The server, who looked young enough to be Mick Jagger's granddaughter, twittered with excitement as she leaned toward one of my dining companions. Pointing to his Rolling Stones sweatshirt, she asked, "Have you ever seen them?"
Barry Fey made a low chortling noise but kept a straight face. "Yes, dear, I've seen them," he said, refraining from adding something like, "and the last time was in my living room." And then the Denver icon, a man our server clearly did not recognize--Barry Fey, longtime concert promoter, friend and fan of the Stones--turned his attention to more important matters: removing every particle of meat from the bone of his porterhouse.
Fey takes his steaks seriously. And the new kid in town, Sullivan's Steakhouse, serves up some serious contenders.
But first Fey had to dispose of that football-shaped loaf of bread that arrived at our table shortly after the conclusion of the Stones discussion. Its shape accurately foreshadowed its taste; how anybody can stomach more than two bites of that dough without their insides seizing up, I don't know. Fey didn't bother wondering. "Get that thing out of here," he told the server.
Its spot was quickly occupied by an order of crab cakes ($8.95), two little--and I mean little--beauties that were all sweet crab with just a teeny bit of breading holding them together. We also polished off the ahi tuna appetizer ($9.95, and seemingly always available, but not listed on the menu): slices of seared, silky flesh in a sharp, sharp wasabe sauce, sided with a tangy ginger-carrot slaw. But the fried calamari ($6.95), which arrived in a hearty portion large enough to feed four to six comfortably, just didn't seem the right thing to eat before taking on a big, juicy steak. On their own with a beer, though, the well-breaded, evenly fried, tender squid rings would have been nirvana, especially after a dip in the zingy marinara.
Actually, we could have skipped the starters altogether, because unlike most high-end meat joints, Sullivan's includes a salad with your meal (a move that somewhat justifies its positioning as a lower-than-high-end steakhouse--and more on that later). The salad was the perfect tease for the meal to follow: a crisp, retro iceberg-lettuce wedge dressed in creamy, chunk-filled bleu cheese.
Of course, the true test of a steakhouse is the steak. But when last I dined with steak expert Fey--which, not coincidentally, was the last time a big steakhouse opened in town--we were stunned by the mediocrity of the sides. Not so at Sullivan's, where both of our choices were excellent. The creamed spinach ($3.95) contained cream cheese (see Mouthing Off for the recipe), which made it extra-rich and very thick, and the horseradish mashed potatoes ($3.50) had the texture of butter and a horseradish bite that was neither too sharp nor too raw. Fey had asked our server for a side of grilled onions--an off-menu request that we quickly echoed --but the half-dozen strings of barely cooked onion we got in response seemed a bit stingy. Hey, if the kitchen doesn't like special orders, then the server shouldn't agree to them.
Still, we forgave the kitchen everything once our steaks arrived. The choice-grade Certified Angus Beef had been cut to order, and with the exception of my 24-ounce bone-in "cowboy" ribeye ($24.95), all the meat was cooked as requested. Although my steak was supposed to be medium-rare, it was rare all the way, and after the server took it back, the kitchen cooked it to a solid medium with a charred crust. That's what I figured they'd do (as did Fey, who remarked, "They'll kill it, you know," as it was whisked away), but the flavor of the well-marbled meat still came through. The house specialty, a 20-ounce bone-in Kansas City strip ($26.95), was indeed special, with a denser texture and less marbling than the ribeye but a strong, meaty taste nonetheless. And it arrived a perfect medium-rare.
Without question, though, the best of the batch was the 24-ounce porterhouse ($26.95). After asking for and rapidly receiving his trademark condiment, A-1 steak sauce, Fey began chewing over his life at the same time he put away the porterhouse. "I miss myself," he said at one point, licking his fingers. While he doesn't miss the concert business that much--he has a non-compete in the market with Universal, which bought his promotions company a few years ago but can book shows elsewhere--he does miss being able to eat the way he used to. The medication he's taking to treat cancer sometimes leaves him nauseated. "This, though," he said, stabbing the porterhouse bone into the air. "This is worth getting sick for."
And anybody would have been cheered by the sight of our absurd dessert, a baked Alaska ($3.95) the size of a motorcycle helmet, easily large enough to serve six. A baked Alaska, called an omelette norvegienne in French (the joke is that Alaska and Norway are icy), is ice cream surrounded by sponge cake and meringue, all of which is baked until the meringue browns but the ice cream is still hard. Like most odd culinary items, its origins are much disputed, with some folks giving an American physicist credit for providing the recipe to chef Jean Giroix in Paris and others attributing it to a chef at the Chinese mission in Paris.
Either way, I hadn't seen one of these bombastic marvels since my mother's dinner parties in the Seventies, when every hostess wore a full-length skirt and the drinks of choice were highballs and Manhattans. This version was filled with strawberry ice cream, and the sponge cake was very thin, but the best part, the meringue, was right on: soft and chewy, sweet and gooey.
Speaking of cocktails, I can attest to the fact that Sullivan's consistently shakes a good martini, and many denizens of LoDo have found the bar a pleasant place to spend an evening--particularly now that you can order off the complete menu in there. And it's in the bar that the inspiration behind the restaurant's moniker becomes clear: It's named for John L. Sullivan, a bare-knuckle-boxing champion from the late 1800s who is commemorated in atmospheric murals that ring the space. The rest of the dark, intimate bar is filled with high, round tables, a piano often serving up live jazz, and an elegant, serpentine bar with nice, wide stools.
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During a night of LoDo club-hopping, we dropped in for an order of super-fresh oysters on the half-shell ($8.95), another round of those crab cakes and a few other tasty items. An enormous mound of baby-spinach salad ($3.95) came with a sweet bacon vinaigrette with just the right touch of sharp vinegar, and a side of skillet steak mushroom caps ($3.95) had so much meaty flavor that devouring the 'shrooms was almost like eating a steak. But we did that, too, this time splitting an 8-ounce filet mignon ($19.95) that came out so smoothly textured and so flavorful that it was hard to believe it was really a tenderloin cut. (The critical difference here was that the meat was choice, not prime, which would have had all the fun bred out of it.)
Sullivan's is owned by Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon, which operates nearly 200 mid-priced steakhouses throughout the country, as well as fourteen Sullivan's and the four-unit, high-end Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse chain, to which Lone Star acquired the rights in 1995. But Sullivan's prices aren't that much lower than those at Del Frisco's; I think management's estimate that Sullivan's average check is $40 and Del Frisco's is $60 can easily be explained by the fact that people go into Del Frisco's with a bigger expense account. For the most part, differences in portion size and price seem to even out. Although Sullivan's does offer four ounces more in several of its cuts, throw in a few beers, a typically overpriced bottle of wine and dessert, and we're still talking about $250 to $275 for three people.
But we're also talking about good food. "This is marvelous," Fey concluded at the end of our meal, waving that bone around. And if the jazz band in the bar wasn't quite the Rolling Stones, we still left well-satisfied.
Sullivan's Steakhouse, 1745 Wazee Street, 303-295-2664. Hours: 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday.