When I was young and foolish, I acted in an amateur stage production of "Under Milkwood," a 1950s radio drama by Dylan )) Thomas. One character in it haunted me -- Mae Rose Cottage, who boasted, "I'm fast. I'm a bad lot. I'll sin until I blow up!" How? I've thought. What sins blow you up? Are they worth the trouble? These are questions life has only occasionally addressed, and when it has, the answers seem crazy. The other night, for example, martinis and rare beef at the Prime Rib felt like sin. Are they what Mae Rose had in mind?
The setting seemed wicked enough -- black walls edged in gold, and faux-leopard carpeting mimicking the coats of rich women 30 years ago. Hussies in the picture frames. A fake-glass piano dispensing cafe music while diners shout their conversations or make the grateful sounds of people who like what they eat. A room full of carnivores, shoulder to shoulder, drinking hard liquor, clarets and chardonnays, devouring beef, crabs, fishes, clams and snails, and thinking about whipping creams and chocolates.
It's evidently addictive. "I haven't been for years," a friend confided. "I miss it. Take me. Please." There wasn't a spare seat on a cold night early in the week. But then he complained, "Tables are too close together. It didn't use to be like this. I can't move. I can't breathe." But he knew it's always been that way, and he adjusted fast. There's a torturous pleasure in sitting too close to strangers.
We went as a foursome and began, as one should, with martinis/manhattans ($4.50). We then ordered a crab bisque ($4.50), clams casino ($7.50), escargots ($7.25) and a crab cake ($10). Glorious, every one of them. The crab bisque was intense with the flavors of shellfish, yet smooth, delicate and creamy, without being built with surfeits of cream. It is not unusual for clams casino to swim in oil and choke with breading. The Prime Rib's were wonderful nibbles, combinations of glossy mollusks, a dab of buttered crumbs and a crisp square of hot bacon.
The escargots were not the chewy, meaty, peasant snails reminiscent of chewing gum, but small, refined bites, light in garlic and butter. The crab cake was super large, plump, fresh, subtly spiced and sweetly crab -- one of the best in the city.
James Villas in "Villas at Table" says of food writer Craig Claiborne: " . . . for Craig, a dish is simply good or bad." He knew how to analyze it, yes, but to do so perpetually was "foreign and distasteful to Craig's nature." Simple, classic entrees like those at the Prime Rib seem most to be "simply good or bad."
How is the Prime Rib's prime rib ($19.95) better than others'? It is a beautiful cut of pink meat with ends that touch the opposite rims of the dinner plate. Except for an ivory mound of HTC shoestrings of horseradish root, it's served neat. It glistens, and it's juicy and delicious.
Without any of the mealiness common to beef fillets, a rotund filet mignon ($21) was as tall as a slice of a seven-layer Viennese cake, and as tender. It, too, rode the plate alone, except for horseradish. A rockfish fillet, served with a "Vielle Maison sauce of tomatoes, onions and capers" ($20), could have leapt from the stream to the pan, so firm and fresh was it in taste and consistency, and the sauce, which could have been routine, was better than that: It was sweet, silky and seductive.
Imperial crab ($19), "all jumbo lump," was a lesson in letting well enough alone. Nothing was introduced to conflict with the sweet delicacy of top-quality crab. Spicing was light; the marriage was sealed with a minimum of binding.
Vegetables have never been important in the steakhouse world. We liked our baked Idaho potato with sour cream ($3), but fine-chopped creamed spinach ($4.25) was packed almost too tightly in the dish, and the house salad ($4.75) included hard-boiled egg and grated cheese -- pleasant, but not my taste.
Only an ascetic should skip desserts here. Pecan pie ($4.75) had the crust of a well-made butter cookie, and the ready crunch of pecans in the classic, gooey filling. Bread pudding ($4.50) mystified us. It wasn't spongy in the usual way, but turned the flavors of spice and bourbon in an exquisite, fleshy custard. Lovers of chocolate in moderation can choose a mild chocolate mousse pie ($5). The double chocolate cheesecake ($5.75) is for those of us who require our chocolate wild and reckless.
Wine prices were mostly above $30. Our Jordan Alexander Valley 1987 cabernet sauvignon was interesting and appealing through two courses, but was a major investment at $47. It's worth pointing out, however, that while fish prices have gone up modestly in the last three years, Prime Rib's meat entrees have actually gone down.
We were impressed that the evening went like clockwork, thanks to a waiter whose mastery of service was complete. The Prime Rib is very, very good at what it does.
Next: Cafe Normandie
1101 N. Calvert St., (410) 539-1804 HOURS:
Dinner Mondays to Saturdays 5 p.m. to midnight, Sundays 5 to 11 p.m. ACCEPTS: All major credit cards FEATURES: Beef and seafood NO-SMOKING AREA: No WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes