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.)
Fey also wanted to know who would eat onion rings ($4.50) in a classy joint like this. Another good question. Slightly greasy and nicely seasoned, but sliced two inches thick and encased in a beetle-shell of a batter, the rings were better suited to a meal at Long John Silver's. A more standard steakhouse offering, the au gratin potatoes with Boursin ($5.25)--"I don't even know what the f--k Boursin is," Fey offered--had plenty of the triple-cream cheese, and needed it to hide the undercooked potato slices. The creamed spinach ($4.95) should have been billed as "milked" spinach; there was nothing creamy about the anemic sauce that contained many, many slivers of garlic.
It's a miracle the cook had any garlic left for the "famous" roasted garlic mashed potatoes ($4.75). Sadly, he did--and lots of it. The garlic appeared to have been roasted for all of two seconds--it tasted raw, it looked raw and it smelled raw. When we asked our waiter about the preparation, he staunchly maintained that the garlic had been roasted. "It's garlicky, I'll give you that," he added. But even he couldn't hold back the laughter when, after asking if we wanted him to remove the barely eaten mashed potatoes, Fey replied, "No, I want to take these home. I've got a f---ing vampire in my neighborhood."
Maybe the same being had sucked all the life and flavor out of the steaks. Brook's beef is from Chicago: dry-aged, Prime, Angus. But our sixteen-ounce New York strip ($27.50) was tasteless, lackluster, unexciting. The twenty-ounce bone-in ribeye ($23.95) was equally dull. Surprisingly, the porterhouse ($28.95), which had the lowest fat content of the cuts we ordered, was the most flavorful. Not coincidentally, it also had the most seasoning. (According to our waiter, Brook's also uses a bit of butter just before the steaks come off the grill.) The porterhouse was so good Fey bestowed upon it the highest honor he can give a piece of meat: He turned to my husband, the proud orderer of the steak, and asked, "Can I gnaw on your bone?" Given the go-ahead, Fey proceeded to strip off the last traces of meat, then offered his ultimate observation on beef. "I think it comes down to how happy the animal is," he said. "Those other steaks came from two irritable guys. But not the porterhouse. This was one contented motherf---er."
Content was not how I felt about our only non-steak entree, the small (fourteen-ounce) lobster tail ($40). It had been cooked until there wasn't a drop of moisture left in the former sea creature; the expensive tail was about as tasty as cardboard. When I complained to the waiter, he told me my dessert was on the house. Too bad it wasn't also on the way--by the time we'd ordered our last course, the restaurant had finally filled up, and service had taken a noticeable nosedive. Our desserts must have sat around the kitchen for a while, because Fey's butter pecan ice cream ($3.95) had become butter pecan soup. The creme brulee ($4.25) was as dull as the steak, and my free chocolate-mousse cake (normally $4.95) was nothing special. Hubby once again came up with the prize: a brown-sugary, deep-dish apple cobbler ($3.95) dripping with vanilla-bean ice cream.
Fey didn't stick around to slurp up his dessert or wait another fifteen minutes for the whopping check. "I can't sit anymore," he announced, before bounding out to catch up with his personal trainer (no, really--he'd been trying all night to get the guy on the phone, which is conveniently located in Brook's restrooms along with cut-glass carafes of lime-green mouthwash and little plastic cups).
I returned to Brook's in much less colorful company: my mother-in-law, who didn't utter so much as a "damn" through the whole meal. The eight-ounce filet mignon ($19.95) was so uninteresting it could have been a T-bone, and even the porterhouse failed us. We also split an order of asparagus with hollandaise ($6.95); this time the vegetable had been cooked far too long, and even the impeccable sauce couldn't disguise its sogginess. Damn.
"I don't mind paying for a good steak," Fey says. "But it had better be a good f---ing steak."
F---ing right, Barry.
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