Getting to the heart

Dining at Pappas Brothers Steakhouse left a question weighing heavily on my mind: What the hell has happened to cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and red meat phobia? The stench of such concerns doesn't pollute Pappas' ambiance. It's as though it's been siphoned off by the immaculately efficient ventilation system in the cigar lounge (even with a dozen obese stogies smoldering, there's no smog).

Facing you as you stroll through the entrance, next to a gurgling tank housing live lobsters, is a refrigerated glass case holding rows and rows of red, raw steaks. Split, butterflied, and ruinously expensive Australian rock lobster tails bulging with glistening grayish-white flesh add visual interest.

There's no visual beauty to those steaks, though (the strip and ribeye steaks are dry-aged prime). You won't find any vertical architectural do-dads prancing on the meat; no swirling threads of brightly colored, fussily pleated sauces hugging the steep carnal edges like ruffles and fringe. The preparation is minimalist. A light seasoning of kosher salt, pepper, and butter--to bolster and tighten the richness--is the extent of the manipulation. A dusting of chopped parsley over the plated slab dresses up the presentation and, perhaps, adds a bit of roughage.

Pappas Brothers is all about the brute force of beef and the subdued robustness of a traditional steakhouse executed with style (there's a dress code, so hold the denim). And the steaks reflect that: firm, juicy, tender, bold with flavor, and void of gristle and loose globules of fat.

But the question still remains. What happened to the principle that a thick hunk of animal flesh is a crass, noxious thing to ingest? Where's the notion that evolution designed the human digestive tract exclusively to accommodate things like spinach, summer squash, and Chex party mix?

I remember the days when steak was the ultimate meal; a rare luxury (it still is, considering the prices charged at the litter of upscale steakhouses currently nursing their way to success in the metroplex) oozing with the carnivorous milk and honey of sizzled fat. These were the days when all salads were served loud orange, tinted from bottled French dressing; when we didn't have the sophistication to realize a steady diet of marbled loins would eventually result in countless European vacations for the nation's cardiac physicians.

But then we got wise and flaunted our health-consciousness. We became fatuous hams with bean sprouts caught between our teeth and wheat-germ dust in our nostril hairs. We scoffed at the Neanderthal notion of eating red meat even as infrequently as once a month.

It didn't last long. Maybe it was Morley Safer's "French paradox" piece some seven years ago on 60 Minutes, when he told us that if we drank a few glasses of red wine with every meal, the healthful impact would be such that we could eat whatever we wanted. In other words, we could eat all the rich red meat we wanted and ensure the only vacation our cardiologist enjoyed was a car trip to the Lawrence Welk Homestead in North Dakota.

It took a trip to Pappas Brothers for me to realize how thoroughly red meat has been transformed from dietary villain to dining diva. Even the greens can't escape the decadent shadow of carnivorous lust. Pappas Brothers' house salad, one of the most deluxe renditions ever to assume such a moniker (try it with the smooth avocado ranch), is topped with two thick, chewy slices of hickory-smoked bacon.

The simple beefsteak tomato and onion salad is like a replica of thick, blood-rare steak, with meaty-rich tomato slices drooling with juice and speckled with crumbles of tangy Roquefort cheese all polished with herbed vinaigrette.

What etched the completeness of this transformation firmly in my mind, though, was my Monday-night visit during the American Heart Association Convention, when some 50,000 people sucked the vacancy right out of the city's hotel stock. Pappas Brothers Steakhouse was packed with conventioneers gnawing on cuts of rich meat, dabbing their chins with white napkins, ever aware that at any moment the beepers and cell phones strapped to their waists could interrupt the lusty feasting with a coronary concern. The irony was almost too potent--as if the city were hosting a weekend convention of adult-video retailers and every inch of pew space in the metroplex suddenly became occupied.

Should guilt strike, however, while a dripping forkful of porterhouse makes its way to a watering mouth, Pappas Brothers has compensated with a healthy wine list. Or perhaps over-compensated. The list has more than 1,200 wines, the largest collection in the Southwest and among the five largest in the country. Virtually every major wine-producing country in the world is represented. There's even a 1900 vintage Chateau Lafite that can be had for $35,000.

