Here's the Beef

Forget hot dogs. Forgo chicken. And deep-six that undersize dolphin you caught in the bay. Summertime means steak: flavorful flank, roasted rump, or filet mignon as friendly to the butter knife as perfectly ripe seasonal fruits. Rub a cut with spices, glaze it, or marinate it, then char it over coals for a dining experience the Florida Beef Council calls -- according to its recent "media alert" recipe suggestions -- "one of the quintessential joys of summer." The council's press release also urges you to take advantage of the best beef prices in recent years. Translation: The country's markets are overstocked with cow flesh, so get your all-American meat while it's hot and before it rots.

Coincidentally, Ocean Drive's Texas Steakhouse, which opened just in time for the grillarama we know as Fourth of July weekend, wants you to eat steak, too, and its reasonable prices reflect that desire. However, a dearth of beef in South Beach, rather than a surplus, is the motivation behind Texas's arrival. Indeed, while such fave SoBe eateries as Nick's Miami Beach and the Colony Bistro serve excellent preparations of meat alongside signature seaside goodies, Texas is the only meatery on the beach where carnivores can go specifically for a beef fix.

It follows, given the wide-open market, that attracting customers hasn't been a problem. Just from the relative success of its initial month in business (this is summertime, after all), the steakhouse's chef, Dan Flick, judges Texas's prospects to be very good for the upcoming season. Flick, fresh from heading the kitchen at Play by Play, the steakhouse at Madison Square Garden, hails from St. Louis and calls his affinity for cooking meat "second nature." In order to ensure quality, he tells me, he cuts his own steaks from specially ordered sides of beef, handling the meat as lovingly as a South Beach bouncer handles a velvet rope.

Being the only real steakhouse in the area isn't Texas's only advantage. Located on the former site of the immensely popular -- but ultimately bankrupt -- Tropics, Texas is owned by the same corporation that successfully runs the nearby Clevelander. The company, which bought the prime corner space in 1993, spent a year and an estimated one million dollars remodeling.

The result -- 350 seats in various pleasant patio and poolside settings -- makes Texas, appropriately enough, the biggest sidewalk cafe on South Beach. As for the main dining room's decor, where you might expect to find a huge cow's head or sundry western memorabilia, instead there's a 500-gallon saltwater tank that replicates a living-reef ecosystem. Outside, accents of purple neon, shimmering bars constructed of glass blocks, and live music all bounce off the pool's blue waters, tempting the passing foot traffic -- and the tableside conversation, depending on which musicians are playing at the time -- to stop. For a restaurant that was boarded up in 1991, the changes are miraculous; even the sky above Texas seems to sparkle with renewed fervor. Only my napkin, which had a rather obvious hole in it, detracted from that new-car smell.

Unlike the main dishes, which, not surprisingly, target the barnyard, pigpen, and chicken coop, appetizers are an eclectic mix of breeding grounds, crops, and cultures. For example, South Beach bread (focaccia topped with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and mozzarella) vies with southwestern jalapeno poppers (peppers filled black beans and cheddar cheese), while classic French onion soup competes with a "two-beer" bowl of chili -- that's the amount you'll need to drink while downing the spicy concoction. And at Texas, two beers translates into two yards of beer; the restaurant proudly features glasses that measure three feet in length.

Not in the mood for dressed-up focaccia or oniony consomme, we sampled a fiery bit of Texas tradition, the hot and hearty chili, which hit us where it's supposed to hurt pleasantly. Actually, the chili, mostly composed of shredded, juicy steak with a smattering of plump kidney beans, was an enticing combination of savory tomato notes and spices. Topped with cheddar cheese and onions, the stewlike appetizer was a fine introduction to South Beach's only neon ranch.

Scallops ceviche was a bit unusual compared to the chili (we were expecting something more along the lines of Rocky Mountain oysters), but their preparation couldn't be faulted. A hollowed-out tomato contained tender pieces of sea scallops mixed with chopped red and green bell peppers. Marinated in a tangy red-wine vinaigrette, the ceviche spilled over buttery ripe avocado slices and grapefruit sections to make this a true Florida treat. Translucent rounds of faintly bitter red radish added texture and complementary flavor.

While a shrimp cocktail featured a pretty presentation, the shrimps' butterflied edges had been dulled by sitting too long on ice, robbing them of their sweetness. The accompanying cocktail sauce was billed as being spicy but was basically only ketchup, and a ramekin of cognac sauce that also came with the shrimp lacked pizzazz, tasting like a Worcestershire-heavy Thousand Island dressing.

We chose another starter, "Texas tumbleweeds," from a recently added section of the menu; these new appetizers, owing to their mostly deep-fried status, seemed like bar food. (Flick says the entire menu will be re-evaluated before the season begins in order to eliminate poorly selling items.) The tumbleweeds -- deep-fried balls of spinach and jack cheese, chili and jack cheese, and corn and jack cheese, served with a Dijon mustard dip -- were difficult to tell apart, lacking enough of the individual identifying ingredients to overcome the unifying cheese taste. Nor did they resemble the ghost-town-in-the-desert symbol for which they were named. Heavy with oil, these cheesy balls reminded me more of gold nuggets; only a wind of hurricane proportions could have tumbled them along a street.

A storm would have been required to carry away the wonderful twelve-ounce rib eye entree, because that's the only way we would have allowed it to be taken from us before we were through. Medium-rare and juicy, with just the right amount of resistance to the meat, this beauty was testimony to the fact that Dan Flick can cook.

We also enjoyed "Tony's house special," a skillfully handled skirt steak sliced and smothered in barbecue sauce. Marinated until tender, the generous strips were flavored even more by a dark, molasses-sweet sauce. But a grilled mahi-mahi was disappointing -- tough and dry, and hardly benefiting from a moistening but bland citrus buerre blanc. Apparently the kitchen's skill with steak doesn't extend to the finned variety.

A choice of potatoes, hash browned or baked, was offered with the entrees. The hash browns were a delicious nongreasy pile, pan-fried chunks of white potatoes that were crisp in some places and flaky in others. The baked potato -- often the poor relation to pasta and rice in this neighborhood's gaggle of Italian trattorias and Caribbean-inspired cafes -- also made a hearty showing here, hammered with the works: butter, sour cream, and chives. Side orders of sauteed onions and what Texas terms a "trilogy" of earthy mushrooms (portobello, shiitake, and cremini) were bathed in crushed garlic, accenting both meats and potatoes.

The restaurant lists a variety of white and red wines, mostly Californian. Although the low end of the wine menu (under $20) is limited, you can cadge a Silverado chardonnay (high 20s) and a Ravenswood merlot (mid-30s), and there's a tempting selection of pricey reserve vintages. We uncorked one of the few international reds, a Chilean merlot for $18, which complemented the mild rib eye but was really too young for the challenges of chili and barbecue.

A serving of Texas chocolate-malt cake was too stiff with refrigerator burn to satisfy our craving for a rich finish. Forget the Florida Beef Council. We've got Texas Steakhouse. But where's the Florida Chocolate Council when we need it?

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