Everything at the new Capital Grille at South Coast Plaza follows the expensive-steakhouse rulebook. Bedroom-sized, temperature-controlled, glass-encased wine lockers. Hanging eerily in the hallways are paintings of long-dead aristocratic types, appropriate for hunting lodges, Gothic mansions and places like this. Life-sized portraits of John Wayne, Gene Autry, C.J. Segerstrom and Walt Disney stare down at eaters, all as red-blooded as the seared meats you are about to consume.
You’ll sit in a high-backed booth designed to swallow you whole. When your bow-tied waiter dressed in an oversized white smock recites the specials, every syllable he utters drips with excess: calories upon calories to consume, dollars upon dollars to spend. What’s to come, you’ll think, is a meal to end all meals—the most you’ll shell out for dinner that week, that month, maybe that year.
He’ll return later. In the meantime, he leaves a menu the size of a daily newspaper, the cover page filled with pictures of food, the rest listing hundreds of wine vintages printed so densely it looks like the classifieds. Naturally, side dishes are à la carte. Practically every course features a lobster in it, some monstrous steak, or both.
As you mull your choices, you try to not kill your appetite on the hot basket of bread they’ve dropped off. The sesame-and-poppy-seed-crusted dinner roll proves the hardest to resist, so you nibble on it but soon realize you’ve finished it along with half the butter. Then you break off maybe just a few shards of the bubbled cracker the cooks propped up like a ship’s sail and okay, maybe a little more of the moist onion focaccia and a taste of the molasses-sweet pumpernickel. Before long, the salad you ordered arrives, followed by that regal waiter, who now wields a pepper mill the length of a bazooka. As he gives it a few turns, the spinach wilts from a warm bacon-grease-based vinaigrette, while diced hard-boiled eggs, crumbled bacon, mushrooms and too-spicy slices of red onion threaten to escape from the plate. Yes, this will do nicely to ease you into what follows.
Capital Grille’s entrées are as grandiose as its name. The lobster and Dungeness crab cake is less a cake and more a loosely bound, amorphous, two-fisted gob of crustacean meat seared brown only on one side and with barely a breadcrumb or egg as filler. Generous pieces of lobster show up again in a bubbling metal vessel of its touted mac and cheese. As over-the-top as it is ironic, the shellfish’s presence justifies the price, but it’s the crispy breadcrumb topping that does most of the heaving lifting. Your waiter, noticing you barely put a dent in this ultra-rich side dish, says it will please you tomorrow as breakfast—and you believe him. You move on to sample the king salmon your date chose as a main course. It rests on a cedar plank like a reclining Buddha, its blubbery center and crusty exterior acting as opposing forces inside your mouth. The thrilling contrasts last precious seconds; wait too long, and the whole bite reaches equilibrium to become merely ordinary. As for the messy but well-intentioned green-bean side dish? It turns out the fennel and roasted tomato in it partner perfectly with the fish’s tomato-fennel relish.
Then you focus on the porcini-rubbed Delmonico steak, which arrived sporting a swoop of bone that could double as a meat crowbar should you decide to succumb to your latent Neanderthal urges. One of the most expensive cuts at $45 a pop, its acreage—a foot square if it’s a mile—is exactly as you expect. Not fork-tender and not entirely sinew-free, each bite offers equal parts fat, meat and char. The porcini rub acts as a kind of breading as well as an anti-slip crust, but it’s also a sponge for the balsamic-vinegar glaze. It’s this tanginess that eggs you on to eat more, even after you know you’ve had enough. At about the halfway point, your waiter offers a box. You say, “No, not yet; give me five more minutes.” But you take him up on the doggie bag after three.
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Later, as you shove another forkful of cake into your mouth and help yourself to another spoonful of the house-made ice cream, you realize that downstairs at Seasons 52—a restaurant also owned by Darden Restaurants, the parent company responsible for Olive Garden and Red Lobster—they restrict meals to 475 calories and desserts exist only in shot glasses. The two restaurants share the same building, and their respective executive chefs worked at the same Long Beach steakhouse before opening these new domains, but the two entities are obviously, purposefully dichotomous, in a light-versus-dark, masculine-versus-feminine, Jeffersonian-versus-Art Deco, old-school-versus-New Age way. Which one is for you? Well, that depends. How much money ya got?
The Capital Grille, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-1140; www.thecapitalgrille.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 4-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $100-$200, food only. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Big Meat, Big Money: A dinner at Capital Grille will set you back a paycheck, but the steak will leave you happy in the poorhouse."