Restaurant Review - Capital spending

Longhorn's baby brother is a boutique steakhouse for prodigal sons

Ford makes Lincolns and Marriott runs the Ritz. Not to be outdone, Atlanta's own Longhorn Steaks is the corporate muscle behind Capital Grille, an upscale, 15-unit steakhouse chain. The Buckhead link opened June 18.

Big-haired ladies and bacon-wrapped filets do not figure. Model-thin hostesses in sleek gowns, captains and managers in dark suits and dry-aged meat set the intended "business casual" tone.

A few customers don't get it yet. One rube — stuffed into cutoff jeans and airing his scrawny legs in the bar on a Saturday night — presumably took his signals from the valet parkers eight floors down. But valet guys race for a living; wearing shorts at night works for them. Surely this gent was neither fresh from a marathon nor trolling for elegant, unattached singles.

The Capital Grille's penthouse location offers smashing, even romantic views of the city and its forest. Decor is by-the-numbers boardroom: theatrical lighting, dark wood paneling, a rogues' gallery of amateurish portraiture, logo steak knives, crisp linens and tabletops positioned high enough for basketball players. The physical layout — elevator lobby, raised bar and assorted semi-private meeting rooms, some with audiovisual equipment — suggest the ambience of a small club or boutique restaurant, not a chain store with 170 seats.

Ounce for ounce, beefsteak is one of America's most popular and expensive foods. Just as freewheeling sushi-anados spend small fortunes to dine on potentially deadly fugu, a poisonous Japanese blowfish, macho Americans mostly love steaks. Perhaps the implied danger triggers an aphrodisiac response. Still, not everyone is prepared to blow $50-$60 a week on the best steak dinner available. Thus, below a certain level of sporty regularity (becoming known at Bone's, for instance), chain steakhouses do offer certain advantages to customers. Central purchasing of enormous quantities of specified grades and cuts of meat, in this case meat that is dry-aged on site, can mean consistent quality at comparatively reasonable prices.

Healthwise, of course, and except in moderation — meaning occasional three- or four-ounce servings — steaks are often the sign of an unhealthy diet. In any case, Capital Grille sells neither spa nor budget cuisine. Within the guidelines I'm going to suggest, however, the concept does offer excellent value for those who require a somewhat formal setting, professional service and the kind of wine list that softens the stiffest client's resistance.

My principal suggestions are three — and they apply equally to Morton's, the Palm and Ruth's Chris: Stick with beef and cooked vegetables. Don't waste money and calorie counts on salads, appetizers or desserts. Hold onto your wallet while choosing wines — unless the company is paying.

Despite a somewhat misleading name, the Grille's Delmonico ($26.95), a bone-in steak that weighs 22 ounces before cooking, is among the city's top-quality hunks of meat. Rated USDA prime, the dry-aged steak is very lightly seasoned before grilling, drizzled with a bit of butter when finished and served on a heated platter with a splash of jus. Though the meat is well marbled, there is a minimum of loose fat. The caramelized fat that remains after trimming is quite delicious. The meat is substantial in texture and tastes properly beefy. Leftovers taken home reheat remarkably well.

I cite the steak's deceptive name as but one example of the chain's imprecise, overheated menu language. According to Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts, the classic Delmonico, strip-loin or strip steak is "usually boneless." Further, Capital Grille's menu fails to mention that a significant piece of bone is included in the listed weight. In today's market, such a cut is often called a cowboy ribeye. (A porterhouse steak works the opposite way, with the bone assumed. A 24-ounce version is listed that way by Capital Grille and goes for $32.95.)

The porterhouse, sirloin, steak au poivre, filet mignons and assorted "sliced" steaks (I didn't even ask), though carved from Midwest corn-fed beef, are what's called "certified Angus beef," the highest grade of choice, not USDA prime. The filet I tried, though tender and lean, lacked the flavor and buttery consistency of super-premium steaks ($25.95 for 10 ounces, $27.95 for 14 ounces).

Provimi calf's liver sauteed with bacon and onions, served with a vegetable at lunch, is perhaps the menu's best value ($9.95). Although liver is currently out of dietary fashion, veal and calves' liver are steakhouse standards in cities such as Miami and New York. This is a remarkably good, modestly sized version. The veal chop — the menu labels it a "signature," perhaps because it is a porterhouse cut, not the standard rib chop — has a predictably mild flavor ($27.95). A Roquefort-butter sauce with which it is paired effectively masks the delicate flavor of the veal. Meat lovers may want to ask that the sauce be served on the side or omitted altogether.

The roast half chicken makes little impression ($17.95 at night, $8.95 by day). A dinner special, tuna in a black sesame seed crust, tasted weirder than it sounded. I didn't even finish my two-bite sample, but its owner finished the task. The fish arrived on a delicious mound of seared, butter-tossed spinach ($24.95).

As at many steakhouses, only tap water, bread and butter are included in dinner entree prices. Side dishes are thus not only desirable but necessary. The Grille's table-size servings of creamed spinach ($5.25), very rich mashed potatoes ($4.95) and crisp asparagus spears with Hollandaise ($6.95) nicely set off the rather Spartan steaks. Half portions are available. Raisin pumpernickel bread and warm poppy seed-sesame rolls, accompanied by little crocks of soft, sweet butter, take up any slack that's left in an appetite.

Don't bother with the salty, greasy fried calamari with peppers; the blah, watery Caesar salad; the iceberg-and-tomato house salad or the Campbell's-tasting pea soup, the latter served much too hot. Desserts — Key lime pie, white chocolate mousse, home-made cheesecake, strawberries, creme brûlee — sound so unimagi-native and commercial that I have trouble figuring who'd want such stuff after consuming two pounds of protein. We didn't even bother with coffee.

The ambitious wine list runs from distinguished Bordeaux reds in the $300-$500 range to an extensive collection of West Coast half bottles of both colors in $20-$50 territory. Unfortunately our first choice, Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay of 1999, offered at $23, wasn't available except in a full bottle at $66. Finding much under $40 per bottle is very tough going.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.??