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A High Steaks Battle

The meat's in retreat at Brook's.

The first time I reviewed Brook's Steak House ("Prime and Punishment," September 9, 1996), I was with Barry Fey, who spent much of the meal cursing, mainly because the meal was not very good -- with one notable exception: his porterhouse, which was so heavenly, so richly flavored and textured, and so tender that the rest of the table felt honored when Fey offered us the opportunity to gnaw on his bone.

This time, it was the exact opposite. I was with someone who didn't use the f-word once, the porterhouse sucked, and the rest of the food was pretty good. Go figure.

Things have changed a bit since the place opened, although the owners are still Bob Melton and Joe Kaiton, and the atmosphere is still dark and woody and manly, with those goofy paintings of dogs playing poker still hanging from the walls. It's a soothing place, though, not quite so high-charged as the other big steakhouses in town, and a little more reasonably priced than some.

The hostess could use a kick in the butt, since she was annoyingly disinterested in our arrival, but otherwise the service was impeccable -- we kept wondering if we were ever going to see the same person twice -- and the kitchen should be commended for maintaining an even pace throughout our meal, even though it was on a Sunday night when a large Denver business had taken over the entire main dining room.

Credit chef John Erwin with running a tight operation back there. He's been with Brook's in some kitchen capacity from the start and was promoted to executive chef two years ago. And general manager Melissa Coronado has only been on the job at Brook's for a month, but she knows her stuff. "Wet," she replied quickly when I asked how the steaks at Brook's are aged. "Minimum of 21 days, and oh, yes, it's prime."

So why it didn't taste better has more to do with where it came from and the animal itself rather than the way it was aged or cooked at Brook's. And, in fact, we had few complaints about the food -- the one we did have regarding our starter, the oysters Rockefeller ($9.95), was mostly a matter of personal preference: I just hate it when an oyster is so covered up with stuff that you can't even see it, let alone taste it.

The salads, on the other hand, which were paired with Brook's fabulous little loaves of bread -- they're crusty and soft, with a sharp yeasty flavor -- were appealingly assembled and tasty, too. The tomatoes layered with fresh mozzarella and basil ($7.25) sported a deep reddish-pink hue that hinted at vine-ripening. And the house salad ($5.95) was a nice change of pace from the usual blend of greens with a few carrot shreds and a cherry tomato -- instead, the kitchen sent out a well-balanced mix of greens, caramelized walnuts and Gorgonzola, all in a sweet vinaigrette. The whole thing was one of those rare combinations that didn't just sound good on paper -- it actually worked.

The biggest problems on my first go-around at Brook's had involved the lousy lobster tail and the sides, which seemed as though they'd been cooked by someone just learning how to use a stove. But this time, the tail ($42, and that was the small one, baby) had been cooked at an ideal temperature: The exterior was just tough enough to keep the interior from getting watery, but the heat hadn't permeated the whole thing and turned it into a boxing glove. This tail was absolutely a delight to eat, as were the sides of roasted garlic mashed potatoes ($4.75) and the creamed spinach ($4.95). The spuds, which on our former visit had contained so much garlic that Fey wanted to take them home to ward off vampires, had a bite to remind us that they were indeed garlic mashed potatoes, but the flavor didn't threaten to return three hours later with a vengeance. And the spinach, which had been a milky mess before, was a well-melded mess that was rich and creamy without tasting as though it would be personally smearing our arteries.

But then there was that porterhouse ($29.95). Though it had been cooked perfectly to our request of medium, what should have been 24 ounces of pure pleasure was instead a pain, because we spent a lot of time trying to slice off the good bites. And there were a few, mostly on the portions of the meat that had been more heavily salted -- otherwise, that beef was bland, blah and boring.

And if that isn't enough to make a meat lover like me swear, I don't know what is.

 
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