Another steak place? Capital idea

It's not all about the beef at Capital Grille in Tampa.

Published June 30, 2005

Only a fool asks if the Tampa Bay area, or the world, needs another $35 steak. Apparently, we want all we can get. Most of the time, more than we can eat.

The discriminating carnivore is entitled to ask what's different about the newest luxury meat case, Capital Grille at International Plaza. Don't we already have beefy big-bucks chains in gentleman's club green (Ruth's Chris, Shula's), servers in bistro wear (the Palm) with local celebrities on the wall (the Palm again)?

So I went early on for my first bite. Well, the faces on the wall here are not cartoons, but framed oil portraits fewer in number and of baronial size. The names are also bigger than the small screen bold-facers, and I didn't recognize them all. I thought the mustachioed gent high above the bar was some fictitious Col. Mustard. Nope, it's the very real cigar tycoon Martinez Ybor. The curly-headed golfer in plaid I got: Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The huge eagle over the open kitchen still puzzles me.

So a national company pronounced us worthy of a theme park city club where we can pretend to be movers and shakers (but oddly not cigar smokers, unless we step outside). Tampa is the 20th restaurant in the fast-growing group, and the Grille has already found a place on the social and business menu, reclaiming the ill-started spot across from the Cheesecake Factory and drawing similar traffic.

Do you get more than a theme? Yes, thankfully, this is one steak chain that has both excellent service and trained chefs. If you come for more than red meat, it shows immediately with an engaging amuse (a special tidbit from the chef), a bright lobster salad on my visit. Breads, sauces, sides and desserts come in broader range and better choices, trimmed with porcini mushrooms and the like.

The main course is more diverse, too. I always want more than butter on a steak and am pleased if I get a tolerable Bearnaise. This kitchen rubs a dry-aged sirloin with cocoa and coffee to give steak a wakeup edge. Cheap trick? Maybe, but at least a choice. Likewise there's flat bread in the bread basket.

Ay, but there was a rub in the basic task of cooking meat to order. A medium rare veal chop was a handsome hunk but not medium rare (or as we had discussed, "pink inside"). Happily, this got a textbook correction: both plates removed, recooked and swiftly returned with fresh sides, and the chop was comped. Perhaps it was just for me, but at these prices a smart operation wants everyone to leave smiling. Surprise ending: The second time around, the chop was rare. A-plus for service, C for the grill.

As with others of this generation, sides are a la carte and meant to be shared. There's a rich heap of mushrooms, but my favorite was mashed potatoes with more butter and cream than an Irish colcannon. A vegetarian might be stuffed on this alone. The wine list is extensive and expensive; ordinary folks should go for zinfandels, Rhones and Ozzies. There are show-off cabernets (Beringer Reserve, '91, $567) Burgundies (Romanee St. Vivant, 2001, $728) and Bordeaux (Lafite Rothschild, '96, $920).

Steak tartare is chopped fresh but molded into a stacked parfait of beef, hard-cooked egg, onion and capers, which spoils the fun of making your own taste combinations. A coconut cream tart seems far too much after a such a meal, but it was a thin, crisp pastry with a light custard. A very balanced finish.

In its early days, the Capital Grille already shows more imagination and ambition than the rest of the steak chains, so I'll be back to see if the execution can make good on the brag. There's salmon, shrimp scampi and even a humble roast chicken to try; maybe for lunch a lobster-crab burger or old-fashioned calf's liver.

Steaks can be done well, but I like something more rare, creativity, and Capital Grille may have that. Something we do need.

- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. He can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

Capital Grille

International Plaza

2223 N West Shore Blvd.


Phone: (813) 830-9433

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Recommended

Details: Credit cards, full bar, no smoking

Prices: Lunch, $10.95 to $22.95; dinner, $18.95 to $49.95