Good steaks, great staff at lively Sullivan's

restaurant review

March 29, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,

If you were wondering whether downtown Baltimore could possibly support yet another upscale steakhouse in a recession, I have the answer for you.

Yes, it can - at least judging from the night we ate at Sullivan's, the newest chain steakhouse in the Inner Harbor area.

It was a damp, chilly night, so I was amazed as we approached the entrance to see that half the tables on the outdoor deck were filled. (Sullivan's does have efficient heaters.)

Inside we could hardly make our way to the hostess stand because the packed bar had spilled out into the foyer. The dining rooms were respectably full for a weeknight, and stayed that way throughout the evening.

Right here I better insert a word of warning. If a noisy dining room bothers you, this is not the restaurant for you. I didn't mind it as much as my guests did - I get the noise-equals-high-energy thing - but the tables are very close together and the music, using the term loosely here, was a loud, persistent rhythm track.

Odd, because Sullivan's doesn't attract a particularly young crowd. If I had to guess, I would say the tables were mostly filled with hotel guests from the Hyatt Regency next door, businesspeople on expense accounts and spillover from the younger bar crowd.

Except for the music, Sullivan's has the plush, dark, comfortable atmosphere you'd expect: the mahogany walls, the big, decorative light fixtures, the booths, a display kitchen in back. Another dining room half-heartedly pretends to be a library (the shelves could use some more books), and there are a couple of smaller private dining rooms with both the music and a flat-screen TV.

There's a lot of hustle and bustle, and part of that is the fact that Sullivan's has such a large wait staff. Our server was a little like a Ravens cheerleader on speed, dressed in black miniskirt and fishnet stockings. ("Yes!!! The Seared Ahi Tuna is my favorite!!!" "Is everything really delicious??!!") But she was also a fabulous waitress, who knew the menu backward and forward, was up on the wine list and checked on us frequently. Her support staff was excellent, good at whisking away dirty dishes and keeping the water glasses filled.

What Sullivan's is selling is a "let the good times roll" feeling - even when the good times aren't rolling - and it does this very well. You are almost guaranteed to have a good time. But the food seems secondary, and our meal was very uneven. If you aren't looking for a good time but a great steak, you're going to be disappointed. You'll get a good steak here, but it's not prime beef, while prices for the steaks are almost all in the 30s.

That does include an iceberg lettuce wedge with diced tomatoes and blue cheese dressing (most upscale steakhouse steaks are a la carte), but still. It will be an expensive meal. By the way, one of my guests doesn't like blue cheese, so he asked the server if he could have some other dressing. She said sure. The kitchen dressed the iceberg wedge with vinaigrette, left off the diced tomatoes, and placed crumbled blue cheese on both sides of the plate.

Some of our meal couldn't have been better. I'm thinking of the oysters Rockefeller: four Miyagi oysters, mild and sweet, with fresh baby spinach and just a touch of hollandaise. And the lobster bisque, full-flavored liquid velvet with a generous heap of lobster meat at its center. In fact, seafood was the star, surprisingly enough. A sea bass fillet - fat, white and perfectly cooked - was the best of our entrees. It was lavished with a delicate garlic-butter sauce, a scattering of diced tomatoes for color and flavor, and some golden crumbs for crunch.

Like I said, the steaks are good but they won't change your life. The signature dish is a bone-in Kansas City strip for 20 ounces, but the 12-ounce New York strip, cooked exactly as ordered, is as much steak as anyone would want. I ordered a steak that was a special that evening, a Delmonico with a sauce made of cream cheese. It covered more of those diced tomatoes (the kitchen must buy them by the truckload) and basil. Big mistake. The topping had an unfortunate look to it - I'll leave it to your imagination - and tasted too much like cream cheese, which doesn't really go with steak, I decided once I tried it. Underneath the cream cheese was a tender but not fabulously marbled steak.

Sullivan's offers a few non-steak dinners for under $20, including a pork shank braised with tomatoes over mashed potatoes. I liked it a lot, but it got a thumbs down from others at the table for its fattiness and the sharp flavor of the sauce.

Sides are extra and were as uneven as the rest of the meal. The corn tasted dreadfully like canned creamed corn, but the creamed spinach was worth every penny of the extra $8.

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