It may very well be that Philadelphia, suddenly tending a herd of lavish new chophouses, is undergoing a delusional fit of PBE (Prime Beef Escapism), the carnivore's equivalent of burying his head and corporate expense account in the sand with a steak knife.
From a pure trencherman's point of view, I can appreciate. Prime beef, a rarely seen luxury in most restaurants during this decade's more solvent days, is seemingly on everyone's menu now that Armageddon is on the horizon. And I've savored more than my share of those well-aged mastodon chops over the last few months, so my taste buds have adjusted suitably. The buds expect the good life every time I stick my fork into a big-ticket entree.
But it didn't happen nearly enough during my three meals at Del Frisco's, despite one of the showiest new restaurant settings in a while. The jaw-dropping former bank space, with its soaring columns, vaulted private rooms, and monumental glass wine tower, couldn't mask its unsavory flaws, a triple combo of mediocre cooking, irritating service, and offensive markups on an otherwise spectacular new cellar.
For $64.95, you can sample an unusual bone-in filet mignon that's one of the restaurant's signature cuts. But ours was underwhelming, a smallish, tapering piece of meat threaded with a sinewy ribbon of silverskin. It had better than average flavor, but not that much more. Overall, I preferred the smaller, traditional 6-ounce filet that came with the "business lunch" special, not a bad three-course deal for $30.
But meat, it turns out, is really the least of its problems. In fact, the glimmer of good news for Del Frisco's, a high-end cousin to Sullivan's (and downscale Lone Star, from which it separated a few years ago), is that the chops were usually better than that bum filet, and reasonably in range of, if just a shade below, its competition.
The porterhouse was my favorite, with its broiler-charred T-bone tastes of both filet and strip. I also lingered happily with a new pal over the massive 32-ounce rib steak, a "long bone tomahawk chop" for sharing. Paired with enormous onion rings, richly creamed lobster mac and cheese, and a bottle of cult cabernet (that, at these triple-retail markups, hopefully "your client" is paying for), I can see how Del Frisco's would be a good time.
I'm guessing that all the crisply pressed suits guzzling pineapple "VIP" cocktails in the lounge were enjoying more than just the food. And I'm not even talking about the Borgata-style waitresses in teeny skirts and fishnet stockings. Or the posse of Sixers settling into their booth behind us. It was some of the female guests who were really turning heads, with so many surgically enhanced, body-glittered bosoms on display, the only thing missing was a brass pole.
So many of the denizens here, no doubt, have perfected the fine corporate art of spending OPM (Other People's Money). If I'm paying Craig-dollars, though, prime meat, celebrities, and a saucy bar scene alone are no longer enough on their own to distinguish a place averaging about $125 per head. Not these days, not with this competition.
Even Del Frisco's swanky dining room, upon closer inspection, left much to be desired, with only gaudy red curtains to soften the cavernous, noisy space, and the unflattering harshness of floodlights glaring down.
Del Frisco's unmistakable DNA as a chain, meanwhile, surfaces all too often in the mass-produced character of its cooking, and the hard sell of its service. We felt the push at the host stand, where they reflexively sent diners on time for their reservation into the bar, when the oily waiter welcomed us with the old "And of course we'll be drinking sparkling water?" line, and when the sommelier answered my query for a bottle in the $80-to-$100 range with opening suggestions at $125 and $250.
I had better service luck at my final dinner, even though our new sommelier reeked of his cigarette break, and our waiter paced manically around us during a dramatic spiel that ended with a karate whack to the table as it climaxed with "the tomahawk chop!"
My biggest disappointments, though, came from the kitchen. The shrimp appetizers brought huge shrimp, but they were consistently rubbery. The fried oysters were greasy. The raw oysters were perched so askew atop a mound of ice, any juice had drained away.
The baked crab cakes were full of lump meat, but were dry. I loved the addictively spicy-sweet crunch of the Asian-glazed fried calamari ("Shanghai-style"), but the breading was so thick that the squid inside was incidental.
One of our stone crab claws (at $28 for two) was disconcertingly mealy and gray. And there's a good reason the thin, off-flavored "turtle" soup didn't taste right: It's filled with minced beef, not turtle, an unnoted omission that should have old Union Leaguers in a sherried froth.
For those who don't want beef for an entree, prepare to pay $35 and up for mundane renditions of grilled tuna (with gooey marchand du vin sauce), overcooked snapper a la plancha, blandly un-lamby lamb chops, and reasonably tender duck with cherry sauce and fried sage.
Del Frisco's seems to have toned down the oversalting that rendered a burger at an early lunch virtually inedible. The doughy onion rings from that lunch had become addictively crisp by my later visits.
But the gratin potatoes were covered in a Velveeta-like flow of cheap cheddar. The stickily sauced king crab gnocchi had a rubbery bounce that betrayed the frozen origins of both the dumplings and the crab. The creamed spinach was chewy for the same reason. Stick with the creamed maque choux corn, or the decadently hand-mashed Chateau potatoes. Because anything requiring culinary finesse, even our baked potato (Steak House 101), was a shriveled little leathery-skinned disappointment.
How is this even possible in the midst of Philadelphia's Golden Age of Grilled Meat? If the setting and sights and hard sell are grand enough, the embrace of such absurdities will continue to defy logic.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews MangoMoon in Manayunk. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.