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Prime and Punishment

Barry Fey has a bone to pick with local steak joints.
The professional concert promoter and full-time amateur restaurant critic is disgusted by what he considers the low quality of beef being purveyed in this here cowtown's growing number of steakhouses. "We're supposed to be known for our steaks, for chrissakes," he says. Adding insult to injury, only a few places are capable of cooking meat--even mediocre meat--properly, complains Fey.

And now we can add another steakhouse to the list of losers: Brook's Steak House & Cellar.

Since Fey rings up the Westword office annually to criticize our Best of Denver steak awards (as well as the picks in numerous other food categories), I'd decided to put his taste buds to the test at the three-month-old Brook's, one of the latest additions to Denver's dining scene. Getting the food-loving Fey to agree wasn't difficult. Getting him to offer his opinions on a variety of topics was even easier. Quoting him, however, is tricky, because Barry Fey may have a copyright on the F word: He uses it as though he owns it. The word was sprinkled throughout his critique of area steakhouses--and our entire meal at Brook's, for that matter--like so much seasoned salt.

"The best f---ing steakhouse in Denver," Fey pronounced, "is Morton's. Well, now it might be the Palm." He then ran through every beef-oriented eatery he could think of and pooh-poohed them all. Excuse me, he f---ing pooh-poohed them. Fey's all-time favorite steakhouse isn't in Denver, anyway--it's Peter Luger's in New York. "The one in Brooklyn," he emphasized. "The one in Manhattan is good, too, but you just don't get the atmosphere." Part of that atmosphere, he explained, are the gunmen stationed on the roof to take care of any undesirable patrons.

No gunmen at Brook's, but there might be trouble if you don't use the free valet parking. This unnecessary service is part of Brook's obvious play at being one of the big boys; we watched a valet chase down a car filled with people willing to brave the fifty or so paces it takes to cover the territory between the most remote space in the lot and the restaurant's double doors. Behind those doors, the ownership team--a group of local investors--has taken the French castle that once housed Chateau Pyrenees and turned it into a typical upscale steakhouse: polished dark wood, gleaming brass, well-tailored waitstaff, important-looking bottles of booze as decoration. Important-looking prices on the menu echo the decor. In fact, the only thing that keeps Brook's from appearing far too self-important are the peculiar but amusing paintings of dogs in suits that adorn the walls.

When we first walked into the dining room, it looked like it was going to be just the dogs and us that night, even though the woman who took my reservation had told me that our time choice was booked and she could squeeze us in a half-hour later, but we'd "better be on time." When we remarked on how empty the dining room was and told our waiter of the hostess's warning, he was quick to say that the restaurant was indeed booked and that he and the other waiters were concerned by the empty tables. This wasn't the last time our waiter--who actually turned out to be our head waiter, since the staff shares the tables--proved himself to be a credit to his profession, especially considering that he had to contend with the incognito Fey all night. "Tell me," Fey said, about thirty seconds after we'd been given our menus, "if this restaurant isn't a chain and you've only been open for a few months, how did your 'Brook's famous roasted garlic mashed potatoes' get to be so goddamn famous?" Good question, Barry. But without missing a beat, the waiter excused himself, tracked down the manager and returned before we could say "PR nightmare." "The recipe is from the grandmother of one of the owners," the waiter told us. "She was famous for her mashed potatoes."

Well, either people were pulling granny's leg or someone isn't following her instructions, because the potatoes were awful. So were several of Brook's other starters and sides. Which was odd because, in theory, it's hard to go wrong with non-steak items at a steakhouse given the simple formula for success: Make it huge. Brook's met this criterion, but in most cases the large portions brought just more of a bad thing. It was as though the cook had taken the standard steakhouse starters and sides--au gratin potatoes, creamed spinach, steamed veggies with hollandaise--and deliberately messed with them until they became caricatures of the classics.

We started with a decent take on oysters Rockefeller ($9.95), helped along by a liberal application of salt and butter, and dismally bland escargot ($8.95) crying out for more salt and butter. The salad of beefsteak tomato slices ($4.95) could have been renamed "Quick Way to Let Your Date Know This Is Your Last Meal Together"--it was blanketed not only with scads of scallions but red onions, too (kudos to the kitchen, though, for the generous helping of excellent Maytag blue cheese). Considerably better was the soup of the day ($4.95), a French-onion-style combo of Swiss cheese and a respectable stock, and better yet was the salad of chilled asparagus, roasted red peppers and balsamic vinaigrette ($6.75). Fey had pooh-poohed that selection, too, because he thought it was too frou-frou for a steakhouse. "Who the f--k wants to eat a sissy salad like that with a steak?" he pondered. (Anyone who likes fresh asparagus cooked to a precise crisp-tender, Barry.)

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