Cafe Society

Get Lost

If I'd had a video camera, I could have filmed The Kitchen Bitch Project, and believe me, it would have been much scarier than that other movie.

But there's no footage to document the horror of my three meals at Lamonica's Steak and Chop House. No, just several friends who are still alive -- and very irritated with me for taking them into yet another forest of bad food.

Hey, it goes with the territory.

Not that there aren't some redeeming qualities to this ten-month-old eatery that sits where Grisanti's terrorized palates for almost a decade. On the plus side, Lamonica's has a pleasantly casual atmosphere that's much more relaxed than that at the big-boy steakhouses; it looks livelier, too, with lots of blond wood and bright lighting. There's a tasting bar where you can sample the wines you might want to order with dinner. And Lamonica's is also a rare homegrown venture sitting in a sea of chain restaurants along East Arapahoe Road. John Poats, Lamonica's general manager, is a part-owner, so he has a vested interest in making sure the waitstaff stays in line, which it does; those staffers are so friendly that you can forgive the service snafus created by busboys who speak little English. The other partner is Norm Lies, who lives in Omaha and owns other ventures -- restaurants, car dealerships -- across the country. But this is his first Denver business and his first Lamonica's.

Whether it will be his last depends on if the partners can get the kitchen to put out food worth eating. Besides the complimentary breadstuffs, that is: When I bit into my first warm, freshly baked roll oozing herbed cheese and butter, I thought I'd stumbled onto something fabulous.

But as soon as our appetizers arrived, it was clear that the kitchen was doing most of the stumbling. Our order of oysters Rockefeller ($8.50) consisted of six large oysters on the half-shell, those shells overflowing with curly strips of fatty bacon that had been mixed with spinach and topped with hollandaise. These monstrosities had then been put under the broiler until the hollandaise essentially turned into buttery omelettes. To get to the oyster, you had to pry it out from beneath the oily crust, a feat we could stomach only twice, since the things were too greasy to eat. Rockefeller should sue.

The fondue ($5.95 per person) also veered -- and not successfully -- from the standard recipe. The iron fondue pot sat upon a Sterno setup that kept the Swiss-cheese-sprinkled-with-nutmeg goo right at lukewarm. The fondue came with an assortment of odd dipping items: baby carrots that were unsettlingly soft on the outside and hard as a rock inside; overly ripe tomato slices that were no match for cheese that had the consistency of nearly dry rubber cement; and refrigerator-cold artichoke hearts, poached potatoes and broccoli flowerettes that finished the job of turning the cheese into spackle. There's a reason the Swiss believe you shouldn't chase fondue with a cold drink, and that's because it has a way of curdling everything in your stomach.

The fact that we'd quickly given up on both starters didn't seem to cause our cheerful server a moment of distress. She whisked them away and brought our salads -- two of the three possible choices included with the entrees. The house proved to be a slew of mixed greens and roma slices (romas, by the way, are not salad tomatoes) tossed with nicely buttery garlic croutons and a vinaigrette so tart it made my spleen pucker. In bizarre contrast, the dressing on the Caesar was so bland it could have been milk; beneath it was romaine so wilted it looked as though it had been sautéed.

By now, those good rolls were a hazy memory, but we plodded on. Since Lamonica's bills itself as a place for steaks, we ordered what should have been the flavor cut: the rib-eye ($22.95). I'd asked for medium-rare and got it, but what I didn't get was any flavor; I couldn't even discern the garlic butter allegedly thrown over the beef. The steak itself was too chewy and completely lacking the juicy fat that normally makes the rib-eye such a good bet. And all bets were off with the sides: The combination of steamed vegetables mixed fresh, bright-green broccoli pieces with older, slightly brown broccoli pieces and more of those unsettling carrots; the mashed potatoes (one of five ways you can get your spuds) were so dry that eating them was like drinking cheap champagne. I could actually feel the potatoes sucking the moisture from my mouth.

But at least they were authentically mashed. My companion's Lyonnaise potatoes bore about as much resemblance to real Lyonnaise potatoes -- usually spud slices fried with onions until everything melds together -- as Lyons, Colorado, does to Lyons, France. No, these were roasted potatoes, and not the baby spuds the menu had promised, but big halves of even larger ones, tossed with nearly raw onions. That problem paled, however, when we contemplated the allegedly steamed lobster tail ($42.50) on the same plate. The lobster's exterior was so crusty, it was hard to tell where the flesh left off and the shell began. This was a crustacean catcher's mitt. It was so tough that our server dispensed with the usual courtesy of pulling the meat out of the tail: Not only was it clear that the meat wasn't going to come out easily, but if our server had kept trying, there might have been the serious and potentially litigious chance of her stabbing my friend with the knife.