Surf 'n' Safari

Think African safari -- giraffes and zebras thundering across the grassy plains, cheetahs outrunning jeeps, lions flinging themselves on wildebeests. After a long, hot day of pursuing photo opportunities of Masai hunters, you relax in a lodge where fans lazily stir the dusty air. Then you dine on boiled peanut soup and kukupaka na wali (chicken stew). Sound temptingly exotic?

OK, now think Safari Steakhouse, located on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. The giraffes, zebras, and cheetahs are actually statues and paintings imported by Art of Africa, a gallery in Delray. You relax after a difficult day in the urban jungle in huge, comfortable booths next to textured, silvery wallpaper and under canvas paddle fans and tenting draped by Accents & Decor, another Delray outfit. And you dine on... escargots and Dover sole?

The decor at Safari Steakhouse is "the sexiest on Atlantic Avenue," according to Kris Shubert, in charge of the restaurant's daily operations and public relations. While animal prints don't inspire me to jump into bed, I found the surroundings both chic and cozy. A small rectangular bar in the foyer invites clientele to sit for a spell, whether or not they're waiting for a table, and the black-and-white, linen-draped tables are sufficiently spaced to ensure privacy. Well-placed draperies absorb clatter and chatter, and dishes are wheeled silently to the table on linen-draped carts.

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In fact, the 86-seat restaurant redefines steak house decor, which, in chains like Capital Grill and Morton's of Chicago, tends to be clubby and cold. Safari Steakhouse, despite prices that rival the aforementioned eateries, is anything but masculine. It's more of an oasis of comfort than a testimony to testosterone. But the reverie induced by the name and design of the place tends to be interrupted by the menu, which offers boring American steak house fare such as shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, and prime porterhouse for two.

Granted, the four-month-old restaurant is a welcome addition to Atlantic Avenue; there's no true steak house in the vicinity -- African, American, Argentine, or otherwise. But I'm not sure why owners Stephen Hall and Donna Rizzo, who also run Hoot, Toot & Whistle down the street, chose not to follow through with a complete safari theme. After all, HT&W, with its railway accents and Continental fare, attempts to evoke the era of train travel and fine dining. Why not do the same at Safari and add something African to the menu -- cream of pumpkin soup instead of lobster bisque, ostrich medallions as a substitute for grilled chicken breast, a meaty hunk of caribou rather than the aged New York strip?

My one big complaint notwithstanding, it's clear that Safari is a topnotch operation. For example, the jumbo lump crabmeat-and-avocado plate appetizer may not evoke the savanna, but it's big enough to make me forget such details. The enormous pile of chunky crabmeat, tossed with diced tomato and ringed by sliced avocado and Belgian endive, could have sufficed as a light dinner. I've rarely had such fresh, beautifully cracked crab in a restaurant, and I also appreciated the zesty cocktail sauce, which was splashed with an extra dollop of white horseradish. Baked garlic shrimp, a hot starter, also exhibited indisputable quality. The jumbo shrimp were roasted in garlic butter and served sizzling in a casserole dish, and though $9.50 might seem a bit pricey for only three specimens, the shrimp were big enough to share with a loved one. (Casual friends stand no chance of getting a bite from mine.)

Salads are a less expensive way to begin a meal, and salad servings are just as generous. The "wedge of iceberg" listed on the menu was a bit of a misnomer, considering that the "wedge" had been chopped and was partnered by piles of cubed cucumber and tomato. Still, the refreshing crunch of this much-maligned lettuce served as an ideal accompaniment to the homemade blue cheese dressing, which was so rich that a drizzle of the stuff sufficed. On the other hand, we couldn't get enough of the slightly sweet, slightly salty hot bacon dressing that coated a spinach salad. The warmth of the dressing wilted the spinach leaves slightly, making them as pliable as the oyster mushrooms garnishing the platter.

Safari's claim to fame is a specialized grill, which can sear meat at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, our bartender informed us. We were suitably impressed with both the prime filet mignon and the veal rib chop main courses. The inches-thick pieces of meat, 10 and 16 ounces respectively, were superb, medium-rare, and oozing juice. We were a little disappointed in the crosshatching of the meats, however; the filet and chop were singed just a bit too much, making them taste burnt rather than char-grilled. A special entree that evening, pork chop served with apple-raisin chutney, was altogether too dry, and a grilled swordfish steak, hefty enough to serve three, was oddly flavorless. We doctored this last entree with a very pleasant hollandaise sauce.

In typical steak house fashion, main courses are served à la carte, and side dishes cost you an extra $5 or so. This puts diners in a bit of a Catch-22 situation: Additions to the bill might make you think twice about ordering more than one side dish. But the preparation of these items, anything but casual, may be too tempting. For instance, creamed spinach was made with whole leaf -- as opposed to chopped -- spinach, and the tender leaves were adrift in a fabulous light cream. Mashed potatoes were smashed with garlic for a delicate edge, and hash browns were, as their appellation promises, golden brown and crunchy bits of potato. Only the crispy fried onions, which will run you an extra $1, were overdone, left just a little too long in the deep fryer.

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