Among the offerings at Prime Steakhouse is the 20-ounce Grilled… (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore…)
In the world of beef, there is prime at the top, rarely seen, and right below that there is choice. But when choice beef is treated and grilled superbly and tastes amazing, you could call it 24-karat gold and no one would raise a fuss. So, yes, it might be weird for this new restaurant, which proudly serves excellent, lovingly aged choice beef, to call itself Prime, but I don't mind. I was never much for everything making sense.
That's a good quality to bring with you when you dine at Prime. This is the latest attempt by Timothy Dean to create a restaurant in this Fells Point location to properly showcase his considerable, occasionally thrill-inducing, skills and talent. Prime is within shouting distance of that goal, almost heartbreakingly close. Wish it luck. The first try here, Timothy Dean Bistro, opened impressively but was undermined from the start by front-of-house problems. Its immediate successor, a nightclub called TD Lounge, felt desperate, and closed.
If you knew nothing about the past struggles here, I think you would still sense something about Prime, not necessarily something amiss but maybe just unfinished, or that doesn't add up. Some of this odd quality is endearing, or at least forgivable, like the loyal staff that makes up in enthusiasm and friendliness what it might lack in polish or timing.
A badly stocked bar and an overcrowded dining room with impoverished table settings are not deal-breakers, but you notice them, because they don't make sense in a steakhouse atmosphere and they don't support the fine food. Then there are a few things, such as the menu of vilely sweet cocktails and a few stray inexplicable menu items, that speak either of bad taste or pandering to it.
But so much is spot on. The decision to not charge extra for sides, as many steakhouses do, is a sweet device, made more so by how terrific they are - poached asparagus that looks ready for a still-life, heartily creamed spinach flavored with sweet Vidalia onions and pan-fried hash browns secreting whole cloves of garlic that dissolve instantly on the tongue. The pared-down menu of five appetizers and 15 entrees is, I think, a great idea for a new (or reconstituted) restaurant that has everything to gain by performing consistently.
Of the five appetizers, three are outstanding, one is very good, one is very bad. The winners are the masterful duck confit, luscious with fatty flavor, aided by wholesome white beans and the pert, shaved root of a horseradish; the flash-fried calamari, perfect little ringlets and tentacles served with a surpassingly good smoked tomato sauce; and the Thai curry mussels, one of the few holdovers from the old bistro menu, lovely with lemongrass, shallots and Thai basil. The only real problem with the crab cake appetizer served with creamy polenta and sweet-corn coulis is that the coulis easily outperforms the crab cake. And what's with the shrimp cocktail, which would have been boring and regrettable even if the shellfish smelled fresher?
But the steaks here are about the best I've ever had in a restaurant. They were a filet mignon, a New York strip and a 20-ounce cowboy steak - all just grand. And they put the lie to the common assumption that good beef needs no intervention. These steaks have been seasoned - with salt and pepper - in a way that some might find assertive, or even aggressive, but which coaxed out all of the best juices and flavor of the meat. What else Timothy Dean did to them before they met the grill, I can't tell you, except that they didn't turn out so well by chance.
Equally gorgeous was an entree of smoked rosemary-scented lamb chops, six beauties, and here it was all a matter of subtlety, which is what lamb loves. So, rosemary here is a presence, and smoking doesn't layer on bottled-smoke flavor but gently loosens up the meat. But then, a dud - a lame lobster macaroni and cheese, needlessly oversold by the menu description, anemic and, again, regrettable.
For dessert, there is homemade ice cream that tastes a little too homemade; a just-OK creme brulee; and a molten chocolate cake so good, so ideal in construction and warmth, and balance of bitter and sweet notes, you want to hold a parade for it.
Other than the shrimp cocktail and the macaroni and cheese, the food here ranged from superb to the very good - only on a return visit did I try the sweet corn soup with lump crab meat, which might be the best thing on the menu. The dining experience at Prime is more awkward than negative. The staff is excited about the food, and it should be. Their cheer is infectious, and you might find yourself wanting to offer suggestions - like losing a few tables from the crowded dining room, getting a grown-up cocktail list and finding something pretty, such as charger plates or thick cotton placemats, to dress up the brassy tabletops.
Where: 1717 Eastern Ave.
Open: for dinner Tuesdays-Sundays
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