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28 January 2011

Tonight's episode: I've got 225 problems but this Panna Cotta ain't one.

            In every city there is a signature steak house. In New York, it is Delmonico's. In Chicago, it is N9NE. D.C. has Charlie Palmer. Charleston has Grill 225, or so I hear. The Girl and I decided to put that reputation to the most important test of all, the one where I put their food in my mouth then ramble on about it for six or seven paragraphs.
            Everything about 225 is over the top. Located in the Market Pavilion Hotel, the floor to ceiling two-story windows give impressive views of the newly relit Market, the Roman Revival Glory of the Custom's House, and the fifteen feet of chewing gum covered light pole. The menu at 225 is the largest in Charleston, not in volume but in shear acreage. There are central American countries smaller than these massive tomes to beef. The setting is very much a New York social club, with plush private booths and white jacketed waiters. My two complaints on the ambiance are first that mixed in with the The Black Saint and the Sinner and The Birth of Cool on the sound system was a fair amount of bad Euro-club music. Second, the salt and pepper shakers on the table that look like they were stolen from the Waffle House. Seriously? Isn't your food already seasoned?
            The Girl and I both decide to take advantage of the extended Restaurant Week menu, a 3 course $39 sampling. The dinner started off with a pair of perfectly executed soups. The Girl had a Lowcountry Blue Crab Chowder, served with cornbread. Aromatic, smooth, and rich, this soup encapsulates the essence of a chowder in a creamy bowl of liquified crab. I went with the French Onion Soup, served in a crock, covered in melted gruyere cheese. Inside the cheese is a beef broth enriched from beautifully caramelized onions. Mixed in are pieces of baguette that soak up the broth to provide soupy sponges of salty-sweet richness. The onions, though, are the star of the dish. Sweet and fragrant with just a touch of snap left to them. Overall, success on both dishes.
            The entree course is where things begin to go off track. The Girl went with the 7oz Filet, while I choose the 12 oz Ribeye. I also had a side of Chimichuri ($4) and Haricots Vert ($9). 225 is a member of the Great Steakhouses of America and advertises the fact that they are the only 100% USDA Prime Steakhouse in Charleston. That is really appealing to me. The difference between a Prime steak to a Choice is about the same as the difference between January Jones and Jerry Jones.
            The problem I have is they take these wonderful cuts of the best meat and wet age them. The spin they put on wet aging makes it sound like they choose this method for all the right reasons. Chef Castanas says wet aging seals in the meat's juices, protect it from bacterial growth, avoid an inconsistent product, and provide a deeper flavor. I say the reason he chooses wet aging is the same reason it is the most common form of aging across the country, effort and cost. In wet aging, you seal the meat in a vacuum bag and sit it on a shelf in the cooler for a month. Dry aging requires a higher commitment in time and energy, as the temperature, humidity, and air current must all be carefully controlled. Dry aging also causes a significant reduction in total volume of meat, usually in the order of 20% or more. The dry aging process provides a greater concentration of flavor as moisture evaporates from the muscle, and the natural enzymes break down the meat for a more tender cut. 225's Truth in Beef is more like Spin on my Cost Saving Techniques.
            The steaks themselves, served with crispy onion straws, were aggressively seasoned, to the point of being harsh on the palate. The chimichuri provided a nice cooling agent and a strong counterbalance to the flavor of the crust. While The Girl's Filet was a beautiful cut of meat, my Ribeye had an inordinate amount of fat and gristle. By the time I finished my steak I had at least 2 oz of inedible fat on my plate, something I find unacceptable for a restaurant that wants north of $40 a steak. (Update: After a rather vulgar comment about me choosing a different cut of meat if I don't want fat, I feel the need to address this point further. In every prime ribeye I have ever had the marbleization of the fat throughout the steak gives a far more flavorful cut of meat. What I had here was a vein of inedible, tough, unchewable gristle and fat running the center line of the steak. Your Ruby Tuesday ribeye may have that, this steak shouldn't.) The haricot verts were sad, too. Though perfectly cooked, they were totally without seasoning. I'm not sure if choosing the reduced price menu led the Chef to conclude we were uneducated hicks who wouldn't know a good meal if it came up and returned my wallet that I left at the Starbuck's counter. If so, he is doing himself and his clientele a deep disservice. If this is just how dinner is at 225, then I feel we need to choose a new Signature Steakhouse.

          For dessert, The Girl went with the Cinnamon Beignets with Vanilla Bean Gelato and Local Honey. Another miss. The Beignet batter was far too dense with a consistency of a bad hush puppy. They could have still been salvaged if not for the choice of a heavy local honey. Had the Chef gone with a lighter Tupelo Honey, there would have been more balance to the dish. Instead it was heavy, heavy, heavy. I, however, went with the 225 Panna Cotta with vanilla scented creme fraiche and local berries. THIS is a dessert. The light, almost airy panna cotta soaked up the berry coulis and takes your tongue on a trip to flavor town. I could not put my spoon down if I tried.
         There are many restaurants that I feel no sorrow at paying $100+ for dinner. My bill at Oak is normally well north of that, and I always leave without caring. Tonight, at Charleston's Signature Steakhouse, I really feel like my money was taken under false pretenses. While the setting is gorgeous and the service was without flaw, the single most important element of any restaurant was a failure. The food just was not to the standards of a three figure check. At that price point I will gladly dine elsewhere, and no long stare into those impressive windows with a longing for the Best Steak in Charleston.

The Scores:
Ambiance 5/5
Service 5/5
Food 4/10
Value 1/5
Overall: 15 out of 25, If you're picking up the tab I'll give it another shot, otherwise I will not be wasting my money again.

Grill 225 on Urbanspoon

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