Where's the beef? Here's the answer Restaurant: Shula's steaks are outstanding, but some of the other offerings are overcooked or over-seasoned -- mostly with nutmeg.

June 28, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The renaissance of the American steakhouse continues in Baltimore with the opening of Shula's, a Florida-based chain owned by legendary football coach Don Shula, who played and coached here. As with other upscale steakhouses -- Ruth's Chris and Morton's, to name two -- the draw is beef. Big beef.

What do I mean by big? If you finish the 48-ounce porterhouse ($59.95), your name is inscribed on a bronze plaque in the front of the restaurant. As of our visit, five people in Baltimore had accomplished this remarkable feat.

Why anyone would use his real name, I don't know. In fact, I'm suspicious: The first name on the plaque is "John Kennedy."

I don't want to suggest with my use of the masculine pronoun above that only greedy men eat this much beef. At other locations, an 83-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy have become members of the 48-ounce club.

If I had ordered the porterhouse, I might have joined them, because Shula's has truly wonderful beef. Full of juicy flavor, it's cooked precisely as ordered and seasoned perfectly. If my meal had consisted of nothing else but a steak, a baked potato, a simple salad and the restaurant's fine sourdough bread, I would have given the food four stars.

The prime rib is just as good, if not better than, the steak -- with one advantage, as the guest who ordered it pointed out. "I didn't have to meet it first." Yes, Shula's has one of those carts where the waiter displays staggeringly large slabs of raw beef, lamb chops and even a live lobster for your perusal. This is almost in vTC lieu of a menu because the menu itself is fairly unreadable. It's hand-printed on a regulation football, which is hard to take seriously -- especially in a dining room as sumptuous as the Perfect Season Room, where we were seated. (For those not up on their football lore, Shula is the only NFL coach who went through an entire season without a loss.)

With its mahogany paneling, brick-colored walls, curvaceous brass chandeliers, handsomely set tables and romantic lighting, the room is gorgeous -- except for one small detail. The large pictures in those ornate gold frames are black-and-white football photos. Testosterone Baroque, as a friend described it.

But back to the food. If you like nutmeg (but you have to really like nutmeg) you're going to love the Yorkshire pudding with nutmeg, the hash browns with nutmeg, the creamed spinach with cheese and nutmeg and the cream of crab soup with nutmeg. Odd that the kitchen knows to leave well enough alone when it comes to seasoning the beef, but over-seasons so much else -- and with that one spice.

Oysters Rockefeller began with superb oysters and ended with good hollandaise but were weighted down with an overly garlicky bread-crumb and spinach mixture. The crab soup mentioned above was too salty. (Since it was mostly cream and lump crab meat, it tasted pretty good anyway.) The best of our first courses was enormous barbecued shrimp, each one wrapped around a fresh basil leaf.

If you don't want beef at Shula's (but why come here if you don't?), you have several seafood choices for a main course. Thick, mild-flavored red snapper fillets with a simple lemon butter sauce had the potential to be out of this world, but the kitchen overcooked them. Lamb chops were handsome, but had a stronger lamb flavor than I like.

All vegetables and salads are a la carte, so you can really run up a tab here without realizing it. We tried several -- the nutmeg-laced ones mentioned above plus telephone-pole-size asparagus and half a head of broccoli, both those last two served with that rich hollandaise, ladled on by our attentive waiter.

Actually we had two attentive waiters, one who had previously worked for years at the Prime Rib. Not to mention two attentive busboys. The professionalism of the service is extraordinary at a restaurant that's a step above a sports bar.

Those who have managed to save room for dessert will be happy with a monster slice of chocolate cake with chocolate icing; a delicate, velvety creme brulee; or a tart Key lime pie flown in from Florida. But my favorite, and one you don't see much anymore, was a moist slice of old-fashioned red velvet cake with a fluffy white frosting.

Shula's Steakhouse

Food: **1/2

Service: ****

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 101 W. Fayette St.

Hours: Open for dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers: $7.95-$12.95; main courses: $15.95-$59.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-752-1100

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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