A Steakhouse Still In Its Prime

Restaurant: The Prime Rib continues to serve excellent steaks and ribs, and it knows how to handle seafood, too.

April 04, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Long before Lenny's Chop House, Shula's Steak House and Morton's of Chicago, there was the Prime Rib, the granddaddy of upscale steakhouses.

One of Baltimore's most beloved restaurants, the Prime Rib still delivers the goods after more than three decades in business. It's been dazzling this town with tender, aged steaks and pampering service since 1965. This year, Zagat voters ranked it best steakhouse and overall best for food.

The steaks are fabulous, but a meal at the Prime Rib might include some misses, too. At these prices, misses are hard to overlook, however minor.

Part of the fun of dining at the Prime Rib is the dark, decadent decor. With its walls painted black, gold velvet curtains and leopard-skin carpeting, the restaurant feels like a posh 1930s supper club. It's a swanky place, to be sure, especially when the piano and bass duo starts playing. By then, the bar is thick with power brokers, martini-drinkers and women in skimpy black dresses.

There are lots of little black dresses in the dining room, too. I watched as a tuxedoed waiter presented a prime rib of King Henry proportions to a petite woman who didn't bat an eyelash. Beef is back, and the bigger the better.

Prime rib is, of course, the signature dish at the Prime Rib. It's remarkably tender, with a ribbon of fat running through the 3-inch-thick choice cut. At about 24 ounces, it's also a little embarrassing to eat.

We preferred the prime rib steak, which replaced the porterhouse on the menu last year. It is the same wonderful cut as the prime rib. But instead of being roasted, the thick rib is grilled. The meat still has the same buttery texture, but with a superior, smoky flavor and a thick, dark crust.

Compared to it, the steak au poivre was not quite as tender, but each bite was an assertive, spicy mouthful. The New York strip is rolled in peppercorns and finished with butter and brandy.

The funny thing about this steakhouse is the fact that it handles fish so well. Chilean sea bass was impeccably cooked, broiled to a golden brown on the outside with delicate crab imperial stuffed between thick slabs of moist white fish.

A shrimp cocktail appetizer turned heads as it was brought to our table. The four colossal shrimp draped over the edge of a glass and silver ice dish were show stoppers. Tender, perfect and huge, they were teamed with a zippy hot sauce. Clams casino was another old favorite, getting a perfect rendition, with crispy bits of bacon and just the right amount of butter on top of tiny, tender littleneck clams.

Not everything was quite so good. Lobster bisque was more thick mousse than soup, and there was not enough lobster meat or essence to make ordering it worthwhile. Caesar salad got a simple turn, without the intensity of flavor that we like.

Since entrees don't come with anything but a garnish, side orders are a must. Creamed spinach, fried potato skins Greenberg and string beans in tomato sauce are retro choices, but the mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach on the next table looked better.

On the sweet side, desserts weren't so memorable that you'll be thinking of them days later -- the way we did about the prime rib steak. But any of these will satisfy: a firm, rich creme brulee, satiny chocolate mousse pie, a tartlet of buttery sweet pecan pie, and moist bread pudding with a luscious, liquor-spiked sauce.

THE PRIME RIB

Food: ***

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ****

Where: 1101 N. Calvert St.

Hours: Open daily for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12.95; entrees, $18-$29

Call: 410-539-1804

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

ELIZABETH LARGE is on vacation. Her column will return next Sunday.

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