When it comes to steak houses, one fact is immutable: The primary focus is beef. Every restaurant has its own way of serving it (à la carte or accompanied by side dishes), its own methods of pricing (inexpensive to horrifyingly exorbitant), and its own ethnic accents (American to French to Argentine). But beyond offering some fish, poultry, or vegetarian items to appease non-red meat eaters, no steak house really means to deny that meat is what the customer should order.
Wait. Stop. Reverse that (to paraphrase Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). At the American steak house the Station Grille, located on Lantana Road in Lantana, beef is precisely what the customer should not order.
Why? Because it's not prime. Call me a snob, but if I want to eat U.S. choice grade, the second tier of quality when it comes to beef, I'll roam the aisles at Winn-Dixie and fire up the 'cue. The Station Grille, an offshoot of its older, across-the-street sibling I and J's Station House Restaurant, tries to glamorize the meat by billing it as "The Chef's Exclusive" on the menu; it claims the beef is culled from the top 30 percent of U.S. choice grade. But frankly, folks, I'm not impressed. I don't need to spend $27.95 on a 24-ounce porterhouse that, judging by its toughness, could cost me multiple times that amount in dentist bills.
I do respect the restaurant's purported reason for buying choice grade -- the marbling, or fat content, is significantly less than in prime beef, some cuts of which can be deliciously fatty. The clientele in this former fast-food restaurant, which has been dressed up with venetian blinds and an open display kitchen, look to be a mostly retired set who may indeed be watching their health. The prices, though perhaps on the high side for the area, certainly aren't as offensive as I've seen. And the cooks know their meat -- each dish we ordered was cooked to our specifications. But it appears that no one is attempting to tenderize the beef by, say, marinating it. After all, it's the melting fat that keeps meat moist as it grills. Without that fat, beef tends to be unrelentingly chewy, as were several of the cuts I sampled at the Station Grille. In fact only the sirloin boasted any sort of appeal.
I'd call it a shame, for the staff here is as warm and welcoming as a fireplace on a cold evening, and specials like the breaded fried shrimp entrée can be exceptional: greaseless, with the finest crumb coating on the jumbo shrimp. But we were displeased with several of the other offerings, including a main course of pork baby-back ribs. The Grille served a pound-and-three-quarters rack for just under 18 bucks -- a bargain, but the portion had been decimated by overcooking. The stringy meat was as dry as the bone to which it was clinging -- and I do mean clinging, like a needy spouse.
Starters, too, missed the mark, particularly the littleneck clams, which we ordered two different ways: steamed and oreganato. The steamed clams had been cooked too long and were as chewy as the bubble gum on the underside of a desk. Although the half-dozen oreganatos were flavorful and moist, thanks to their dense topping of bread crumbs, the clams were so pathetically small that they looked like a meager handful of change from a hobo's pocket. If you're going to serve an appetizer this skimpy, at least disguise the bare plate with some garnish.
An appetizer of baked artichoke hearts, quartered and laid out on puff pastry with spinach and mozzarella, suffered from having been canned -- a pet peeve of mine. The difference between canned and fresh artichokes is about the same as that between a natural blonde and a peroxide special -- the texture will tell you which one is authentic. French onion soup was discredited by its bubbles of oil, practically big enough for a duck to coat its feathers in, and by its odd flavor of caraway. Only later, as we got down toward the bottom of the crock, did we realize that the crouton in the soup had been made from rye bread.
The Station Grille deserves kudos for several items, specifically the side dishes. Onion rings were wonderful, with the same crisp-tender contrast as the shrimp, and grilled asparagus was pleasantly mild, with an unassuming hollandaise sauce. A beefsteak tomato salad, featuring some truly delicious fresh mozzarella and a pungent basil vinaigrette, was inviting. And I was thrilled with a slice of homemade apple pie, which featured soft, tart apples for the filling and a buttery crust. A decent wine list, offering several good California vintages, was also redeeming.
But in the end, the relative pleasures of our visit were overwhelmed by items like the fishy Norwegian salmon fillet, pasty as peanut butter, and the utterly flavorless Gorgonzola cheese scattered over some leaves of baby romaine -- a.k.a. the complimentary house salad. As a steak house, the Station Grille pulls in short of the depot. As a regular ol' restaurant, it's fairly easy to derail.
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