Steak Out

Sullivan's is a pricey cattle call.

I suppose I should have known better than to venture into one more new addition tucked in on River Road. Every time I clear another bend it's hard not to scream STOP at yet another innocuous stripmall: more Starbucks, bagel shops, Walgreens, and now blasphemy upon blasphemy, a Joesler Village--an oxymoron that Joesler himself would have despised.

But there it is--bladed, curbed and paved with a line of well-dressed young attendants lined up and ready to park the car. Which is a good thing because you feel like a shithead and a cad to walk the length of the parking lot and reflect, even momentarily, on the fact that just a year or so ago, this was unbladed desert.

Part of a trend in restaurants is to take a working "model" of a venue and transplant it into several cities. This new über-breed is rapidly becoming the ragweed of the industry: widespread, virulent and able to take root in the most unlikely of places. Worse, the general public flocks to these venues seemingly under the impression that they are getting to taste what food is like on the coasts or in more sophisticated cities. Why go to the mountain when you can bring the mountain to Tucson?

And while I could rant on about how this is indicative of a consumer-based culture doomed to extinction brought about by its unslakable thirst for newer thrills and better toys, I'll refrain. Instead, let me take you by the hand through a night of dining at the newest venue in town, Sullivan's Steakhouse.

For those of you who don't know, the namesake of the restaurant is John Sullivan (1858-1918), the 1882 bareknuckles heavyweight champion of the world. You'll find a model of his gold- and jewel-encrusted heavyweight champion belt hanging by the host station at the door. Yes, this does set up a vibe that is intensely masculine, almost jocular, a tone carried out in all aspects of this 1940s style chophouse with its "speakeasy allure."

You can enjoy a martini or cigar in the clubby bar or head on in for dinner in the dark dramatic dining room. The deeply polished wood, gigantic flower vase, inset exposed wine cellar and sliding panels will all bring to mind an era of fat steaks, cigars and Fedoras set at a rakish angle.

Welcome to marketing in the year 2001, where ambiance supercedes any other factor in a restaurant, packaged for your dining entertainment. Entire marketing teams devote hours and hours to finding the correct "atmosphere" and here you'll feel as if you're in one big marketing test tank.

From the moment our server greeted our table, we were essentially overlooked as individuals but treated as a commodity. Our server stepped into the role by graciously asking every member of the table what type of martini they wanted.

We didn't want martinis.

The server stared at us, blinked, then started again with a polite request as to what could she bring from the bar.

Maybe I'm a little sensitive since I was dining with some teetotalers who do not drink under any circumstances. Still, when we ordered hot tea, the server stiffly said "Very well," then handed a wine list to the only man seated at the table and said, "I'll come back for your wine order, sir."

Big mistake.

But we rolled with it.

Despite the fact that wine glasses were still set at every place even though wine was not ordered, the press from the service didn't seem to be about the diner so much as making some kind of quota. The servers spoke as if they rehearsed a line, performed it to upper management, had it approved and were reciting it tableside. Our server did her job perfectly well, but she might as well have been a mannequin.

This feeling of cardboard cut-out is reflected in the menu as well, which is mostly about meat. Your server should tell you that your meal will be served à la carte (although I noticed that on one occasion the server waited until the orders were placed before adding this bit of information). This means that when you pay $28.95 for a Porterhouse steak, the only thing served on the plate besides the steak will be a knife. The prices certainly feel as if we're visiting in another city: $25.95 for a single veal chop, $26.95 for three single lamb rib chops, $24.95 for a filet mignon the size of an apple. You don't have to be Einstein to figure the profit being turned is at your expense. While the plates we sampled were cooked to a turn, and uniformly the meat was tender and of a quality cut, in the back of all our minds was the uniform thought: what a friggin' rip-off. Ka-Ching!

Who wants to eat a piece of meat with nothing to accompany it? Well, apparently no one, since this is where the bill begins to spiral out of control. Many tempting side items are offered, and in fact some of them are better than many of the larger plates offered. The creamed spinach ($4.95) and the old fashioned onion rings ($4.25) were two excellent side items that could easily make their own meal. But beware the horseradish mashed potatoes ($4.25), which were whipped and bland, without much horseradish in evidence.

As someone who will eat meat but certainly prefers the other food groups, I visited the side dishes and appetizers, the portion of the menu with a bit more zeal. An entire meal could be assembled and enjoyed from this part of the menu. In particular, the seared Ahi Tuna ($9.95) was a lovely statement in simplicity: seared rare slices served in a light wasabi crema with a bit of pickled ginger, this plate was a welcome respite. The Cajun Crab Cake ($9.95), a single cake of moist crab, tasted slightly sweet, although the mustard sauce made a nice foil. The Grilled Portabello Mushrooms ($7.95) were overdone and chewy and outrageously priced, considering the portion.

Probably the best dish we sampled was the spinach salad, served with a warm zingy dressing. The balance in portions, dressing and tender spinach leaves was a winner. But how embarrassing is that for a steakhouse's claim to fame: a spinach salad?

Dessert offers up some splendid options. We selected a melted chocolate brownie and a vanilla crème brûlée. The brownie was monstrous, served warm and collapsed in on itself with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This brought oohs and aahs from the peanut gallery. The enormous trough of brûlée was light and flecked with vanilla bean. Both desserts were priced fairly at $5.95.

In the end, nothing can redeem the dining experience of Sullivan's from feeling like you've just consumed something plastic, generic and fairly tired. And you've just parted with a solid chunk of change. Not to mention a little piece of your soul, since you leave feeling kind of used and cheated, like you've just left a bad one-night stand you knew better than to go ahead with.

As the story goes, tired of the high life at the very end, Sullivan himself made some kind of spiritual conversion and attempted to live a life of temperance. Perhaps the marketing team didn't think about that, since we'd all do best to take heed of what Mr. Sullivan learned at the very end of his life and stay at home.

Then again, the hostess informed us that toward the end there, Mr. Sullivan hocked the original championship belt to rid himself of so many debts. Perhaps you will choose to follow that particular example. Before you come to Sullivan's, you might do well to root through your valuables and find something to hock in case you need to make a pawn to get yourself back out the door. Or you can always beat your way to glory.

Sullivan's Steakhouse. 1785 E. River Road. 299-4275. Serving dinner: Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. MC, Visa, Disc, AmEx, No checks. Menu items: $4.25- $28.95.
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