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Cheap meats at LongHorn and Outback

A venture into steakhouse chains

My mind was racing. "Be quiet, Cliff," I said to myself. "Your friends don't want to know what you really think about a place they like."

But, honestly, I was freaking out. I'd joined my three friends for an impromptu dinner at LongHorn Steakhouse (2430 Piedmont Road, 404-816-6338). I don't even remember the last time I visited LongHorn, but it was at the original restaurant on Peachtree Street, opened by George McKerrow in 1981. His concept — affordable steaks — bloomed into a chain that was ultimately bought by Darden Restaurants in 2007. That's the company that owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Seasons 52, among others.

McKerrow went on to open Ted's Montana Grill with Ted Turner and is a partner with Gerry Klaskala and Ron Martin in Aria and Canoe, so he's certainly not a stranger to fine dining.

I never cared much for the original LongHorn. The taxidermy and the faux Western ambiance — to say nothing of the radio commercials featuring "Flo, the big-haired lady" — were cloying. But I was stunned to see the cloy-trot accelerated to a full gallop at this Darden version of cowpoke heaven. The décor is not intolerable but, like any other Darden property, leaves you feeling like you're dining inside a toy playhouse. Yeehaw or whatever. (Go ahead. Tell me I'm a snob.)

What about the food? Steak. Eat the steak and you'll be fine. Skip everything else. Otherwise, you'll be in Gooeyville. There's the "grilled mushroom caps stuffed with white cheddar and herbs ... served over a gooey blend of aged cheddar, Parmesan, Monterey Jack, and fontina cheeses." It's not that such a dish won't appeal to the fat-loving, midnight-munchy stoner pig in you that might scavenge all the corners of cheese in your refrigerator and melt them together. And granted, the fresh mushrooms were nicely grilled al dente. But, for the love of God, have mercy upon our vascular systems. And, believe me, it doesn't stop there. A Caesar salad was also literally gooey from too much dressing. I ate about half of it.

My entrée was a surf n' turf riff: "a tender 7 ounce Flo's Filet paired with garlic and herb crusted jumbo shrimp, fire-grilled on a cedar plank." That's big-haired Flo who gives her name to the steak and, just as my friends said, it was far better than the name. I have no complaints. (The steak alone is $18.79.)

However, the shrimp were proof that cowboys don't cook seafood on the campfire. In fact, the shrimp were barely cooked at all — as in more gooey goo. Ugh. Next up, dessert, when gooey is an asset! I ordered the three-sampler plate that included a quite tasty apple cobbler kind of thing, bad New York-style cheesecake and a meh molten chocolate cake "layered with six types of chocolate." Quite clearly, LongHorn thinks multiple versions of an ingredient — chocolate or cheese — will include something gooey to please everyone.

LongHorn is not limited to steak. In fact, the only other thing at the table I thought was pretty good was a friend's "fresh, hand-cut salmon grilled using our secret bourbon marinade." It really was better cooked than in many Atlanta restaurants.

The next day I bored everyone with an amazed account of my meal. Yes, I was weirded-out, but morbidly curious, too. So I headed to Outback Steakhouse (2145 Lavista Road, 404-636-5110) for a taste comparison. I went alone because I did not want to risk subjecting more friends to eye rolling and shuddering.

There is no other way to put this. It was the worst meal I've had in memory. It was so bad that I could not eat most of it and, for reasons I couldn't divine, the servers kept pleading with me to take it home in a box. Are they required to eat the leftovers?

What did I have? In order to effectively compare, I ordered the restaurant's sirloin steak with grilled shrimp. A sirloin is not generally as tender a cut as a filet, of course, but why pollute the meat with 17 spices and herbs "from global boutique markets"? Because you get the full range of flavors from bitter and burned to brackish? My three shrimp were, contrary to LongHorn's, gruesomely overcooked and also overseasoned. Oh. The Caesar salad was even gooier than LongHorn's. Three bites and I was done.

My plate also included mashed potatoes that also must have been imported from a global boutique market six days earlier. They were absolutely dry, reminding me of those plastic molds of food in Japanese restaurants.

Dessert! I give the restaurant props for allowing diners to select a mini-portion for about $3. I got the Chocolate Thunder From Down Under — another gooey mess of chocolate and ice cream. I ate all of it! And it wasn't that "mini."

Both of these restaurants had great staffs. I couldn't help feeling sorry for them, having to dump this stuff on future arteriosclerosis patients inside playhouses representing a Wild West and an Australian outback that never existed. It bears mention that LongHorn would not even let us photograph their food, insisting that they would supply highly styled PR photos. Fine. Image counts. I'm wearing a holster with a gun next time I go.



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