Thursday, May 20, 2004

Steaks are high

Posted on Thu, May 20, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Take a peek at the "Steaks" heading in Orlando Weekly's 2004 edition of BITE, and you'll see that this town is up to here in steakhouses. From Linda's La Cantina, to Kres (you say steakhouse, they say chophouse, let's call that whole argument off), to Ruth's Chris, to Sam Seltzer's, to Vito's, if you can't find a big platter of beef with a side of garlic mashed potatoes within minutes of where you are right now, you're not really trying.

So why would yet another steakhouse venture into this already crowded field? Good question, and one I can't answer after a recent visit to Omaha SteakHouse.

The first thing to know about the new kid on the block is that, yes, it is the restaurant manifestation of Omaha Steaks, the mail-order and retail meat folks. Getting a cooler full of cuts in the mail has always been kind of cool, and Omaha Steaks has a deserved reputation for their beef. They still claim it's their corn-fed cows that make for such good eating.

The second thing to know about the new kid on the block is that it is hard to find. There are only seven Omaha SteakHouses in the country so far, so you'd think they'd want a big, splashy location that screams "We're here!" But you'd be wrong. The restaurant is located in the Embassy Suites Orlando North, an outwardly generic (though inwardly posh) hotel set back from the gash of commerce that is Altamonte Drive east of I-4. I drove by it twice before finding it. Even when you find the Embassy Suites, there is precious little signage letting on that you've also found Omaha SteakHouse.

Maybe they were thinking that the beef is so good they can hide and still draw a crowd. But from my experience (and the fact that the place was almost empty), I'm thinking not.

Don't get me wrong: The food was good to excellent, the service was low-key and impeccable, and the atmosphere was refined and relaxing. I could say the same, however, for almost every other steakhouse in Orlando.

We started with the crab bisque ($4.95), which proved as smooth, savory and delicious as its burnt-orange hue suggested. That it came in a bowl big enough to serve as a washbasin only added to my enjoyment. Another appetizer, three-cheese quesadillas ($7.25), was generous enough to serve as a kids' meal.

For entrees, we ordered up the Roquefort and chive encrusted top sirloin ($18.95), and the 7-ounce "private reserve" filet mignon ($23.95). The former was a touch dry, and I wouldn't exactly say it was "encrusted"; more like the Roquefort was plopped on top. Nonetheless, the cheese added needed moisture to the meat, complementing it beautifully. The filet, on the other hand, was fork tender and flavorful all on its own, a near-perfect cut.

The sides were not as successful. I'd like to formally lodge a complaint against all steakhouses that charge $20-plus for a piece of meat and skimp on (or do away with) any vegetables on the plate. The steak-on-a-stark-white-plate aesthetic has had its day. At Omaha, your meat comes with a side of mashed potatoes that, in our case, came out cold and crying out for salt.

I only ate half my steak in order to save room for dessert, and frankly I've had none finer that I can recall. Omaha's "big New Yorker cheesecake" ($6.95) was worth the trip itself; fluffy and dense at the same time, the epitome of New York-style cheesecake.

Perhaps we are so Atkins crazed that any steakhouse is a guaranteed success these days. But I have to say that I left Omaha SteakHouse thinking they have a struggle ahead of them to make it in this market. Step No. 1: Get yourself a bigger sign.


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