It's no surprise, then, that in risky economic times such as these, cagey restaurateurs seek to diversify their "portfolios" with conservative investments packing broad appeal. Ergo, we have not the "modern American pickled-pigs'-feet parlor" or the "modern American raw-foods salon," but rather the "modern American steakhouse," widely considered a relatively safe bet in the wacky world of restaurant operations.
Three such spots have launched locally in the past seven months: The Italian-accented Delmonico's in Independence (owned and operated by Rocky River-based Hospitality Restaurants, which also runs Blue Point Grille, Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille, and the Cabin Club), Red the Steakhouse in Beachwood (owned and operated by Brad Friedlander, Jonathan Bennett, et al., of Moxie and Mom's Diner), and, most recently, XO Prime Steaks in the Warehouse District (the reimagining of Euro-contemporary XO, owned and operated by Zdenko Zovkic).
All three feature prime, aged beef in a white-tablecloth setting; all three are correspondingly pricey; and any one of the three will most likely fill the bill on those evenings when beef lust overtakes you. Still, there are some differences. We recently dined at each of the three steakhouses and compared them on food, ambiance, and amenities. Here's the dish:
If Delmonico's, Red, and XO Prime are any measure, the days of dark, manly steakhouses populated by cigar-smoking scotch-swillers are nearing their end. To varying degrees, each of these spots departs from the testosterone-charged ambiance of old in favor of surroundings and appointments that are lighter, less stodgy, and significantly more interesting.
Delmonico's, with its walnut bartop, crimson upholstery, and ornate wall art, veers closest to the old cliché, but just when you fear a collision, it swerves toward something closer to a 1950s New York Italian vibe. In contrast, XO Prime seems urbanely au courant, with its chocolate-colored walls, white wood trim, and spacious, airy bar, providing a striking big-city view through its Palladian windows.
For managing to capture just the right balance between intimacy and openness, though, we give the nod to Red: Its pale fieldstone walls, wooden floor, and sound-baffling wall sculpture help the room channel a warm yet refreshing persona that comes right out of California wine country. Not surprising, then, that Red was the only one of the three not to have the infernal Sinatra and his overexposed Rat Pack buds playing in the background; instead, a soundtrack of cool jazz emphasized the spot's progressive sensibilities.
At this price point, white tablecloths and hefty napkins are practically de rigueur, and to best show off the steaks, white dinnerware is to be expected. By far, though, Red offered the snazziest tabletop tableaux, with sleek, minimalist porcelains in just about every shape imaginable -- except round. Red scored again with its Schott Zwiesel crystal stemware, provided -- hurrah! -- even for those who order by the glass.
All the Amenities
Part of any upscale steakhouse's allure is the opportunity to be treated like a VIP. In this arena, Delmonico's was champ. The "treatment" began with free valet parking; continued when we were greeted warmly by the hostess and had our coats spirited away to the cloakroom; extended to the elegant restroom, stocked with toiletries and mints; and ended with a firm handshake from manager John Savage. Minor complaints were handled graciously and swiftly: When we fussed politely over the out-of-the-way location of our reserved table, we were led to the bar: 15 minutes later, we were ensconced at a cozy table in the main dining room.
Service at Red was nearly as courteous. There was the warm greeting, the whisking away of outerwear, and the friendly presence of GM Michael Yih, patrolling the room. Our waiter, too, was a gem: Knowledgeable, attentive, and relaxed, he was a true professional. The only irksome element? The $3 fee for valet parking -- particularly since plenty of park-it-yourself spots were within 100 feet of the valet station.
Of course, in the Warehouse District, weekend parking nearly always chips away at one's wallet, so the $6 valet fee at XO Prime was expected. But there were other slight lapses: While manager Rob Atkins greeted us promptly, neither he nor our hyperactive waiter even inquired about hanging up our coats. When I tipped over a glass of Cab on my long-suffering companion, staffers rushed to wipe up the spill, but no one thought to offer club soda to dab his shirt stains. And on a final sorry note, the ladies' room was neither especially clean nor particularly well appointed; worse, it was out of toilet paper!
Meats of the Matter
Forget the wimpy filet mignon. Sure, it's tender, but so are strained prunes. For real beef flavor, the best cuts are strip steaks (firm, typically trimmed of nearly all visible fat, and juicy) and rib-eyes (preferably bone-in, heavily marbled, and buttery as all get-out), done to a succulent medium-rare. With slight variations, that's what we ordered at each spot, and at each spot, the meat quality was very good.
