Doubling the Steaks

Some dead guy once said (before he died) that "great eaters of meat are in general more cruel and ferocious than other men." So it was fitting that three journalists and two music-industry insiders gathered one recent night to consume as much meat as possible at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House. The cruel quintet's most ferociously debated topic of discussion? Who serves the best steak in town.

Romantics probably will find Morton's to be quieter, more soothing and more refined than Del Frisco's; those who like to spend their dollars locally will find Brooks to be comparable price-wise and not that much lower in quality meat-wise. Socialites may think the Del Frisco scene isn't quite as self-important as the one at the Palm, and the side dishes here aren't the size of small mammals, as they are at Ruth's Chris.

But if flavor is the only thing that matters, Del Frisco is your man.
And there is a Del Frisco, born Dale Frances Wamstad. Since Dale Frances's Steak House just wasn't going to cut it, he used the next best thing: his nickname. And though Wamstad never legally changed his name, to this day he's called Del Frisco by everyone he meets.

When he met a dynamo named Dee Lincoln in New Orleans, he was still running his first namesake restaurant; he hired Lincoln to do marketing and advertising for the steakhouse. She continued in that capacity until 1985, when Wamstad closed the New Orleans shop, and then she came back on board when he opened a new Del Frisco's in Dallas in 1990. After a year, though, he was so tired of all her lip about how to promote his restaurant that he challenged Lincoln to run her own Del Frisco's on the other side of town. Which she did, successfully, until the duo closed the two small Del Frisco's and in 1993 opened one big Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House--which, of course, is the infamous Del Frisco's. After that, Wamstad retired, selling his empire to Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon. But Lincoln stayed on and helped the massive meat corporation open a Fort Worth location (in 1996) and the Denver link (this past January). A New York Del Frisco's is slated to debut in mid-1998, in the McGraw-Hill Building in Rockefeller Center.

Despite Del Frisco's chain status, it manages to transcend the usual chain trappings; the Denver incarnation has enough character that it doesn't make me cringe the way, say, the Olive Garden does. The reason for this may lie in the restaurant's simplicity: Rather than trying to offer all things to all people, it focuses on the things that matter to meat eaters. Things like meat, and jumbo, mostly fat-filled side dishes, and a dark-wood, gleaming-brass decor that begs for cigars and martinis.

And, of course, cruel and ferocious people.
One of the music-industry insiders was Barry Fey, who, for me, has become inextricably linked with steakhouses. He's been to all the big ones. He loves steak more than anything. In fact, he loves food more than anything, and I quote: "If I was told I could sleep with any woman in the world as often as possible, or I could eat anything I wanted or as much as I wanted without any ill effects, you could cut it off right now." And these days, he seems to love the food at Del Frisco's more than any other place, except for maybe Peter Luger's in New York, but he thinks it might be a tie between the two.

The rest of the group will remain anonymous, since we made the table rule that anything we talked about that wasn't food-related would be off the record. Which left a lot of room for cruel and ferocious gossiping, indeed.

But when there was food on the table, it was hard to talk about anything else. We quickly devoured the homemade, sesame-seed-studded bread and were stunned to silence by the shrimp sampler ($46.25, or $9.25 per person) featuring Del Frisco's three shrimp appetizers: shrimp cocktail, shrimp remoulade and marinated shrimp. The last dish was the least of the three, since the simple dressing left herbs lying across the perfectly chilled shrimp like lawn clippings along a curb. But the two other sauces proved that our group was serious about more than just meat: We were prepared to do battle for anything delicious, and that certainly described them. The cocktail sauce was sharp and tangy, with a raw-horseradish bite, and the remoulade was thin, more sauce than mayo, with a mellow Creole mustard nip. And even unadorned, the giant shrimp would have been superb.

To balance the shrimp, we'd ordered something from the opposite end of the steakhouse spectrum: onion rings ($5.50). Big, manly onion rings with creamy, juicy onion centers and a coating that looked like it could repel the forces of nature but, in fact, proved soft and fragile when bitten.

