Steak It or Leave It
A reader recently wrote to me, disagreeing with my somewhat-critical review of Madras Café. If I'd eaten in other Indian restaurants around town, he wrote, then I'd know that Madras Café is much better than they are.
My response? In short, I don't grade on a curve.
That said, of course, there is exactly one circumstance in which reviewing according to association is both apt and necessary: when a restaurant group opens a clone of its signature eatery. As long as the menu and corporate philosophy remain identical, I would have every incentive to compare locations and perhaps find one worthier than the other.
Such is the case with the 5-week-old Andre's Steakhouse, located on East Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The original Andre's, a widely acknowledged Xerox of the famed Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn, New York, opened in Naples in 1993. Five years later, another location was established on Marco Island, with a third following in Fort Myers. The first East Coast site to debut, Andre's fourth installment takes over where the long-running Raindancer, another steak house, left off.
By the end of its run, Raindancer was so dismal, in terms of both food and décor that Andre's couldn't possibly do worse. Indeed, it looks as if Andre's has made repairs and improvements. The old-fashioned salad bar was axed, the bricks and tiles replaced and polished, the roof repaired. Everything looks clean and snappy, including the linens that cover the tables and the faux flower arrangements.
But by reputation, Andre's is an exceptional steak house, and for this Fort Lauderdale location, therein lies the rub. And I'm not talking dry rubs of spices either. I'm speaking about glitches so numerous that this Andre's could be the card that brings down the house.
Let's begin with service. Modeled after Peter Luger's, the type of banter between waiter and customer is often brusque. But it's well-intentioned teasing, or at least it was in Naples, where the servers are so efficient that they can recommend vintages off the 230-bottle list and even recall if certain wines are out of stock. Not so at Andre's FTL, where our server didn't even know the varietals of the wines by the glass, ignored us, bungled orders without apology, and failed to attend to such basics as serving and replenishing everything from water and signature onion rolls to the tureens of the trademark "Andre's sauce," a delicious combination of barbecue and cocktail notes that emphasizes horseradish. Specific examples include the twenty minutes we waited at the table without menus, a greeting, or a drink order; the tomato and onion salad, an Andre's staple, that didn't show up until we flagged down another server and had him check; and the à la carte orders of grilled, double-smoked bacon, sautéed mushrooms, and creamed spinach side dishes that the waiter not only doubled without our permission but had the gall to try to charge us for even after we pointed out his error.
Then there's the quality question. In Naples, the tomatoes and onions were perfect, each rich, pulpy round of tomato alternating with a slice of sweet white onion cut in the same thickness. Bacon, an extra for $2.50, was crisp and meaty, an ideal counterpoint for the salad in terms of flavor and texture. Top it all off with another side of crumbled blue cheese and the Andre's sauce and it's a delicious start to a meal. As is succulent marinated herring in sour cream sauce with onions, served over a bed of fresh lettuce. Unless you live in Fort Lauderdale, where the kitchen skimps, failing to complement each slice of tomato with another of onion -- a visually obvious oops -- and offers mushy sardines and lettuce as limp as hair that hasn't seen a shower in a week.
The highlight of the rather limited menu at any Andre's is, of course, meat. Consistency in the raw product is to be expected -- every cut of beef is prime, dry-aged, and grain-fed, and as a result, the meat is exceptionally tender and flavorful, in both the Naples and Fort Lauderdale establishments. Preparation and table service are also identical: The meat is broiled, sliced, and composed on a heated, oval dinner plate that the waiter tilts over an inverted saucer so that the fats and juices run down to one end. The sizzling china keeps the liquids bubbling, enabling diners who like to refresh their filet mignon or even cook it a bit longer the opportunity to do so. In Naples, our guy was a whiz at this, aligning all the platters and placing them exactly so that they wouldn't burn someone. In Fort Lauderdale, different story, with platters tipping at all angles and crowded against each other.
Regardless of location, it's wise to stick to beef or the outstanding veal chop, a marvel of modern-day butchery. The double-loin, extra-large lamb chops are also thick and juicy, but their apparent maturity is a good clue that the meat is more cud-chewing mutton than milk-fed mite. The inches-thick pork chop we sampled in Fort Lauderdale was also satisfying, but the management might as well take the nods to nonmeat lovers off the menu. The "fresh fish of the day" is always salmon, it seems, and the broiled chicken was anemic, half of the puniest bird I've seen that didn't also go by the name of rock Cornish hen. Eight-ounce rock lobster tails are frozen and market-price (not a terrific combination at any time of year, but certainly not worth investigating when Maine lobster prices have fallen so far that other restaurants in the vicinity are offering five-pounders for 40 bucks).
As far as vegetarians go, well, you've got the house salad and side dishes. More of a chopped and sautéed version, the creamed spinach is barely touched with dairy, so even lacto-ovo folk can indulge here. The German fried potato platter, sized and priced for two, offers a tasty, hash brown-like starch, and fried shoestring onions are an undeniably pleasant way to load up on so-called bad cholesterol. As is the signature schlag, German for whipped cream but one of those words that really needs no translation. The homemade, just-sweet schlag is toted around in a bowl and proferred with desserts that range from a delicate key lime pie to a homier banana chocolate layer cake. Again, though, the differences between sites was significant. In Naples, our waiter made sure to refresh the tureen and serve us generously from its heaping contents. We tottered out high on schlag, a sharp contrast to Fort Lauderdale, where we could hear the spoon scraping the bottom of the bowl and departed, mightily disappointed with what could be regarded as a schlub.
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