Ted's Montana Grill

American, Barbecue
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Ted Turner's new 'saloon' brings a little bit of Montana to Northern Virginia

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Dinner at this new restaurant begins with a smile and a swagger. "Welcome to Ted's Montana Grill, the most authentic saloon this side of Montana," the waiter begins, launching into what turns out to be a long, long spiel that's also printed on the menu. "Turn-of-the-century and made-from-scratch go hand-in-hand here. Everything is fresh-made when you order. No frozen food in a pouch. No microwave. And no pretense." The waiter's not done yet, but already you're wondering: Who is this Ted, and why is he so darn confident?

This Ted's last name is Turner -- the media mogul and mega-cowpoke. Turner opened his first Ted's in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 and now has 35 locations in 13 states. The Alexandria branch, which opened in late January, is a short stroll from both the AMC Hoffman Center 22-theater movie complex and the Eisenhower Avenue Metro stop. And the menu features bison and beef, naturally, because Turner, the largest individual land owner in the United States, has 15 sprawling ranches in seven states, including the whopping 580,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico. Two new Ted's are scheduled to open in Arlington by the end of the year.

There's a relaxed atmosphere in the spacious dining room, where dark woodwork adds the rustic flavor of the Arts and Crafts movement. Like many steakhouses, this one has lots of comfortable, high-backed booths that create a bit of privacy for a family with small children or a couple on a movie/meal date. Tables are covered with brown paper and individually stocked with more condiments than the average kitchen pantry.

On two recent weekday nights, the dining room was near empty at 7:30, and it stayed that way until closing. At the same time, in the warm, woody bar area, a dozen guys were downing beers and burgers, oblivious to everything but the big-screen TV. So I was surprised to find Ted's jammed on a Saturday night, with a 45-minute wait for a table. Happily, I found a prime spot at the bar for a juicy bison burger, surrounded by yet another bunch of guys.

Saloons make their name by the alcohol they keep. Ted's doesn't disappoint, with a choice of 27 bottled beers and an all-American wine list that's short but competent and fairly priced, with most bottles in the $20 to $30 range. And the generous specialty drinks are judiciously mixed, using freshly squeezed fruit juices. Unfortunately, when the drinks arrive, so does a small dish of what passes for pickles -- a few pallid cucumber chunks in a brine that leaves a lingering chemical flavor.

Now, I've never been to Montana. But I would be surprised if folks there regularly start dinner with an enormous platter of french fries smothered in smoky chili and melted cheddar cheese, or, for that matter, a stack of saucer-size onion rings, both of which are listed under "appetizers." For me, heavy and deep-fried is the wrong way to begin a meal. But as a friend who was helping me work through a mountain of them said, "For chili cheese fries, these are really good." And the tangy horseradish dip that comes with the crunchy, sweet onions is delicious.

No shrimp probably swim upstream all the way to Montana, but the jumbo shrimp on ice, served with a zingy cocktail sauce, is a classic. I would wait a month or two before ordering the tomato and onion salad again, in hopes that the tomatoes by then would be less pithy and more flavorful. A tortilla soup of the day tastes disappointingly like a salty gravy base, the bowl rimmed with unappetizing orange oil. A better choice is the Caesar salad, which is near perfect, the crisp romaine leaves tossed with just the right amount of anchovy-laced dressing and shavings of Parmesan cheese.

Entrees are far more dependable. Ted's kitchen produces a lovely, roasted fillet of king salmon, with a crisp edge and a nice, woody/smoky flavor. And I wouldn't hesitate to order again the roasted "beer can" chicken, which has a remarkable and distinct free-range flavor. The breast was a shade overcooked and the skin a little flabby, but the rosemary, garlic and quality Anchor Steam beer infusion superbly scented the meat.

Bison, leaner than beef, is the real reason to choose Ted's. There's a touch of sweetness to the meat. The Delmonico cut is beautifully seared, with just enough fat along the edge to keep the meat succulent. A sirloin strip of beef that I ordered here one night was no match for it, in texture or flavor. Any home on the range would be proud to serve the hearty bison meatloaf or the tender bison pot roast I tried; comfort food doesn't get much better than this. However, the bison prime rib, a very large and very dense slab, is a daunting duty to chew, and it doesn't seem to have the distinctive flavor of the other cuts.

It wasn't until one of my dinner companions said, "What's the odd piece of bread that keeps showing up on everything?" that I focused on the brown lump on my plate -- and on every plate, for that matter. It turns out to be a bland, flour-flavored nub of a yeasted pan roll, an afterthought in the world of good bread. And some of the side dishes are pretty sad. It's a shame to overcook the green beans, or to cover good mashed potatoes with a lake of salty, brown gravy.

Overall, the service at Ted's is attentive and pleasant, especially if you can short-circuit the waiter's initial endless monologue. (If asked, "Have you been to Ted's before?" I suggest you say yes, whether you have or not.) The servers' smiles seem genuine, somehow, as if they're truly glad you're here. And when the busboy noticed that our table was drinking large amounts of water, sensibly after so much salty food, he was there with a fresh pitcher. But there was an exception. One night our waiter, who had made himself scarce for most of the evening, plunked down the check minutes after delivering the entrees. Obviously, he wanted to go home. When we ordered dessert anyway, he tried to wedge a strawberry shortcake in between the dirty dishes. The shortcake was a salty biscuit, and the berries were too firm. So we all went home soon enough.

Still, I would return to Ted's, gladly, for a nice piece of bison. And to go with it, instead of a side dish, I'd have that onion ring appetizer and use the horseradish dip for the bison as well.

Walter Nicholls is a reporter for The Post's Food section. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.