I'd asked for a glass of zinfandel to wash down the starters. No problem, said the waiter: "We have one from Charles Krug." Except, oops, I wound up with a white zinfandel, which I wouldn't clean my toilet with (as a PR gal I know once told me, "Friends don't let friends drink white zinfandel"). Wondering if the Krugster could possibly be making a white zin, I asked the waiter to bring the bottle over to the table (you'd be surprised how many times wine-inexperienced diners are given a glass of wine different from the one they ordered). "Oh, I'm sorry--this wasn't Charles Krug," he said.

The poor guy got a little confused with the entrees, too, bringing veal delmonico ($19.95) instead of the osso buco someone thought he'd ordered, and I never did get my angel-hair pasta side ($5.50). But who cared? After all, meat was the main event.

Our meat-eating got off to a grand start with a dinner salad ($4.50) sporting thick slices of bacon with the fat so evenly cooked it was like biting into someone's butt cheeks. Then came the flavor winner, the twelve-ounce filet mignon ($26.95) with a gentle dose of Del Frisco's trademark salty seasoning (purists might quibble, but I loved it) and a texture that the word "velvet" was meant for. The sixteen-ounce prime strip ($25.95) was a close runner-up in the flavor department.

Fey, ever the porterhouse hound, thought his entree was the best, and to prove it he gnawed the prime porterhouse ($29.95) down to the bone--but only after the now-health-conscious concert promoter had the staff remove half the 24-ounce steak and bag it for "later." Several times throughout the meal he exclaimed, "Oh, yeah," and when he'd stripped the bone bare, he beamed proudly at the skeleton that remained.

A hefty hunk of fat was attached to the veal version of the porterhouse ($25), a sixteen-ounce slab of pinkish meat with a good, firm texture and a delicate taste. The veal delmonico, however, had a rather strange flavor; at first bite I thought it was mild lamb.

But man--even cruel, ferocious man--cannot live by meat alone, and so we shared several side dishes. The skillet potatoes ($4.50) were the most fun and the most unusual: a pile of crunchy, homemade chips strewn with damp grilled onions (Fey claimed most of them). The spinach supreme ($4.95) featured freshly cooked greens, and the sauteed mushrooms ($6.50) were lightly buttery and salty, with an irresistible al dente kind of consistency.

Our waiter, a good sport who'd been relatively astute in his recommendations, gave the desserts good reviews, but they didn't live up to their billing. The chocolate mousse ($4.50) was okay, but more like a fancy pudding than mousse. And the bread pudding ($4.50) barely resembled bread pudding at all, since it was so saturated with a purportedly Jack Daniel's-laced sauce that the effect was simply one of bread soaked with a purportedly Jack Daniel's-laced sauce.

But otherwise, the meal met with hearty approval from a hard-to-please bunch.

On a second visit, there were no famous people in our party, just me and my cousin from Chicago. She was treating me for my birthday, and since I had just finished digesting my wonderful Del Frisco's dinner, I suggested we go there. This time around, though, a few transgressions had me wondering about the kitchen's consistency.

For example, the shrimp remoulade ($9.25) that had been such a hit the first time was now just shy of being too peppery to eat. Gone was the sophisticated blend of spices; in its place was a sinus-clearing concoction that threatened to outdo even our martinis. We told the server, who came back a few minutes later to report that she, too, thought it was more peppery than usual.

Since the filet had been so superior at that first dinner, I'd ordered the eight-ounce ($21.95) portion. But this steak was saltier and lacked the satiny texture; while the server had asked me to cut it open in the middle to confirm its medium-rareness, I later found a section that was almost raw--perhaps to match the zone of uncooked chips in the middle of our skillet potatoes.

The sauteed mushrooms were just as good as before, though, and the osso buco ($19.95) was incredible, sumptuously tender and intensely flavored with the essences of many vegetables. The veal shank came with the bone set upright so that a small fork could be used to extract the rich, fatty marrow; a mound of angel-hair pasta blanketed with osso buco components--carrots, tomatoes, onions--filled out the plate.

Even though I was dining with family, our conversation was only slightly less cruel and ferocious. Barry Fey isn't the only great eater of meat in this town--and Del Frisco serves some great meat.

No bones about it.

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, 8100 East Orchard Road, Greenwood Village, 796-0100. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.


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