Pretty but Shallow

A Steak in the Neighborhood is chic, fun and quite formulaic

The downtown cuisine scene is in the midst of a nice little renaissance. Restaurants like On a Roll and Maynards Market and Kitchen have made seemingly successful debuts, and in the coming months, Tucson restaurant icons Kwang C. An and Janos Wilder will open much-anticipated downtown eateries.

The same can be said for the downtown club scene, thanks to Luke Cusack, the owner of Pearl (on Wetmore Road), who has brought Sapphire and Zen Rock to Congress Street.

Cusack has also entered that downtown cuisine scene, with A Steak in the Neighborhood—and the results are decidedly mixed.

Cusack and co. know how to decorate a space and give it an upscale, urban feel. While you're inside A Steak in the Neighborhood, you feel like you could be in New York or West Hollywood or (God help us) maybe even Scottsdale. The narrow, long room features a swanky bar and an open kitchen on the west side, and tables on the east side; in between each of the polished-stone tables is an angled metal feature rising out of the wall. The female servers each wear a white shirt, a black skirt and a black tie. The hardwood floors, the contemporary jazz, the two flat screens (tuned to ESPN on one visit, and—again, God help us—The Joy Behar Show on another), the creative yet stupidly overpriced cocktails ($11.25 for a Grey Goose cosmo?)—it all screams "swanky."

Unfortunately, the food can't quite stand up to the impressive décor.

The restaurant's name is something of a misnomer; there's exactly one proper steak on the entire menu, a prime cut center filet ($18 for six ounces, $24 for 10 ounces). However, it proved to be the best thing that we tried on our two visits. It was a perfect cut of meat, two full inches thick, that was cooked just as I requested (medium rare). My only problem was that it was barely seasoned at all; a small amount of rosemary peppercorn sauce was served alongside, but the sauce did nothing for my palate; it tasted like bad brown gravy. The accompanying vegetables—a mix of asparagus, carrots, green beans, asparagus and bell pepper—were cooked to perfection. The garlic mashed potatoes served with the steak were decent, if oddly lukewarm. Nonetheless, despite the sauce and seasoning problem, this steak was a success.

While that's the only proper steak offered at A Steak in the Neighborhood, many of the other entrées include steak in some form. In fact, the entrée offerings are surprisingly formulaic: Almost all of them include a starch (brown rice, bowtie pasta or mashed potatoes), a meat (either sliced filet mignon or chicken breast) and a sauce.

The filet stroganoff ($13) ordered by Adam the Art Director during our lunch visit looked almost exactly the same as the filet diane ($16) ordered by Garrett during our dinner visit. Both featured well-prepared bowtie pasta; several overly chewy, yet flavorful filets; mushrooms and onions; and a sauce. The cabernet cream sauce with the stroganoff was rather delicious, led ably by the flavor of wine, but the cognac cream sauce on the filet diane was overly sweet and cloying.

Other offerings include salads, soups, bar-food-like appetizers, sandwiches and burritos. While we didn't try any of the salads, I did try the cheese steak trio ($10), which includes half-sized portions of each of the three cheese steaks on the menu.

Cheese-steak traditionalists would balk at these sandwiches, but I found them all enjoyable, even if they could have used a little more of the shaved filet and rib eye. The original included grilled onions and a cheddar-y cheese sauce. The primo included lettuce, onion, tomato, Italian dressing and, on the side, a pepper mufflatta mix, and was the weakest of the three. Conversely, the strongest was "the cab," with a cabernet cream and mushroom sauce—which I believe was the exact same stuff found on Adam's stroganoff. The thing that really made these sandwiches succeed was the pillowy, flavorful rolls; the bread supported the ingredients, yet wasn't at all tough or hard.

Aside from that steak, the best thing I ate was the hearty filet stew, the soup of the day on our lunch visit (a cup for $4, a bowl for $6). It was thick with tiny pieces of meat, and somewhat larger pieces of carrot, onion and other veggies. It was hearty, peppery and delicious.

However, the Southwest chicken tortilla soup, the soup of the day on our dinner visit, was a disappointment. It was a bit watery, despite being packed with vegetables and beans, and the dominant flavor was provided not by chicken or tortillas, but ... those beans. It was odd.

The appetizers that we tried ranged from inoffensive to pretty darned good. The mac n' cheese ($5) fell into that inoffensive category; it included bowtie pasta, cheddar sauce, a few feta chunks and nothing more. The pretty-darned-good honor goes to the filet fingers ($7 for six small strips), which were tender and tasty, if a bit too salty; the accompanying ranch and wing sauces offered nice, if unnecessary, complements.

During our dinner visit, Garrett and I tried the appetizer sample platter ($11), which included more of those filet fingers, along with chicken strips, potato skins and fried green chile strips. The chicken strips and the chile strips were fairly average, while the potato skins were a success.

Three menu offers up three desserts: a Ghirardelli dark chocolate shaving shake ($5), a berry sorbet trio ($6), and a New York cheesecake ($6) that the server said was not made in-house. Because none of these selections seemed very inspired, we passed.

All in all, A Steak in the Neighborhood is very pretty, very chic and somewhat shallow. The atmosphere and the décor are great, but the food, with an exception or two, is formulaic—a word that does not describe most of the other restaurants participating in the downtown cuisine-scene renaissance.

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