices: the most expensive entree, filet mignon, comes in at $16.95, and most hover around $14.

Greek salad is opulent and colorful with a stuffed grape leaf (a little mushy), olives, tomato, cucumber, and greens splashed with a vivaciously crisp vinaigrette. Chicken satay with corn cakes consisted of generous strips of juicy chicken with a clean peanut sauce and firm, moist cakes with a good, swift heat kick. Jack Daniel's-glazed quail featured chewy, moist birds with forward gaminess deftly balance by the J.D. sauce.

Other things were dicier. Grilled tuna Niçoise salad was marred by dry, hard, and strongly fishy tuna resting on browning lettuce. Asian marinated breast of chicken lumbered with a viscous sauce that seemed to blanket more than marry with the juicy meat. And while they weren't as velvety-rich as you'll find (probably at twice the price) at other places, lamb chops Provençal were moist (if a bit fatty), chewy, and well seasoned. A side of haricot verts (green beans) laced with bell pepper and shiitake mushroom was a bit tough and woody.

Still, the food holds its own. And when you consider that Marty's has the most enjoyable, user-friendly wine program in town--maybe anywhere--by virtually any measure, there's a whole list of reasons to make it a frequent dining stop.

Dunston's Prime Steakhouse. Harry Hines Boulevard at Regal Row, (214) 637-3513. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4:30-11 p.m. Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday $$-$$$

Marty's WineBar. 3316 Oak Lawn Ave., (214) 526-4070 ext. 155. Open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday $$

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