Annapolis steakhouse thinks big

Restaurant: Governor's Grille has all the right stuff -- plus a large selection of seafood.

May 30, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The new Governor's Grille in Annapolis has only one problem that I can see, but it's a big one. What's going to make a customer decide to go there rather than one of the city's other upscale steakhouses? There's Lewnes, a fine restaurant with the force of tradition behind it, or Ruth's Chris, which has name recognition on its side.

But who knows. Maybe Annapolis has an unending appetite for huge prime steaks. Maybe there are plenty of customers who have enough money to afford them. If so, Governor's Grille can hold its own with the best of them.

You may not expect to find a luxe steakhouse in a storefront on Main Street where a Burger King used to be, but there it is. It has all the necessary components: mahogany paneling, paintings in heavy gold frames, crystal chandeliers, period appointments, comfortable seating, white linens and heavy flatware, Pachelbel on the sound system.

But there's also a sly bit of "don't take this too seriously." Look up and you'll see the chandeliers are hung between the exposed pipes of the unfinished ceiling. And people walking by do stop to peer in the storefront windows, which is kind of amusing, although the dining room is arranged so they can't see much.

One of the things that sets Governor's Grille apart from other steakhouses is that there's just about as much seafood as beef on the menu. Maine lobster is a specialty, and on any given night you'll find salmon, tuna, crab cakes, crab imperial and shrimp. Those shrimp are enormous, and the waiter refers to them as "U12s" -- that's the number of shrimp to a pound.

"They sound like something produced by the Defense Department rather than a kitchen," whispers one of my guests. Actually, she has to do more than whisper because the table of the booth where we're sitting is so wide we practically have to shout across it. But that's not a problem. On this weekday night the restaurant is fairly empty, and what sound there is is muted. Even filled, this wouldn't be a noisy dining room.

Four of those giant shrimp can be had as a shrimp cocktail. They're arranged decoratively on a small plate with lemon and a zingy cocktail sauce. But the appetizer of choice should be the restaurant's own delicately smoked salmon. It's out of this world. The large fillet -- not slices -- comes with crisp toasts, capers and a flavorful mayonnaise.

One of us wants soup, so she tries the signature crab bisque, a thick, creamy delight. Every mouthful is filled with generous amounts of crab.

Another guest, from the Deep South, has nostalgically ordered a spinach, bacon and egg salad with hot bacon dressing. Not exactly a posh salad, but indicative of a certain cozy quality the restaurant has in abundance. Still, the waiter manages to serve the salad poshly -- as though it were composed of rare lettuces and hummingbird wings. He divides it tableside onto three plates, elegantly placing a spinach leaf here, a ring of red onion there.

It's enough for three. In fact, any of the a la carte side dishes (and they are all a la carte) are enough for three: fat asparagus spears with a creamy hollandaise, for instance, or potatoes roesti, a crisp-edged variation on hash browns. Otherwise, all that comes with an entree is a sprig of parsley or a little metal container of bearnaise sauce. Not that you need any more food, given the size of the portions. It's just a little monotonous to eat a 22-ounce slab of steak or three-quarters of a pound of crab meat and nothing else.

The latter is how much crab is in the Crab Annapolitan, the Grille's version of good old-fashioned crab imperial. It's a classic version, made with huge lumps of crab. I particularly like the fact that the crab meat is tossed lightly with the imperial sauce, not smothered in it.

And now we get to the steaks. They are excellent and huge, as you might expect, and priced accordingly. A rib eye practically drapes over the plate and a filet, part of a surf and turf with a couple of crab-stuffed shrimp, is fist-sized. But somehow the steaks -- tender, flavorful and cooked as ordered -- are the least interesting part of the meal. Maybe I've just reached the point of protein overkill after our appetizers.

What better cure for protein overkill than a great dessert? The Governor's Grille has them: a beautiful checkerboard made with chocolate and white chocolate mousse, or one of those decadent flourless chocolate cakes sparked by an intriguing blood orange sauce. The only slip into the steakhouse better-is-bigger mentality is a potentially wonderful tarte tatin made with a whole half apple instead of slices.

GOVERNOR'S GRILLE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 177 Main St., Annapolis

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$10; main courses, $18-$50

Call: 410-263-6555

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

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