Big beef drawing big crowds

Price increases don't appear to faze diners

Sunday Gourmet

April 04, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The last time I stood at a meat counter trying to decide if I could afford a pound of hamburger, I found myself wondering how soaring beef prices were affecting upscale steakhouses. The answer, judging from our evening at Shula's, is not much. I didn't see any empty tables the weeknight we were there, even though prices have skyrocketed since my last visit six years ago.

This is the local branch of the Florida-based chain named after NFL Hall of Famer Don Shula, who played and coached here in Baltimore. It's the kind of restaurant Americans seem to love best: simple food -- mostly great slabs of beef -- comfortable but casual surroundings, and a warm, welcoming staff. All that was true on my first visit, but this time our evening teetered on the edge of disaster.

Disaster is a strong word, but our check for four came to $275 before tip. That's when I get picky.

There are two things you need to know about Shula's: It's so expensive it will take your breath away, and the prices that appear on your bill aren't necessarily the same as what's on the menu. (Hint: They aren't lower.) The beef entrees average $35, and everything is a la carte. Oh, and the house white is $10 a glass.

Enough about prices. When a restaurant does what it does well and the service is attentive, I figure it has a right to charge what the traffic will bear. Too bad things weren't going well this evening. Still, Shula's had all the customers it could handle and more in its clubby, cozy dining room.

Cozy, yes. For some reason the temperature seemed to be 95 degrees and climbing. I like warm rooms, but this was ridiculous. Customers were shedding clothes like crazy.

It was an appealing room apart from the sauna-like conditions, with an open kitchen, dark paneling, walls painted a soft, dusty red and tables set in crisp white linen. It also had the best use of sports memorabilia as restaurant decor I've seen: black and white photos of Shula-era football games hung in baroque gold frames.

The worst use of sports memorabilia is the menu, hand-painted on a real football. (If you ask nicely, the hostess will bring you a photocopy of the menu.)

Even worse, the waiter will come around with a cart of raw meat and a live lobster to help you choose. Our waiter spoke too fast to be understood, which was frustrating. But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe someone who's about to order a 48-ounce porterhouse is so beef-crazed he'll actually enjoy seeing what could be his last meal before it's cooked.

So here we were, sweating gently and looking at a man holding up hunks of raw beef and being spoken to incomprehensibly. It's not a good way to start an evening.

We felt better with the arrival of our appetizers. The dish of blackened tenderloin tips is the equivalent in size of an entree elsewhere, and the fiery spices give a satisfying jolt to the tender bites of beef. Eat them as is, or dip them in cocktail sauce or a surprisingly smooth, elegant bearnaise.

The house salad showcases fat slices of summer-like tomatoes (beefsteak, of course) with crumbled gorgonzola, chopped onions and a slightly sweet vinaigrette. The oysters Rockefeller were a success, too. The kitchen treated the salty-sweet oysters with respect, snuggling them in spinach and serving a delicate hollandaise on the side. That excellent hollandaise also showed up with a side dish of asparagus, elevating the fat, tender-crisp stalks to diva status. Delicious creamed spinach disappeared as quickly as any dish on the table.

Two beautiful prime filets, cooked rosy rare as ordered, benefited from a dark, intensely flavorful cognac and peppercorn sauce. Oddly, the kitchen excelled with the more complicated preparations, while the simplest were flawed. The he-man prime rib was seriously oversalted, even though it had such fine beefy flavor it almost didn't need any seasoning at all. That wasn't a one-dish glitch: A golden-crusted fillet of Florida dolphin was too salty as well.

The simple herb-grilled chicken breast looked impressive; a whole breast was boned and then served with the wing bones still attached. But cradled at its center was a large, whole garlic bulb that dwarfed the chicken and heavily permeated the meat with its scent.

A gargantuan twice-baked potato would have been fine, but it was stone cold by the time it made it to our table. Maybe the kitchen forgot to bake it the second time, but the wait for our food was so long I imagine it had simply sat on a counter somewhere. To be fair, Shula's was dealing with two large parties that evening, but you'd think they could handle them and get the food out to the rest of us. Or at least fill our water glasses. It's not like they were giving us a discount because of poor service.

Desserts included a heavy, darkly chocolate seven-layer cake, a grainy key lime pie (as if the sugar in the filling hadn't dissolved) and a bland, artificial-tasting vanilla cheesecake. But the coffee was good.

So, all in all, a disappointing evening. And that's surprising, because one thing upscale chains are usually good at is doing whatever they do pretty well and with a lot of professionalism. Not Shula's, at least not this night.

Shula's

Food: **

Service: **

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 101 W. Fayette St., Baltimore

Hours: Open nightly for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.50-$14.95; main courses, $20.95-$85

Call: 410-385-6601

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

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