For those with more modest tastes and pocket books, there are a few, though not nearly enough, wines in the $30 to $40 range. Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon, a Paso Robles producer you'll rarely find listed, are bold, spicy rich, and well-balanced wines that work well with steaks. The incredible red comes in at $34.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal chronicled the desperate lengths some people will go to acquire juice from small-production California wineries with cult status. One plastic surgeon, seeking to up his allocation of wine, offered a face-lift to the woman managing the mailing list of Pinot Noir producer Richioli Vineyard and Winery in exchange for a higher position on the list.

Pappas Brothers cellar is stuffed with bottles from some of these producers. Cabernet Sauvignon from Grace Family Vineyards is among the most sought-after wines in the country. And the restaurant claims to have the largest known vertical collection of wines from Grace (other than the winery), with every vintage represented from 1982 through 1994. Maybe there's a heart surgeon out there willing to trade services for a bottle or two of that.

But beef and wine aren't the only things Pappas Brothers does with a good bit of polish. The shrimp cocktail, set up like an outdoor orchestra shell with shredded lettuce stuffed into a cupped red cabbage leaf resting on its side, had firm, succulent shrimp--just as you would expect.

Broiled salmon with jumbo shrimp, lump crabmeat, and diced tomatoes in a white wine sauce, was moist, flaky, and encased with a delicate crust. And despite the bright rareness in the center, the fish wasn't the slightest bit mushy or...fishy.

Yet not everything here is successful. A side of roasted wild mushrooms was dry and leathery with a marinade that seemed to strip out the natural earthy flavors. Crab cakes topped with shoestring potatoes and moistened with a flavorful beurre blanc were doughy and a bit short on crabmeat. Bone-in venison, a special, lacked the characteristic rich, nutty flavor of this game meat. Plus, the wine reduction poured over it was viscous with muddled, lazy flavors. But a side of rib-sticking chunky mashed potatoes with bacon bits was hearty and flavorful.

And you can skip the sticky, gooed peach cobbler for dessert. Mired in sweetness, the cobbler had wedges of fruit that lacked tanginess.

It doesn't matter, though. You suck on a cigar or sip Scotch for dessert, and this is probably what the Pappas folks would rather have you do. The emphasis is on lingering.

This bustling, handsome venue with oak, mahogany, and pine paneling, cushy oxblood leather booths, and smooth, white pillars reaching into disk moldings in the ceiling is rich with comfortable elegance. Clustered on a few of the walls are black and white and sepia-toned Pappas family photos, which warm the highly polished ambience up a bit. Giving the neo-traditional decor a bit of edge are a few stark, modern touches such as the black granite fountain with polished metal spouts near the front door.

This place is a maze of varied dining spaces including a wine room, a long narrow area that looks vaguely like a dining car, and a bright, meticulously set counter in front of the open kitchen. Plus, the cigar room, lit by chandeliers ringed with buffalo silhouettes and furnished with leather chairs and sofas, is a good place to park and let your tract get to work on the prime beef lodged in your belly.

Service is uniformly gracious, efficient, and attentive, and the servers seem to know a little about the place. Our server said the restaurant design mimics a 1940s Chicago version of a traditional Texas steakhouse--which seems odd. Why would you want a knock-off in the home of the real thing?

Pappas Brothers Steakhouse is the second upscale eatery for Houston-based Pappas Restaurants Inc. (the first opened in Houston in 1995), which operates some 60 restaurants in Texas, Atlanta, and Chicago. The roster includes Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchens, Pappasitos Cantina restaurants, Pappas Bar-B-Que, and Pappamia Cucina Italiana.

As this venue firmly confirms, the upscale steakhouse phenomenon afflicting Dallas offers zero in the way of culinary imagination. It's the same standard stuff--shrimp cocktail, a half-dozen varieties of steak, lobster, a fish species or two, boilerplate sides such as mashed potatoes and creamed spinach--offered at a quality level in the same general ballpark as everywhere else. The meat is all flamed on the same type of high-performance broilers. The distinctions among these venues are often most pronounced in the service and the ambience. Pappas Brothers is intelligently elegant with a modest energy level to keep things interesting.

If your heart is in it, the dinner hits the spot, and the wine will keep a healthy balance between your good and bad cholesterol. You do remember your cholesterol levels, don't you?

Pappas Brothers Steakhouse.10477 Lombardy Lane (Stemmons near Northwest Highway.) (214) 366-2222. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m. $$$$


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