Doesn’t make the cut

It’s sometimes said that jazz and musical comedy are the only uniquely American art forms. But if food can be art, then steak houses should be added to the list. What bistros are to France, steak houses are to this country. A steak house is the quintessential American restaurant.

As such, steak houses embody the conflicting feelings many Americans have about spending a lot of money on dining.

Steak houses tend to be pricey, yes, but they aren’t “fancy” in the way we think expensive French restaurants are fancy. Steak houses serve real fare, we think, honest fare—beef, seafood, maybe a little game or poultry. Steak houses are straightforward, just like Americans are.

Perhaps all this explains why an extremely disappointing dinner at the Peppermill Steak House seemed almost, well, unpatriotic. As if the restaurant had let down our side.

Consider the roasted prime rib of beef au jus ($22.50), a dish that should be the centerpiece of any steak house. The 16-ounce cut was generous, but a half-day’s roasting didn’t produce what the menu promised would be a “tender and juicy” dish. Instead, the meat was tough and dry, the au jus was cold, and the accompanying steak house fries were soggy.

Prosciutto-wrapped Sonoma quail on a bed of barley pearls were “flavored” with a port-thyme essence ($9.95). The essence was oily—as essences usually are—but the other flavors must have been lost in the extraction process. The tiny quail—all two of them—looked forlorn amidst the vast expanse of the serving dish. Perhaps their leathery prosciutto coverings kept them warm.

Surf fared just as poorly as turf.

Broiled cold-water lobster tails ($36.95) lacked even a hint of sweetness. The Seafood Mirage ($13.50) was a spiritless assembly of fish and crustaceans. The jumbo shrimp were nothing more than fingers of protein, the king crab legs were slightly mushy, and the smoked salmon was sliced too thickly and had the feel of cold bologna. Only the nicely briny oysters saved the course from total failure.

But this bit of hope was dashed when the pan-fried Chilean sea bass atop whipped potatoes ($21.50) arrived. The surrounding wild mushroom sauce wasn’t a sauce but a soup. After a few bites, the soup began to soak the fish and its potato cushion. The result? A gooey mess that resembled a melting hot fudge sundae.

Even the humble steak house salad ($4.95) didn’t escape ignominy. The greens were soggy, the croutons listless. The ranch dressing was watery, and the honey-mustard dressing didn’t have enough sweetness to cut its bite.

The dining room distractions included purple banquettes, galaxy-themed carpet and pink glass sculptures that looked like waving strands of hallucinogenic kelp. The room reminded me of a lounge where older men take their younger “nieces.”

What would have been welcome as well is an understanding on the restaurant’s part that high prices require excellent cuisine. Main courses at the Peppermill Steak House can approach $60; certain wines fetch almost $15 per glass. At these levels, people have the right to feel extraordinarily satisfied—not mugged.