Generous Portions And Impressive Service, Mate


October 16, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Outback Steakhouse, 2207 Forest Drive, Annapolis. (410 266-7229. Open every day for dinner only. Major credit cards. No smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.45-$5.95; entrees, $8.95-$17.95. ***

You've seen that beer ad featuring an enormous steak with a sprig of parsley and the words "Australian for salad"? Then you have some idea of what eating at the Outback is like. It's one of those full-service chain restaurants that are probably the wave of the dining future. To tourists, eating out in Annapolis means seafood restaurants and historic inns; but a friend who lives in the area says it's the Outback that's packed all the time. There's nothing else as popular in Annapolis, she told me.

When I called the restaurant to ask how early on a weeknight we'd have to arrive to avoid waiting for a table, whoever answered said that if we were there by 5 p.m., the wait wouldn't be longer than half an hour or 45 minutes.


Why don't I have stock in this company?

One of my guests actually had the chance to invest in the chain, but decided not to because Americans have become so health-conscious. Hah. Tell that to the people waiting in line to order the 20-ounce porterhouse, the "Aussie cheese fries" and the "cinnamon oblivion." (We ended up not having to wait by going the day after a holiday and getting there earlier than 5.)

Now I have to admit that the sum total of my knowledge about Australian food comes from the movie "Crocodile Dundee," but that's not a problem because the Outback has about as much to do with authentic Australian food as a restaurant in Disney World's Adventureland does. You know: Buffalo chicken wings are called "kookaburra wings," a Caesar salad comes with dinner, and the steak of choice (according to our waitress) is a filet mignon.

Familiarity with "Crocodile Dundee" is all you need. It allows you to pick up the huge steak knife and say, "That's not a knife, mate. This is a knife." (Think the waitress has heard that one before?)

Thank goodness the Outback isn't more authentic. The decor is polished wood -- the floors, the walls, the booths, the tables -- with slowly revolving ceiling fans. There are handsome ethnic prints on the walls and decorative Australian artifacts. My living room should look so good. Most impressive of all, the dining rooms are relatively quiet in spite of the crowds. Excellent soundproofing.

When my friend said to the waitress, "You must think I'm a pig for ordering all this food," she calmly replied, "That's what the Outback's all about." If you understand that, you'll accept the fact that the Outback's idea of light fare is the "bloomin' onion," a 1-pound onion (which is one extremely big onion) that the kitchen cuts like a flower, dips in a spicy batter, deep fries and serves with a highly seasoned ranchlike dressing.

Walkabout soup combines onions, cheese and cream for an incredibly rich, thick and wonderfully flavored concoction. "Gold coast shrimp" are dipped in beer batter and coconut and deep-fried, then served with a marmalade sauce. Marmalade isn't my favorite flavor with seafood, but the shrimp are huge, fresh and crunchy. Even better are the "grilled shrimp on the barbie," gently spiced and served with remoulade sauce.

Half the main courses are beef, prepared with a zippy seasoning salt -- of 16 ingredients, according to our waitress -- and grilled. The cuts are generous, with plenty of meaty flavor. We tried the filet and the "Outback special," three-quarters of a pound of center-cut sirloin. For a little variety, we also sampled a tender and not overcooked boneless chicken breast ("chicken on the barbie") and Danish baby-back ribs (smoky and meaty). With dinner you might have good french fries -- excuse me, Aussie chips -- or a baked potato loaded with sour cream and cheese and crumbled bacon and green onions. You also choose between a house or Caesar salad. (I guess parsley isn't the only Australian salad after all.)

I recommend the jewel-like fresh vegetable medley of broccoli, snow peas, carrots and squash, carefully steamed. There's also a side dish of cinnamon apples, so sweet it does double duty as a dessert topping. And don't forget the loaf of "bushman bread," otherwise known as honey-wheat.

The Outback's idea of a diet dessert is cheesecake with homemade caramel sauce. Or you could get a "Sydney sinful sundae," the ice cream rolled in coconut before being covered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream, or the "chocolate thunder from down under," with a brownie substituted for the coconut. And of course, the "cinnamon oblivion." Don't make the mistake of asking the waitress what those crunchy little bits are in the "oblivion" if you've overeaten. She'll describe in loving detail how they cut up the honey-wheat bread into croutons and fry them in butter and drench them with cinnamon and honey before they go on the ice cream with the caramelized apples and the homemade caramel sauce. . . .

The Outback has a short wine list that features some wines froAustralia, but somehow I got talked into ordering the "wallaby darned," a frozen drink made with schnapps, champagne and rum. One sip was enough: It tasted like a peach Jolly Rancher. I was impressed that the waitress took it off our bill, even though I hadn't asked her to. In fact, I was impressed with our waitress in general. One thing you can count on at these chain restaurants: The service is almost always polished and good-natured because of their organized training programs.

Next: Michael Rork's Town Dock

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