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We Came, We Sauce...

The grapes of wrath: Gallagher's wine list is much more impressive than its food.

The next time you see a grown man walking down the street dressed in a black T-shirt, black tuxedo jacket, black shorts and spotless white sneakers (no socks) carrying a bottle of Heinz 57, you'll know why. It's the legendary Barry Fey, former concert promoter, current racehorse owner and always steak lover, disgusted once again that a self-respecting steakhouse would have the nerve to stock only A.1. sauce.

That Fey left Gallagher's in the middle of a meal, dodging prom couples as he walked several blocks to The Palm, a rival steakhouse, in search of his favorite meat accompaniment came as no surprise to those of us already accustomed to his steak quirks. That the Palm handed over a bottle, no questions asked, was truly impressive. "They just went into the kitchen and got it," Fey reported. And this after we'd already tried to score some Heinz 57 from the 7-Eleven next door to Gallagher's, where the clerk reported that we were the third party requesting the sauce that night. "We used to carry it, but we stopped," the clerk said. "I don't know why. Every once in a while I get requests for it, but this was an unusual night."

Maybe it was because other Gallagher's diners that evening were desperate for something, anything, that would add flavor to their bland dinners. Although the huge hunks of animal flesh hanging in the lobby's refrigerated, glass-front aging closet -- as you walk into the restaurant, a Gallagher's employee invariably whispers a tired "Shhh, please be quiet, the beef is aging" -- have the appearance of real beef, the actual steaks brought to our table had all the flavor and texture of Fey's sneakers.

Purists might wonder why Fey, a self-proclaimed steak expert -- he's been to every steak joint in town, from the highest end to the lowest, not to mention most of the steak joints in every major city -- who's accompanied me on several steakhouse-review meals, would use any sauce at all. "I'll have a couple of bites, and, depending on the cut, sometimes it just adds to the experience," he explains. "Sometimes, though, I smother the thing in sauce out of necessity."

And this meal was one of those times -- which came as something of a surprise, since Gallagher's is one of the more popular steakhouse chains in New York, its state of origin. But Fey has a theory on that, of course. "You have your hierarchy in New York for steakhouses," he says. "Peter Luger stands by itself. Then there's a group of six or seven, including Bobby Van's, which is a copy of Luger's, and then Sparks, Smith & Wolensky's, Ben Benson's, The Palm, Gallagher's, Pen & Pencil and now Del Frisco's, which each have their own crowds and celebrities. All the other steakhouses are below those. And once you get below the Luger's level, people latch on to their favorites based on who treats them like regulars, and they don't care so much about the food. That middle group is pretty interchangeable in terms of quality, but it's still way above the low-grade places." For the record, Fey's favorite Denver steakhouse is Del Frisco's in the Tech Center, which is owned by the company that owns his favorite downtown steakhouse, Sullivan's.

The guy responsible for putting Gallagher's on Fey's list, Jerome Brody, died earlier this month at the age of 78. In 1963, Brody purchased the original Gallagher's, which was nearing bankruptcy, from its founder, Helen Gallagher, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer who'd labeled it a "speakeasy" when she opened Gallagher's in 1927, during Prohibition. She's the one who came up with the look that involves planked flooring, red-and-white-checked tablecloths, dark wood paneling and neatly hung portraits of sporting legends and celebrities, decorating ideas that are copied by the franchisers who buy into the Gallagher's concept. There are now three of those franchise operations, with another set to open in San Antonio within the next few months; Grady sold the original New York steakhouse to a group of employees in 1999.

Denver's eight-month-old Gallagher's is owned by Bruce Rahmani, a longtime Denver restaurateur best known for the European Café and Al Fresco groups; he also owns La Fondue, which sits next to Gallagher's at the base of Brooks Tower. Rahmani tapped Todd Armstrong, recently the sous chef at Palomino's Euro Bistro and, before that, head chef at the Cosi Cucina Italian Grill in Des Moines, to be executive chef, and he brought in Tom Voskuil to run the front of the house. In the process, he guaranteed Gallagher's a good wine list, since Voskuil made a name for himself as the wine man for Real Restaurants, a group that runs Ajax Tavern and Bumps in Aspen, among other places (Voskuil was also part owner of Boulder's short-lived but excellent 15 Degrees). And Gallagher's cellar is indeed a sound one, filled with mostly safe bets but also some interesting choices in a coopera-tive range of prices. For instance, the rich, velvety 1996 Markham Merlot we tried one night was well worth the $58.

