Prime Time

If the beef in Kansas City always tastes like the beef at the Prime Rib Restaurant and Steak House, well, then, Kansas City, here I come.

It would be cheaper, though, to revisit the Prime Rib. This smartly decorated eatery--done in the wine-tone colors and dark wood typical of many serious steakhouses--is low-key and comfortable, not too fancy or intimidating, and reasonably priced, particularly considering the caliber of meat being served. In fact, the only thing the place has going against it is its Wheat Ridge location, which only feels like a trip to Kansas City if you're coming from anywhere but downtown Denver. "There's no question the location is bad," acknowledges owner Ed Vanscoy, who opened the Prime Rib in May. "Even if we were just facing Kipling, it would be better. I keep saying I'm one block from success."

But Vanscoy just couldn't pass up the building, which he'd known back in the Sixties (he grew up in north Denver and kept coming and going depending on where his job as a land developer took him) as the Country Broker. "I liked the setup of the place and the feel of it," he says. "It seemed to lend itself to a steakhouse kind of restaurant."

And he should know, because since the early Eighties he'd had an eatery in Wyoming--also named the Prime Rib, and also a steakhouse kind of restaurant. He sold that place to its manager last month. He won't give up on Denver so easily. "My mom still lives here in Colorado, and so I had ties to the area," explains Vanscoy, who thought he'd retired to Palm Springs. "One day last September I was driving past the site, and when I saw that it was available, I couldn't pass it up."

Although Vanscoy recognized that the locale had housed a Denver institution, he also realized that it would be smart to import another city's specialty: Kansas City's corn-fed beef. During his stint as a Wyoming restaurateur, he had chosen Kansas City's beef over everything else because of its flavor and texture. "When I moved back here, I tried the local beef and a few others again, like stuff from Omaha and Minnesota," Vanscoy explains. "But I still liked the meat we'd been getting all along the best, mainly because of the way it cooks."

To handle the cooking process, Vanscoy brought in his son, Steve, a veteran chef who's worked for several Vail restaurants and a few in Hilton Head and Atlanta. "We have a love/hate relationship," says Steve's dad, laughing. "But I'm happy with what's coming out of the kitchen."

The senior Vanscoy should be. For while the beef the Prime Rib carves up is excellent, Steve Vanscoy's talents with sauces make this more than a steakhouse. Unfortunately, the many misspellings on the menu sometimes obscure the fact that the chef actually knows what he's doing. For instance, the appetizer of mussels "muniere" ($5.95) should be mussels "a la meuniere." Although this sauce "in the style of the miller's wife" normally involves sauteeing something in butter, the Prime Rib's buttery-rich white-wine sauce flavored with garlic and shallots did a good job of enhancing the mollusks--even though six of them, rather than four, would have made this starter a better deal. That the mussels came over fettuccine was no consolation prize: The pasta just made the dish more than some diners can swallow right before they take on a big ol' steak. The portabello ($4.95) sliced into ribbons and tossed with caramelized onions and garlic in a thick red-wine sauce was more like an appetite teaser should be: a light, tasty tidbit in a toothsome but not overwhelmingly rich sauce.

Splitting two starters among four people turned out to be a wise idea, since each entree came with a house salad, potatoes or rice and a vegetable. The salad was cloaked in a light dressing whose ingredients were unremarkable but for a sharp, citrusy tang; it turned out to be a pear emulsion sparked by several citrus juices. On both of our visits, the potato was a standard-issue baked whose appearance on the table was followed by a collection of embellishments, including sour cream, fresh-chopped chives and bacon bits. The rice was nothing special, nor were the "du jour" vegetables of plain, steamed baby carrots and broccoli.

But the sides' simplicity made sense: They didn't distract from the main event, the sensational meat. The restaurant's title cut, the prime rib ($20.95), appeared as a twenty-ounce slab of unbelievably, almost absurdly tender meat. Like all of the restaurant's beef, the prime rib had been dry-aged for nearly three weeks and wet-aged another two; the rib roast was then slow-cooked at the usual 200 degrees. Says Steve Vanscoy, "We don't touch our beef with salt or pepper or anything, except for the blackened cut." That blackened prime rib ($21.95) was another winner, since the fiery seasoning bolstered rather than obliterated the refined quality of the meat.

Even the non-beef meats at the Prime Rib were superior. We wolfed down deliciously succulent lamb chops ($24.95) that had been touched up with a minty butter, as well as the prime rib of pork ($15.95)--the first time I've ever encountered such an animal. The slab of slow-cooked pork roast sat in a fascinating demi-glace that had been infused with an essence of red currants and further flavored with oregano--not an obvious choice for pork, but a perceptive one. This was one of those sauces that our table found impossible to ignore, and we kept poking fingers into the liquid until there was nothing left.

The somewhat heavier sauce on the New York strip au poivre ($20.95)--a rich, cream-laden creation fortified with cognac--got the same treatment. But the promised Crown Royal in the butter on the porterhouse ($25.95) was wasted; we couldn't taste it. Fortunately, we didn't need to: This 26-ounce monster was perfect on its own.

In the interest of science, we also felt obliged to try a few items from the seafood and poultry side of the menu. We weren't disappointed by the chicken farfalle ($12.95), bowtie pasta lightly coated with olive oil and tossed with diced Romas, capers and fresh basil. And we were also pleased with the salmon Marnier ($16.95), a mustard-crusted fillet (not "filet," as the menu described it) draped with a sweet, well-executed orange butter sauce apparently flavored with Grand Marnier. (The "Maltaise hollandaise" description was redundant, since "Maltaise" refers to a hollandaise blended with orange juice.) The fish had been expertly cooked, and the combination of the acrid mustard and the sweet, tart citrus was smart.

The desserts (each $4.50) were another intelligent choice, even if they weren't made on the premises. Steve Vanscoy selects them from a variety of pastry purveyors, and although some suffered from the same inaccurate menu descriptions, they didn't suffer in taste. A berry pie mistakenly called a tart--which technically has no top--was actually a wonderful wedge of several types of berries fused into one gooey mess by a lattice of soft crust. The raspberry cheesecake surprised us with its airy texture--which came by way of a white chocolate mousse. We got another surprise when we found that the peaches in the peach custard pie were fresh, which meant that even though the Prime Rib doesn't make its desserts, they hadn't been sitting around for a week, either.

The Prime Rib's interesting wine list was another well-chosen, well-priced asset. With all of these undeniable values available at his steakhouse, Ed Vanscoy is right to lament his location--although moving it just a block might not be far enough to do the place justice. "I wish I were right next to Morton's," he says. "Then people could see that they don't have to pay an arm and a leg to get great beef."

And they don't have to go all the way to Kansas City, either.


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