At Red, though, the simply presented steaks, mounted on oversized porcelain rectangles, were flawlessly prepared, with dark, almost black exteriors; rosy, uniformly cooked interiors; and earthy, primal flavors enhanced, not masked, by the kitchen's sure-handed use of sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and herb oil. XO Prime's steaks, accompanied by a head of roasted garlic, were good-tasting too, although they lost a point or two for being unevenly cooked, vaguely oversalted, and slightly overdone. And at Delmonico's, where the steaks are sided by a roasted Cubanelle, we learned an important lesson: Ordering savory add-ons -- in this case, a "smother" of roasted red pepper, mushrooms, and onions on our 14-ounce Delmonico (a rib cut) and the blackened, bleu-cheese treatment for our Kansas City Strip -- is the very definition of lily-gilding. With steaks of this caliber, skip the heavy garnishes and savor the meat's natural flavor.
But if top-quality steaks pretty much speak for themselves, side dishes are where chefs have the opportunity to shout. XO Prime's top toque, Scott Popovic, requires all of 16 different dishes to sufficiently express his contempo-culinary swagger, including seven variations on potatoes and nine elegant veggie alternatives. While nothing about XO Prime's not-so-crisp "crispy steak fries" knocked us out, we loved Popovic's version of creamed corn, each popping fresh kernel set off by the earthy tang of relatively enormous (by which we mean "visible") slices of black truffle. At Red, Executive Chef Jonathan Bennett's collection of sides was somewhat smaller, but no less indulgent. Here, the slender steak fries were first-rate: pliable, yet crisp along the edges, and well seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and parsley. Tender-crisp baby green beans went uptown, too, with the addition of salty pancetta and loads of resiny, toasted pine nuts.
Delmonico's head chef Andrew Dombrowski takes a slightly less expansive approach to sides, with just three versions of potatoes, two green veggies, and a pasta dish. A big, beautiful bouquet of steamed broccoli was firm and sweet, and a rich but not cloying fontina cheese sauce added interest; still, a layer of sandy grit inside one of the florets brought this dish down a few pegs. Nor would we order kalamata-piqued mashed potatoes again: Neither the spuds' appearance nor natural flavor was improved by the dark, pungent streaks of olive.
In every case, sides were large enough to share, probably among a party of four.
Such rich, indulgent meals call for simple, palate-cleansing desserts. At Delmonico's, the engaging options included Woo City organic sorbets and ice creams, fresh raspberry tarts, lemon-pudding cake with seasonal berries, and a sampling of petite crème brûlées. On the other hand, XO Prime's dessert list seemed a little on the heavy side, with warm molten chocolate cake, bananas Foster cheesecake, and warm apple cobbler; the lighter alternatives included ice cream, sorbet, and vanilla crème brûlée.
But for raw sex appeal, Red's desserts took the cake, particularly the mouthwatering citrus Pavlova: a snowball of pale orange sorbetto, capped inside a cone of golden-crisp meringue, surrounded by bite-sized slices of red and white grapefruit in a fruit-forward coulis of pomegranate and passion fruit. Beautiful, refreshing, and deliciously different, it put the final exclamation point on a meal full of creative touches.
All three steakhouses feature a fully stocked bar and well-thought-out wine lists. We found the most extensive international wine collection at Delmonico's -- predictably heavy on the reds, with 25 wines by the glass, a bevy of half-bottles, and an entire page devoted to magnums. A mid-priced glass of Sebastiani Cabernet (Sonoma) set us back $9; a glass of Inniskillin Ice Wine (Niagara-on-the-Lake), after the meal, was pegged at $16.
While not quite so extensive, Red's wine menu is well organized and full of favorites. With dinner, a glass of Cline "Ancient Vines" Zinfandel (California) checked in at $10; the after-dinner Inniskillin was $20. Compared to its peers, XO Prime has the smallest wine collection; but for big spenders, there were top-shelf choices like Silver Oak Cab and Opus One. A glass of mid-priced Hess Select Cab (California) was priced at $9, and that Inniskillin went for $19.
Apparently, not everyone comes to a steakhouse for steak, so all three restaurants take steps to accommodate those who dare to be different, with a range of pasta, fish, and seafood dishes.
After all, even cowgirls get to choose.