Staking a claim in Columbia

Restaurant: At Alexander's, the fish is as good as the meat, and the service is fine, too. But the side dishes need improvement.

January 10, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The success of steakhouses like Morton's and Ruth's Chris is staggering, but customers pay dearly for the pleasure of gorging themselves on thick New York strips sizzling in butter. So why not open a less expensive steakhouse, but one that gives diners a bit more grown-up atmosphere than, say, an Outback.

This is the concept behind Alexander's, the new steakhouse in Columbia.

It's a great concept, one that should be a sure-fire winner. Whether it is or not -- well, read on.

The restaurant has a hacienda feel to it because in a former life it was a Mexican eatery, Plata Grande. The space works very well as an upscale steakhouse. The rooms are light and airy; soft terra-cotta walls, decorative tiles and lush flower arrangements add warmth. Alexander's high-ceilinged main dining room is divided into multilevel spaces, so you feel as if this is a small restaurant, smaller than it actually is.

As at other upscale steakhouses, one of Alexander's draws is excellent service. When you're basically giving customers a piece of meat, a baked potato and a salad, you're not luring them out of their homes with intricate cuisine. You're offering them a whole pampering experience. Good service is practically a sine qua non.

First courses are quite simple here. You could start with a classic shrimp cocktail or shrimp with a good remoulade sauce (something like Russian dressing). Smoked salmon had a soft, seductive texture in contrast to its crisp toasts and the classic accompaniments of onion, horseradish and capers. Cream-laden she-crab soup was as rich as anyone could possibly want, with a generous spoonful of lump crab meat at its center.

Also like other upscale steak- houses, Alexander's has to offer a piece of meat so large it makes you queasy to think about it, in this case a 50-ounce porterhouse for $50. Owner Philip Constantine points out that they have no problem if you order it for two; but I'd like to point out that if you order two of the regular porterhouses, they will actually cost you a few cents less. (You get a 24-ounce steak for $23.95.) And the regular porterhouse is a piece of meat one person can handle (with the help of a doggie bag). My only quarrel with the steak was that it was so heavily seasoned.

The prime rib, tender and served just as ordered, was better only because it had essentially been left alone. The surprise was that in a steakhouse our seafood was just as good as the beef. A grilled rockfish fillet turned out to be sublimely fresh and moist, its herbed mayonnaise almost not necessary. Crab cakes were packed with crab meat with a soft binding; I liked them a lot. (But the friend who ordered them wasn't quite so enthusiastic.)

Where Alexander's needs improvement is in the side dishes. Everything is a la carte, and not particularly cheap. A house salad shouldn't feature just pale wintry tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. The soft-skinned baked potato tasted steamed rather than baked. The vegetables of the day were overcooked broccoli tossed with sauteed red peppers. No excuse for that.

Desserts, of course, are large and rich. I say "of course" because upscale steakhouses usually figure you haven't gotten enough fat with a 50-ounce porterhouse, so you better have a six-layer fudge cake with all sorts of fruits and sauces, or a nutty, deliciously sticky pecan pie in a buttery crust. The high point of dessert for me, though, was the amaretto creme anglaise that came with my husband's comparatively modest fruit dessert.

Keep Alexander's in mind when you want upscale steakhouse food at mid-scale steakhouse prices. The kitchen needs to ease up on the salt shaker, and as much attention should be paid to the side dishes as the main courses. But those things are so fixable that owner Constantine could easily have a winner here.

ALEXANDER'S STEAK HOUSE

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 6490 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers: $7.95-$8.25; main courses: $13.95-$50 (for a 50-ounce porterhouse

Call: 410-715-1030

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

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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