Tweaking Tried-and-True

Craig Rouse continues his winning streak with SevenS Steakhouse and Grille

If you've been to one steak house, you've been to them all. Massive cuts. Sides large enough to feed a high school band. A wall of wines. Darkly dressed wait staff. Low lighting. Jazz. And that's why steak houses are so damn successful. People love comfort, and few meals challenge people less than a charred slab of meat with a big glass o' vino.

Hoping to change that are chef Craig Rouse and his new restaurant, SevenS Steakhouse and Grille in Tustin. Rouse is a rising star in Orange County culinary circles, the man who made pub dining a fine art while serving as executive house chef at Scott's Seafood, Brea's TAPS Fish House and the Catch in Anaheim. Rouse excels at taking the tried-and-true and introducing subtle, great flourishes—sea bass marinated in sake, for instance.

He's doing the same at SevenS, which occupies a former Tony Roma's, although you can't tell by its gorgeous layout. Eaters enter through heavy wooden doors to a separate lounge area, where diners waiting for a table munch on snacks or lean against a long bar lit with televisions invariably tuned to ESPN. Separating the lounge from the dining room are frosted doors, which open to reveal an eclectic crowd—businessmen, dolled-up dates, guys with tats and goatees who don't care for anything but meat.

SevenS largely sticks to a traditional steak house menu, so you'll find classic appetizers like cobb salads, crab cakes and oysters. I'm sure they're good, but more intriguing are the prawns fried in coconut tempura and a prawn cocktail on top of fruit salsa. I went with spicy beef pot stickers and expected a half-dozen or so to come. Instead, the cute waitress presented me with just three, each topped with mango and Thai peanut sauces and long, pale enoki mushrooms. The pot stickers weren't big, but their flavor was tremendous—ground beef with a dry heat tucked snugly inside a toasted dumpling casing. The enoki mushrooms functioned more as a decoration, but a side of pickled garlic added zest.

Rouse continues with slight, crucial tweaks to the rest of his creations. Onion rings come with mango chutney. Scallops sit on potato cakes. He offers potatoes baked, fried, au gratin, hash browned and mashed in three ways. In fact, the only standards on the menu are the actual steak cuts—rib eye, New York, you know and love these. But the true potential lies in Rouse's chops—the combination of kurobuta pork with honey and mustard glaze is culinary artistry at its most appetizing.

Still, the idea of spreading jelly on meat fascinated me too much, so I went with the Australian lamb chops with mint jelly. Spreading jelly on meat is one of those American culinary traditions, like meat loaf and fruitcake, that I never tried until adulthood. In fact, I had never tasted jelly on meat until visiting SevenS. Four chops arrived, blackened on the outside but gorgeously pink on the inside. I couldn't taste any rosemary in the au jus as the menu promised, but it wasn't necessary—the lamb chops dazzled. The meat's wonderful gaminess spread across my tongue, and flecks of fat on the bone's edge lent a sweetness that was enhanced by the apple mint jelly. Throw in a side of sweet mashed potatoes, and this was my sweetest dinner since the night I dined on Snickers.

I finished with dessert and again found the usual steak house suspects—cheesecake, strawberry shortcake, soufflé and chocolate cake. Different, however, was the $4 cost. "They're smaller," explained the waitress when I asked about the low cost. I ordered the cheesecake bomb and chocolate cake and feared bite-sized morsels would come. Instead, each dessert was almost as large as a regular serving at any local restaurant. The cheesecake, topped with raspberry compote, looked like a mini-San Onofre dome and was as tasty as cheesecake can be—chilled, thick and with a ginger cookie base. Rouse's chocolate cake, meanwhile, offered three different chocolate notes—gateau, mousse and fudge—and deserves its own separate tray at any French bakery. Which is exactly how Rouse operates: pushing the borders, but making sure you leave satisfied and full.

SEVENS STEAKHOUSE AND GRILLE, 17245 17TH ST., TUSTIN, (714) 544-0021; WWW.SEVENSSTEAKHOUSE.COM. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.

 
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