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A Capital Idea

At your service: The Capital Grille dining room is ready for a crowd.
Mark Manger

It was the steak knives at the Capital Grille that really got to me. They were beautiful, utilitarian works of art with gleaming, sharp blades laser-etched with the restaurant's logo near the forte, perfect balance, full-tang handles and black grips cold-riveted with bright steel. On the table, they had the look of good Wustoffs; in the hand, the solid weight and seriousness of professional Henckels. I loved them so much I wanted to steal one, only I'd forgotten my bag and didn't like the thought of smuggling out something so sharp in my pants.

My lunch at this four-month-old steakhouse was a last-minute thing. Unprepared, I'd wandered in off the street because it was there and I was hungry. I wasn't dressed for it, hadn't done any of the research I usually do before making my first commando-style pass at a restaurant. I just walked, bumpkin-like, up to the front door, gazing slack-jawed at the pretty glass-and-steel arch over the entrance to the four-and-a-half-million-dollar building that finally filled that last ugly gap in Larimer Square, and thought, "Geez, this place is purty. Please don't let me be the only one without a tie."

I was. Well, the ladies in the crowd weren't wearing ties, and the waitresses in their oversized dun-colored jackets weren't wearing ties. But the hosts and floormen were. The bartenders had crisp, black bows around their necks. And every last man in every last booth had his silk noose cinched tight. Both men and women were dolled up in suits of significantly finer manufacture than my Old Navy chinos, and they were seated in packs like the successful predators of the New Economy they no doubt were -- capable of intelligent discussions about T-bills, variable interest rates and the like. I stood, looking at them from just inside the front door, and when the hostess asked, "One for lunch, sir?" in a tone that was nothing but polite and welcoming yet still sounded to me like "Couldn't find anyone else at the Salvation Army to dine with you, sir?," I decided that the only sensible way to handle myself in an intimidating room like this was to pretend that I belonged, to pretend that this was just a break in a day otherwise filled with terribly important, non-tie-requiring things, and then get drunk.

The plan worked wonderfully. I had a meal that was, hands down, the best lunch I've had since rolling into this town almost two years ago. I was incredibly well-treated by the staff, well-fed by the kitchen and well-watered from the cocktail list. When I retired to the bar for a smoke and a final martini (powerfully and properly made, it was nothing more than a drop of dry vermouth swimming in a small pail of top-shelf gin), I made the acquaintance of a fine young woman whom I amused by insisting that I was Irwin Fletcher, a sportswriter for the New York Post in town to cover the Kobe Bryant trial, and the man who'd first coined the term "March Madness." The fact that I know virtually nothing about basketball beyond that it involves a ball, a basket and sneaker contracts didn't slow me down one bit. And the fact that I can't now remember the young lady's name or any specific detail about her makes it a distinct possibility that I spent twenty minutes trying to romance a bar lamp. But none of that matters. Like I said, it was a very good lunch.

About halfway through, I'd decided that I needed to come back for dinner wearing my leather jacket with the big cargo pockets -- the one I use for lifting menus, the occasional really nice ashtray and, this time, that steak knife, gorgeous, heavy and sharp as a razor. By the end of lunch, the knife had become an object of truly unhealthy obsession.

Flash-forward six hours. I'm strolling down Larimer Street in leather jacket and tie, my best professional drag, hair pulled straight back off my forehead, Gordon Gecko style. I'd put about forty bucks in a meter three and a half blocks away to buy an hour and 22 minutes of time, and I had every intention of blowing into the Capital Grille in a whirlwind of hair gel and expense-account cash, having my dinner, boosting my knife and getting out of there faster than jackrabbits hump. That was the extent of my plan -- brilliant, I thought, in its bluff and simplicity.

There's this joke I like: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

The scene inside the Capital Grille was a madhouse of suits, silk and swank, with a smell in the air of seared meat and money. The noise level was Super Bowl-Sunday-in-a-sports-bar loud. An army of servers and bartenders and hosts and managers and floormen were working a crowd that looked like a fancy-dress singles' mixer at the Kennedy Compound after Joe lost the keys to the liquor cabinet, a Brownian nightmare of arms, legs and heads, champagne flutes, cigarette embers, smoke, designer shoes, designer shirts, designer tits cantilevered into little black party dresses, pretty necks touched with dusky perfume, and rocks glasses with neon plastic ice cubes like something out of Blade Runner. And while the woman at the hostess stand in charge of The Book was far too courteous and polite to laugh right at me when I asked (again) for a table for one, she did say, "Perhaps if you could find a table in the bar..."

Sure, the kitchen would be glad to serve me in the bar. Or at the rail. Or probably standing in the street. The staff here was nothing if not endlessly, obsequiously accommodating, and I know my shunning at the hostess stand had nothing to do with me as a person, but was rather a matter of simple physics and the law of The Book. No tables meant no tables, that the restaurant was fully committed on a Wednesday night -- amazing enough these days, but the Capital Grille was also shoehorn-tight at the bar, without a chair, a breath or a square inch of space to be had in the lounge. One more Armani, one more pair of Jimmy Choos, one more lean-and-hungry day trading, loft-dwelling, whiskey-swilling carnivore crammed in among the dark wood, white linen, red leather and hunting prints of sporting dogs ready to do terrible things to the first bird they found, and the place was gonna blow.

Standing there (again) in the doorway, I felt the buff coming off my shoes, the starch draining from my collar. I had one smoke, one swallow of Jim and Coke all the way down at the service end of the bar, and then, after ten minutes, took the long walk, defeated, to the door. The knife would have to wait.

