Putting the Sir in Sirloin

Boy, am I sick of being a woman.
Seems like everywhere I go in this macho town, someone's got to do something or say something patronizing to remind me of my gender. I go jogging, I get kissing sounds and catcalls -- even at five o'clock in the morning. I go to the bank, a man runs up from behind me to open the door. I try to close a deal on a house, and the lawyers won't put my name on the documents because it differs from my husband's.

So, yeah, I do use a chip as a shoulder pad. I'm proud of my identity. But I can't stand being treated specially because of my sex, whether it's a form of harassment, ingrained centuries-old tradition, or just plain discrimination (which is particularly rife in South Florida). I don't want a man hooting at me, I don't want him to open a door for me if I've already gotten to it first, I don't want a man's name instead of my own (though even that might be better than being referred to as "and wife," which is how I am now identified on the mortgage). And I especially don't want to be put on a pedestal at a restaurant simply because I have breasts.

I took a large party to the Capital Grille, the luxurious new steak house in the Rivergate Plaza on Brickell Avenue downtown. The sixth restaurant in a high-end national chain that originated in 1989 in Providence, Rhode Island, and that has outposts in Boston and Washington, D.C., the Capital Grille fancies itself a place where the city's power elite can cut deals over beef and Beefeater. But the only politics I sensed were sex-based.

Our server insisted on a ladies-first procedure throughout the meal. This, manager Rob Orvis later told me, is a policy at the restaurant: "The lady will be served first as long as it doesn't interfere with the comfort of the customer." Only our waiter must have nodded off during the second half of the orientation. The table we were seated around was large enough to make his tactic quite uncomfortable -- not to mention obvious and foolish. He couldn't reach across, so he had to constantly circle in order to serve the women before the men. He skipped the men's wine glasses to fill the women's first, including mine, though I'd been the one to order the bottle (from the 400-plus selection) and taste it, and so should have been poured last. Later he made a point of stopping by each woman's chair to ask about her meal before sparing a moment for the men -- though when one woman complained about a peppery sauce, he pompously explained to her that he was inquiring only about whether the meat had been properly cooked to order. And when handing out dessert menus, he commented to the man next to me, who had reached for one, "I was going to give that to her," nodding at one of the other women in our party. "But since you grabbed it...."

I can stand only so much "politeness" before I lose my appetite. I don't mind being catered to in a restaurant as long as everyone is treated equally; the same goes for being ignored. I do despise being a visible female guest when all I want to be is a typical diner.

Fortunately the steaks eclipsed the service.
Main course portions -- served a la carte in the New York-style steak house tradition -- are monstrous, far too big for my dainty appetite but perfect for the hungry power broker. With filets and fillets this big, you don't really need appetizers. That said, get the French onion soup anyway. It's rich with Gruyere, a cheesy lid that hides a deluge of soft, fragrant onions. The broth was a hearth-warming pleasure, soaking a slice of French bread with deep caramel flavor. One of the better crocks of soup I've had in a long time, but a filling one for sure.

For a lighter, milder beginning, hearts of palm salad was good if not inspiring, coined hearts of palm laid out on a bed of soft butter lettuce, pale yellow and green. A honey-sweet Key lime vinaigrette accentuated the mild vegetables.

Also on the palate-preparation side, Capital Grille offers the typical shrimp cocktail, the smoked salmon, the oysters on the half shell. Looking for something a little bit more South Florida to start, we were tempted by stone crab claws until we found out the price -- $14.00 for one (colossal) claw. So we went for crab and lobster cakes instead. Good choice. Plump and meaty with crab, nubby with lobster, the cakes were delicious, accented with red bell pepper and pan-fried to a crunchy golden-brown finish. Another seafood starter, squid sauteed with hot cherry peppers, was tangy stuff. Not too spicy but certainly zippy, the flour-dredged cones of calamari were tender, like al dente noodles.

Seven cuts of beef, including a 24-ounce porterhouse and a 20-ounce Delmonico, vie for attention as entrees. We started to order prime rib but desisted when we found out it couldn't be done rare; apparently it was already past that point. Steak au poivre was a disappointment we actually got to the point of tasting, an overly peppercorned sirloin strip dressed with a starchy sauce. We couldn't detect any of the "dry-aged" beef flavor under all that fuss.

But a ten-ounce filet mignon (a fourteen-ouncer is also available) was delightful, robust and musky with just the right amount of resistance, despite the fact that the natural jus on which it rested had a distinctly crimson -- and slightly unappetizing -- cast. And a veal chop, young, fresh, and succulent, put the older beef to shame. As with the rest of the food, the portion was enormous.

Seafood often suffers in a steak house, but we found giant shrimp scampi beautifully prepared, just touched with garlic and garnished with red bell pepper. The result was like lobster, buttery and rich, with a nest of linguine to soak up the seafood-scented sauce. Cuts of fish were as immense as those of red meat, particularly a swordfish steak. Simply presented, the juicy fish was crosshatched from the grill and absolutely fresh. We didn't care as much for a fillet of black grouper napped with a caper-onion sauce and confettied with parsley: thick but a little dry. A tuna steak was blackened with more salt than spice and doused with a red bell pepper sauce. Touched with cream, the puree soothed and gentled the tuna, which we hadn't thought to order rare; consequently, it got a little dry.

Though side dishes cost extra, they're worth it. A combination platter of cottage fries (thick-cut potato chips, heavily browned) and onion strings (julienned and breaded white onions, deep-fried) was the table favorite. The contrast of crunchy-chewy chips with lightly salted and fairly sweet fried onions was ideal. We also liked the mashed potatoes, which had so many lumps they were like warm potato salad.

Vegetables sort of lose their nutritional value when paired with hollandaise and cream sauces, but then again, no one on a diet -- or, for that matter, a budget -- goes to the Capital Grille. (In fact, it's difficult not to indulge yourself when in such commodious surroundings, which include plush seats, leather banquettes, marble floors, brass accents, and oil paintings of legendary Floridian movers and shakers. The portraits, however, couldn't steal the thunder from the restaurant's pride and joy: Its meats are stored in a glass locker in the middle of the dining room.) We easily rationalized the creamed spinach, a steak-house mainstay, and it was a terrific version. Verdant chopped spinach was assertive under its coating of garlic-spiked cream. Asparagus with hollandaise sauce highlighted some beautiful green, tender-stemmed vegetables; the sauce itself was notable for its satin, lemony lilt.

After a meal like this, one barely has room for a sweet. Still, we couldn't pass up a chocolate-espresso torte. Flourless, velvety, the dense bittersweet chocolate had a pronounced coffee edge to it. No reason, after all, to skip this course, unless it's to puff a cigar and sip a port.

And no real reason not to polish off a capital meal here, whether you're male or female. Apart from the sexism, we did encounter some minor annoyances, ranging from the fumes in the underground garage to the watch-checking hostess whom we recognized from her appearance last year on MTV's The Real World (she was Flora, the self-centered, bitchy, two-timing housemate). And I'm sure, though it makes me shudder to think, that the Capital Grille's "return to classic service" pleases some women, who demand that kind of fuss. But the average Jane should be aware that this place is determined to treat a heifer like a heifer and a bull like a bull. In other words, guess who gets the take-home box, guess who gets the bill.

The Capital Grille
444 Brickell Ave; 374-4500. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.

French onion soup
Crab and lobster cakes
Shrimp scampi
Veal chop


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