Not only was the wine list commendable, but so was the service, particularly in the face of some food problems that would try the patience of most veteran career servers. My dinner with Barry started with an appetizer crabcake the size of a lady's evening bag and nearly as black as one on the bottom. What we managed to salvage from the top was a soggy mass of crabmeat shreds and too much filler; much better was the side of rich, tart, homemade tartar sauce. Another good sauce -- a dreamy Roquefort dressing -- topped a plate bearing slices of beefsteak tomatoes (decently ripe) and Colossal (and yes, it was) onion. But the Caesar salad's dressing was gloppy and strangely sweet, ladled on so lavishly that the romaine resembled newspaper strips dipped in papier-mâché paste. The pickled herring was just fine -- if I remember correctly from my restaurant days, the fishies arrive in a big tub from a local food purveyor, already steeped in vinegar and spices -- although the kitchen tried to disguise this happy fact by smothering the herring under a scoop of sour cream so big we almost needed a forklift to remove it. The first course's only real hit was the butter-drenched, crispy croutons that came with the Caesar, more like pieces of toast than true croutons. They were so sublime that we requested more with the entrees, a request our server cheerfully granted.

Bring on the beef! For a party of four to order four different steaks is impossible at Gallagher's; the restaurant offers only three true steak cuts: a sirloin steak, a kingloin steak and filet mignon. The kingloin is not, in fact, the thing every gal wishes for, but instead a humungous sirloin cut that weighs between 24 and 30 ounces. That's what Fey wanted, though, and that's why he wound up with time to kill at The Palm, because his kingloin wasn't cooked the way he thought he'd ordered it (which was medium rare, on the rare side). To his credit, our patient server took the steak back to the kitchen to show the grill guy, then brought it back out so that Fey would have something to play with while another kingloin was brought to its knees.

While Fey went in search of his sauce, the rest of us hacked away at the veal loin, a poster calf for PETA that begged this question: Why torture a young animal when it's alive and then torture it again when it's dead? The meat was dry, chewy and overcooked, its only hint of flavor provided by a thick layer of char from the hickory logs that everything at Gallagher's is grilled over. And the filet, while cooked to our specs, had even less flavor -- because it had only a little char. Gallagher's meat may be prime and dry-aged for 21 days at 36 degrees, but it's still completely tasteless. Pass the Heinz 57, please.

We needed that sauce for some of the sides, too. "Gallagher's own" potatoes had us wondering why anyone would lay claim to such dehydrated, lackluster potato wedges; the hash browns were browned and crunchy for exactly one potato shred's width of outer crust, then mooshy and greasy for the rest of the four-inch mound. And while the kitchen had clearly used fresh spinach for the creamed spinach, it was also obvious that no one had bothered to wash it. Between the grit and an overdose of salt, each bite was like licking the bottom of the Dead Sea.

Besides those croutons (which you could re-create in your own kitchen with a toaster and a pound of butter), a few other dishes made the grade. The inexplicably named pooca mushrooms arrived oil-slicked, tender and studded with fresh herbs. A lobster -- we got a 1.75-pounder, although you could go all the way up to four pounds that night -- had been perfectly prepared, broiled so that the meat retained its sweetness and didn't turn chewy. The desserts, including a juice-drenched, whipped-cream-loaded strawberry shortcake and a light, chocolatey mousse cake, scored way above average. And our server again earned extra credit, obliging Fey's request for a huge bowl of whipped cream topped with a few strawberries "so I can say I had fruit for dessert and I won't be lying."

Over two more trips to Gallagher's, though, I kept striking out. One lunch included a too-sweet chicken honey-mustard salad and a too-tangy spinach salad, both so slathered in dressing that they were almost like soups -- and the soups might as well have been dressings, since they were nowhere near hot. The oxtail had a strong, meaty flavor, but it was like drinking beef juice at room temp. On one visit, the onion soup was a thin, watery brew with a few onions and one hard crouton sprinkled with over-broiled cheese; on another it was a salty, onion-choked stew with a wide flap of too-thin bread (no cheese) disintegrating in the middle. And we had to send back the Bookmaker sandwich -- allegedly a grilled steak with thinly sliced fried onions on grilled sourdough -- because the meat and the bread had been cooked until they resembled charcoal briquettes, both in impenetrable texture and over-charred flavor.

"The best thing about Gallagher's," Fey concludes, "is that it's within walking distance of Sullivan's."

See you there.

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Gallagher's Steakhouse

1040 15th St.
Denver, CO 80202

303-629-6332


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