By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
The interior of the 3-month-old casino is pinball-machine swank, a pompous swirl of blinking lights, vibrant colors and sweeping curves encircling more than 2,000 gaming machines, 40 poker tables, and a bingo room set off to the side. There are 625 pieces of rock memorabilia housed here; most of the impressive stuff, like belongings from BB King and the Beatles, hangs in the Hard Rock Cafe. Lesser paraphernalia peppers the casino walls -- outfits worn by the Yardbirds, autographs from Herman's Hermits, a Donovan album cover... if you remember these names, it's probably getting time for your cup of warm milk and afternoon nap.
The Hard Rock jams in plenty of culinary options. Besides the eponymous café, there is a 24-hour coffee shop called the Blue Plate and a food court that deals out Asian food, kosher-style deli sandwiches, pizza, pretzels, coffee, ice cream, and Cha Cha Cha Cuban cuisine (whose steam-table fare looked far more appealing than anyone else's). The high roller among the restaurants is the Council Oak Steak and Seafood.
Odds are, you'll feel comfortable in the stylish dining room, which, though exuding traditional steak-house woodenness (oak), is light, open, and airy, not stuffy and masculine like so many meat joints. There's no skimping on quality: The tables are dressed in 300-count white linens, leaded crystal stemware, and flowers floating in glass globe vases filled with colored water. Semicircular banquettes with muted, olive-toned cushions are also posh and plush, but the tables' pedestals are so bulky that there's little foot space below.
We started with a basket of soft, fresh ciabatta bread with a thin, crisp crust, then hit the jackpot with a lusciously creamy corn chowder chock full of lump crabmeat, potatoes, and a mix of minced vegetables that stealthily melt into the base. A humongous Maryland crab cake likewise came up spades, clumps of crab meat tastefully bound and winningly complemented by a small amount of corn relish and drizzle of pungent cilantro oil. "Drunken" prawns are flash-fried after marinating in ginger and sake, but the three limp shrimp (evidently, they had too much to drink) were lukewarm, possessed a dull, soggy texture, and didn't gain any appreciable flavor from the marination; a cold seaweed salad below proved unpleasantly fishy.
Council Oak's other appetizers are culled from the same old deck of cards: shrimp cocktail, chilled oysters, fried calamari, and smoked Norwegian salmon, the last made distinctive by being rolled into coronets, stuffed with crabmeat, and surrounded by enoki mushrooms and watercress coulis.
By the restaurant's entrance, you can peer through a glass window into a refrigerated room, where a butcher busily strips fat from meats -- or into another cooler where the trimmed beef gets dry-aged. Although Council Oak bills itself as a "steak and seafood house," main courses are mostly meat. Filet mignon is offered in eight or 12-ounce portions; New York sirloin comes in 12- or 16-ounce portions; and prime rib of beef is aptly available in mattress sizes: queen (27 ounces without the bone) and king (32 ounces with the bone). I suggest that those who order the latter cut should stand up in the middle of the restaurant and proclaim: "My name is [say your full name], and I am a glutton." It is well-known that acknowledgment is paramount for starting on the road toward recovery.
A 20-ounce cowboy rib eye and 12-ounce veal rib chop were plenty hefty but in a manageable and eminently edible way -- we cleaned them to the bone; both cuts were properly cooked, highly flavorful, and terrifically tender. The exteriors of the meats were dark but lacked the tempered crispness that a steak seared at 1,300 Fahrenheit (according to the menu) should possess.
The house specialty may be beef, but the "house specialties" section of the menu offers five nonmeat entrées: fettuccini primavera, grilled free-range chicken, Maine lobster, shrimp scampi, and a seared white square of Chilean sea bass in a saffron-tinted champagne sauce.
Council Oak, as you may have concluded by now, is expensive: Soups and salads cost $8 to $10, appetizers $12 to $15, and steaks $33 to $39. Main courses are unaccompanied by vegetable or starch (steaks come with a sweet/sour confit of onions cooked in red-wine vinegar and sugar). Cottage fries, hash browns, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, broccoli, and asparagus are each available, in portions large enough to share, for a $7 surcharge -- which ups the ante of that steak dinner to a range of $40 to $46.
The creamed spinach was like most others, which is to say delicious, with a light nutmeg kick and surprise sprinkling of parmesan on top (resulting in an intriguing play against the sweetness of the cream). A circular round of hash brown potatoes was flavorfully flecked with bits of bacon and scallion, but the pan-fried crust was mushy, not bronzed and brittle, likely due to being prepared in advance and reheated at service time. When you pay $7 for spuds, they should come crunchily cooked to order.
A rich, dark chocolate soufflé for two didn't exactly rise to expected heights, the sugar-powdered cap barely peeking above the rim of the soufflé cup, the interior moistly cake-y but a bit overcooked.
The wine list boasts a big selection of bold reds that can stand up to the hearty fare, but bargains are as hard to find as bingo billionaires. Even without wine (Voss bottled water is poured on the house), dinner will cost about $75 per person. Through studious field work, I found it takes nearly 20 minutes to lose that much at the slots. You might have better fortune and win a lot of money at the Hard Luck -- er, Hard Rock Casino, but I wouldn't bet on it. So you may as well sit down at Council Oak and enjoy a high-steaks dining experience, the lingering tastes of which will likely prove consoling as you walk, and walk some more, to your car.