Steak has a protocol, a rigid one if truth be known. Obligatory: spuds, classic iceberg wedge sweating moldy cheese bullets, Porterhouse big enough to choke a hockey strike alongside lamb and salmon. Optional: halibut cheeks. Banned: tofu and anything certified organic.
III Forks had its Captain Bob Cooper shtick, complete with stolen recipes. Pappas Bros. had those sultry radio commercials set to a steak sizzle and the scratch and hiss of a match making contact with the end of a cigar. Pappas doesn't have its cigar room anymore. You can thank Mayor Laura Miller for that. (You can thank us for making Laura Miller mayor.) But take heart: If tobacco possession becomes a felony, most of us who put this paper to bed would instantly be felons, or at least more so than we already are.
But this is a digression, the type of which writing about steak compels. Rick Stein's Steakhouse sits firmly in the obligatory category. Reviewing the menu is almost beside the point. You know what's on it. The only half-surprises are yams and onion rings.
OK, that's not entirely true. There's this: beef barley soup--not a hot steak house commodity. Broth is thick and rich and well-endowed with carrots and potato. Beef scraps have ample presence as well, yet they are a little dry. Oddly, the barley content is shy.
But, as virtually every restaurant is wont to do these days, there is an Asian nod. Here, it's in the form of sliced tuna with a mild spasm of schizophrenia. The four slices aren't deep red, perhaps because that would steal some bone-in rib eye thunder (menu warning: "Not responsible for steaks ordered well done," which may as well read, "Want your steak well done? Free head exams available at the valet"). No, these slices are bright pink, layered atop one another. A thick coat of blond sesame seeds clings to the edges with uncommon consistency. The tuna is tender and dismembers cleanly in the mouth, no strings attached. Seeds add a tender nutty crunch. But here's the odd part: The seared slices rest in a thick sweet and sour sauce flecked with red pepper flakes. In the center of the plate rests a metal ramekin of ponzu sauce not far from a slaw made of carrot, jicama and ginger. Here we have the worst of the Chinese condiment arsenal--a viscous bludgeon that should be used only with fried foods or overcooked meat--next to a light Japanese dip (the ponzu sauce) that actually has some relevance in this context. If there is a good reason for the sweet and sour sauce, put it in a ramekin so the diner can make the choice, instead of pre-applying it so that it can't be washed off without disturbing the sesame coat. But, really, the tuna needs nothing.
Neither does the steak. This is as it should be. The first question that pops in the mind when a steak comes with a bottle of A-1 or is dripping with dusky demi glace or some cream spume is: What are they hiding? Rick Stein's New York strip is a damn good meat ribbon. It's juicy. The center shimmers in deep rose. Flavor? If it were sound, it could shatter glass, which isn't to say it's shrill. It's of a strain that slaps with richness, reminding you why steak is a persistent craving among those who would rather chase fish in a boat and mow down greens with a Toro than have them mate on a plate in full view of a spud. The steak comes with exactly three stalks of asparagus pushed to the edge and a fluffy whip of mashed potatoes. The stalks are delicious: crisp and well-seasoned. Potatoes were competent but uninteresting.
Fillets (6-ounce and 8-ounce) ring with the same verve. In fact, they're the most startling cuts of their ilk we've come across in recent memory. They're lush and juicy, with full round flavors and a perfectly seasoned brittle coat that adds structure to the silk within.
Still, Rick Stein's is little more than hard-core steak house boilerplate. The interior is little changed from its days as Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. It has the same cherry wood stage scenery, the same glass wine displays, the same bar-to-dining-room layout. The only apparent change, aside from the huge Rick Stein family poster up front, is the replacement of magnums and jeroboams near the dining room posts with glass vases holding various ferns. There's little to set this place apart from the rest of the Dallas steak house litter, except for Rick Stein. A veteran of III Forks since it opened in the mid-'90s until an abrupt departure last year, Stein seems to have ripped a few chapters from the how-to-do-a-steak-house textbook written by competitor Al Biernat. The mustached, ample and dark-suited Stein is the quintessential steak house front-man emblem: omnipresent in the dining room, shaking hands, tapping shoulders and dispensing swizzle sticks into Sprites and Shirley Temples. The whole shtick is a little too riddled with obsequiousness for our taste, but then again, maybe having your name underscored on a lighted Tollway sign sparks that sort of thing.
Spinach salad looks like little more than a platter of well-dressed clippings: diced egg, brittle bacon specks and mushroom slices dressing a spread of glistening, deep green leaves. Yet the leaves are uncommonly meaty (maybe they're corn-fed) with a shameless strain of pungency that isn't swamped by an overbearing dressing. Delicious.
Wish the same could be said of the seafood. Oh, the shrimp cocktail is a stellar thing with big fat sweet curvaceous hooks slumbering flat on greens in thick red drapery. But think about it: A steak house that can't do a competent shrimp cocktail may as well explore the virtues of chipped beef and fish sticks with that creamed corn.
Dover sole arrives with promise as creamy strips of fish layered atop one another like a set of complicated lingerie. Start with the snow peas: bright green with plump bulges pushing through unblemished pods. No dried, curled edges. No pithy chew. The pods snap and spit when bitten; the peas sweat fertile sweetness. Fish is tacky, moist and slightly sweet. The strips rest in a smear of buerre blanc that is barely perceptible. But the buerre blanc harbored off flavors, as if maybe the butter were sucking the souls from the fat cocktail shrimp while they were both on deck in the cooler.
Bacon-swaddled scallops were equally uninteresting. Bacon was crisp. Apricot chutney (punched with wasabi or some other strain of spitfire) was a marvel. But the scallops stumbled: a little undercooked, a little waxy, a feeble footprint on the palate.
Download more meat, though, and your ways will no longer be wayward. Lamb chops often veer off in one direction or another. They are either texturally compelling--juicy, silky--but have no flavor to back it up, or they have the flavor profile but come off as either dry or a blob of spongy mush dangling from a rib. Rick Stein's delivers juicy, silky chops bleeding rich sweetness in a compelling display of six chops fanned and curved across the plate like a museum piece from the Jurassic period. They're furry, too, coated with a fringe of pulverized thyme, providing an interesting flavor, though it came off a little like herbal cotton candy.
Italian cream cake is a capstone moment: moist, fluffy and silky, with a buttery burst of restrained sweetness. There's very little that sets Rick Stein's apart from the current Dallas flock of competent steak houses. But consider this: Stein is a helluva lot better-looking and more affable than Captain Bob Cooper ever was. 18020 Dallas Parkway, 972-713-9999.
Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday,
5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$-$$$$