I headed up Larimer to 16th Street and made for The Palm, where the smiling host ushered me straight into a seat in the front room -- a feat that, under normal circumstances, would have impressed me, but after running the Capital Grille's gauntlet seemed somehow sad. While the Palm had a good crowd for a weeknight, it felt like there were two competing parties in town and this one was losing, the host grateful for any warm body to fill in the ranks. Around the corner, I'd had to fight my way to the bar -- it had been like a mosh pit, only better-smelling. Here, I had all the elbow room I needed; service that was dignified, competent and aloof; a good glass of wine and a decent meal. Here, among the dopey caricatures, chummy regulars and neck wattles, I was welcomed and well cared for. There, I'd been turned back at the gates of influence -- and I wanted nothing so much as to go back.

Still, I made the best of a blown night (and when ending up with a late dinner at the Palm is a blown night, that's really saying something) by turning that day's meals into an Iron Chef steakhouse battle. For lunch at the Capital Grille, I'd started with a lobster bisque -- a silky, warm and pinky-orange lobster-infused cream broth studded with big chunks of claw and backfin meat. It had been brought to my table in a deep, white bowl, my waitress standing by with a tureen of warmed, aged sherry with which to lace the soup to my taste. Without this touch of booze, the bisque had been smooth and deeply flavored with lobster's more solid, sea-green essence. With it, the meat's sweetness was brought forward and capped with the high, astringent sting of alcohol. It was fantastic: heavy, filling and only available by the bowl, which was almost too much of a good thing.

At the Palm, the lobster bisque was merely great. Smooth, creamy, tasting powerfully of sweet lobster and sherry, but without the tableside service, without the porcelain tureen and that first bitter whiff of alcohol in the spoon, without the big pieces of tender lobster meat swimming in the bowl like something special, something extra.

Service went the same way. The Palm's staff did nothing wrong, made no mistakes, never made me feel like anything less than a valued customer -- but at the Capital Grille, I'd been a guest. In that distinction lies a universe of difference. At lunch I'd been given a napkin to match the color of my pants so it wouldn't leave any off-shade lint. When I'd asked if there was maybe a paper behind the bar, they'd said of course. The Post? The News? Wall Street Journal? USA Today? And would I like today's edition or yesterday's? The Capital Grille's servers knew their menus, could suggest alternatives to anything, could tell you what was good that night and that hour and what might be a little less than perfect.

And when, while having my lunch, another waitress dropped a bus-tray full of dirty dishes nearby, I watched as a dozen staff members -- servers, managers, even a bartender -- materialized from nowhere, some picking up broken pieces of plate, some scrubbing down the floor, some changing out a table setting that had been dotted with vinaigrette, one bringing salt for the floorboards, and another who just stood there for five minutes, hands folded behind his back, making sure no one soiled his shoes by walking too near the offending spot. It was a ballet, a choreographed response designed not just to clean a mess, but to eradicate it.

At the Palm, I watched a woman half a dining room away spill the rocks out of her empty water glass and onto the floor. Her server called the busboy. There was nothing wrong with that, but still...

Next up on the table was a steak, a ten-ounce filet cooked rare, side of mashed potatoes, side of béarnaise -- same as I'd ordered at the Capital Grille. According to the Palm's menu, its meat is "prime aged" -- which means nothing, as far as I know. It's just another meaningless bit of menu-speak. I do know that the Palm does some of the best steaks in town, and that this one was good. But the Capital Grille's was better. It dry-ages its steaks, making for incredibly tender, smoky, flavor-dense cuts of meat. Both béarnaise sauces were freshly made, rich and eggy, peppery, almost minty with fresh tarragon. At the Grille, it had come in another small tureen, brought separately by my waitress and placed close at hand. At the Palm, it came in a monkey dish with a spoon.

All night, as I sat at the Palm, I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be at the good party. I wanted a table at the Capital Grille. It had out-Palmed the Palm with its food, out Del Frisco'd Del Frisco with its steakhouse decor, and Mortoned the shit out of Morton's with its service. So I, as Chairman Kaga minus the ermine robes, declared the Capital Grille the winner and stalked back out into the night, determined to try again tomorrow. On my car was a parking ticket. Dinner, with all the comings and goings, had taken about twice the time I'd paid for.

I'd finally get my dinner at the Capital Grille, and another lunch as well. I'd never find the right opportunity to pocket one of those beautiful knives, but I'd get to sample the lobster -- sold by the pound, from two to five and beyond, and more delicious if only by a degree than the Nova Scotia beauties sold for sixty bucks and up at the Palm -- and two more steaks: a fourteen-ounce sirloin cooked a perfect rare and left alone, and a delicately handled au poivre, done medium on the button and napped with a Courvoisier cream that represented the last gasp of classic Continental steakhouse fare in the best possible way.

I would make reservations like a gentleman, arrive promptly, and be treated with excellent, affectionate care while eating shrimp cocktails -- the shellfish boiled and served on a platter of ice -- and huge, whole roasted chicken with mashed red-skin potatoes. The chicken was cooked tenderly, just barely to the bone, and spiced with salt and pepper, paprika, garlic and lemon for a simple flavor that worked wonderfully in surroundings so fresh they're still dripping money.

Finally, I would have everything I wanted: great food in elegant surroundings, doting service with attention to every little detail -- from lights to silver, from rounding down the change on the bills when you pay with cash to padding every table so that the plates don't clink when they're set down -- and a spot at the good party that was worth the wait.

I'll be back another night for my knife. Because the Capital Grille has done what I would have considered the impossible before my meals there: found customers -- enough customers -- for a steakhouse in a town already overrun with steakhouses. And all it had to do to fill The Book was be better than everyone else in every possible way.

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