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Bury Frank Already

That '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s thing: Why can't steak houses get back to the future?
Peter Calvin

Here's an experience worth its weight in foie gras: gnawing on bloody-as-hell steak in a garishly masculine steak house and not hearing a single note sung by Frank Sinatra. Or Tony Bennett. Or Nat King Cole. Skip Harry Connick Jr., too. Delete any croons from other packed rats as well, though a tune from Ratt might be nice.

Why can't bloodthirsty meat cravers walk into a leather-scented, dark wood steak shrine and hear "Restraining Order Blues" by Eels or "Baked Bean Boogie" by that other late Frank from the Mothers? Why does every steak house have to reach back to the '30s, '40s and '50s to score its mojo until all of urbanity is a stage and all of the steak houses are merely retro red-meat retreads?

What's wrong with the here and now for God's sake? Just take a quick look at all of our current blessings: broadband, spam that's way better than National Geographic ever was, Red Bull, televised poker and a megabuck-generating crucifixion movie toppled off its ticket-sales throne by a zombie flick. The Frank thing has been taken to such ridiculous extremes there was even a steak house in Chicago named after Sinatra's bodyguard: Jilly's Italian Steak Joynt. It's enough to drive the most die-hard steak fancier to his La-Z-Boy with a bag of beef jerky.

Fort Worth investor Mark "Blade" Haddock, who shoved Blade's Prime Chophouse into 6,500 square feet of former Sundance Square retail space, doesn't have a discernible Frank to his name. But his investment group was christened Rat Pack 4, L.L.P. --a slice of the sort of Frankophilia that afflicts virtually every steak house that doesn't adopt a cowboy motif. Consider this: Blade's is a self-described 1930s-themed steak house "inspired by a period when people found comfort and good company in local restaurants." To accessorize this ambition, walls are dolled up with a 40-foot mural consisting of 10 panels, each representing a retro glimpse of 1930s modernism.

Loins rage feverishly in steak houses, even when they're attached to fish. Blade's ahi tuna tartar is a center loin, coarsely chopped and shaped into a pink hockey puck plopped onto the center of the plate with a ring of toast points encircling it. The meat is sinewy and a little tough, though the cool flavors are rich and satisfying. Its crown is the most alluring element: golden curls of coated and fried pickled ginger shavings. Pickled ginger is a racy palate cleanser when tethered to sushi, where tuna is a common denominator. But the frying concentrates the sweetness, blunting the pickle bite, flipping the whole pairing slightly toward its ear in the process.

Seared foie gras could have benefited from similar compensatory elements. Not that the lobe wasn't texturally perfect or that it lacked the sort of creamy-nut richness that catapults this liver into lust-worthiness--though flurries of kosher salt would have perfected it. But the raspberry-blackberry butter, bright crimson juices pebbled with berries, made for a distressing visual. The red of the berries mingled with the runoff from the liver, creating something resembling blood and pus. Also, resting it on pecan-raisin toast seemed redundant. Chefs should relax when they have a well-prepared piece of liver in their grasp and squelch the urge to fiddle with it beyond the minimum.

By law, a good chophouse must go beyond birds and bulls. So Blade's has shellfish, brilliant ones. Steamed mussels in white truffle cream sauce were perfect: tiny lobes of meat tasting like sea-washed nuts. The shell surface was flecked with garlic and onions that tumbled into the creamy broth, which was slightly sweet, yet lithe, so it didn't cloud the flavors of the shellfish.

But it takes more than diverse menu trimmings to frame a successful prime chophouse. It takes cozy dining rooms and dramatic elements such as a "grand staircase reaching toward a romantic mezzanine," though on one of our visits a waiter sloshed red beef juices over its grandness, while shuttling a steak to the upper deck. The mess was quickly and efficiently washed and dabbed. A cigar and martini lounge is a doubly good thing--not only because it allows beef eaters to indulge smoky decadence; it also makes for a good Fort Worth jab at Dallas' stogie eradication nanny-ism. A good prime chophouse should have a global wine list that is broad and deep: Blade's is almost reflexively Californian.

Like a sheaf of wedding band sheet music packed with the usual standards, Blade's has the sides no self-respecting loin would be caught dead without: creamed spinach, asparagus, a corn rendition and spuds (mashed, fried or baked). Without question, the best of this lot is the braised baby portobello mushrooms in Chianti butter, firm and tangy little buttons with a smooth, rich flavor that keeps unraveling through the finish.

But what of Blade's non-Sinatra core, its meat? Shrewdly, Blade's splits the prime beef menu section into dry-aged and wet-aged cuts, exposing the concomitant price disparities. Dry-aged meat is hung uncovered in a chilly locker under controlled humidity and airflow for up to 28 days, often exposing it to molds that impart complex flavors. These flavors are concentrated as the meat shrinks from evaporation, rendering the cuts more expensive. Wet-aged beef is essentially the same cuts vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and refrigerated for up to 21 days.

These aged steaks come with options: sauces such as maple bacon sweet onion demi or bourbon cherry; and chef's preparations such as crab meat and béarnaise on asparagus and pepper cream sauce on caramelized onions for an extra charge. It's mostly criminal to pester prime cuts with anything but salt and pepper and maybe a little garlic and onion, though Blade's chef's steak (seared foie gras and blue cheese with crispy white truffled gnocchi) sounded fetching.

And the steaks are good, though not remarkable, which could be a function of the beef market rather than kitchen skills (see "How Now Mad Cow?" page 21). The dry-aged 18-ounce Kansas City strip was fine, yet it wasn't particularly juicy, tender or riddled with those intense dry-aged flavors, though they stirred from their slumber once you inched fork and knife toward the bone.

The wet-aged 14-ounce New York strip didn't fare even this well. Like the dry, this wet cut was perfectly prepared. But it was stringy and tough and didn't nurse the tongue with rich, juicy flavors.

Slip off the meat charts and the food can get dicier. Yet they sound like slam dunks: pan-seared sea bass served in saffron and shellfish paella-risotto; and miso- and sake-glazed Catham Bay cod with lemon-glazed risotto. On the former, it wasn't the moist, flaky sea bass with a paper-thin crust that was the problem; it was the oily pool under the paella-risotto thingamajig. A shame, since the creamy mix included lush scraps of lobster claw and rich slices of chorizo.

Cod was the upended version of the bass, for here it was the fish that derailed the plate. It was spongy and tepid. The coarse, milky risotto was rich and topped with the same fried ginger crown that rescued the tuna tartar.

Capping steak with garish sweets seems a good way to put a shotgun to the head of a fine, upstanding beef craving. And the Cowtown puff was a firm trigger-pull. This cream puff was surrounded by a phalanx of delicious berries, but it was hard and cold, and the pastry came off stale.

600 Houston St., Fort Worth. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$-$$$$


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