A Perfect Steakhouse Experience? Elusive.

Eleven years ago, with Washington savoring a boom in steakhouses, I grazed through nearly 20 to determine if there was a best among the lot. While I found plenty to admire, at the end of a three-month steak streak, no single player delivered the Perfect Steakhouse Experience formed by memorable meat, first-class sides, an inviting backdrop and distinguished wine service.

Repeating the drill in the District recently, I found that at nearly a dozen restaurants, the recession and over-saturation have taken their toll. A sense of deja vu infused my exploits. Charlie Palmer Steak has a terrific all-American wine list and a tender aged New York strip, but perfunctory service and nothing-special Caesar salad. The blandly dressed Morton’s downtown serves its lackluster side dishes in heart-stopping portions that point to restaurants as a prime culprit in the obesity war. Capital Grille shakes great drinks, but just about everything else I’ve eaten there — potatoes pureed to the texture of baby food, nutmeg-blasted creamed spinach, wan filet mignon — fails the pleasure test. And if there’s a kitchen that makes hash browns as they should be, (grated, thin and golden) rather than barely crusty potato cakes the size of Idaho, I didn’t find it.

Other discoveries: Most of the steakhouses are lit as if they were casinos. Noon looks like 8 p.m. — all the more tempting for a customer to imbibe at lunch. Lots of places claim to serve prime meat. But I have my doubts, both because of the middling quality of what I’ve been served and the reality that no more than 3 percent of the roughly 25 million head of cattle in this country get the USDA’s top grade, earned in part for the amount of marbling the beef reveals. As ever, you should hope someone else is picking up the check. A full-press steak experience, including cocktails, wine, tax and tip, runs about $150 a person.

The highlights of my meat-a-thon:

Decadent dough
Boring bread launches most steakhouse meals. The exceptions include BLT Steak downtown and Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. The former welcomes diners with mitt-size popovers, served piping hot and with their recipe attached; the latter seduces patrons with a skillet of truffle butter rolls that threaten to fill you up before even appetizers show up. Bet you can’t stop at one.

No. 1 crab cake
J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel has much to laud: a sumptuous dining room with ceilings that seem to rise forever, top-notch cocktails, crisp service and perfect lamb chops. Chef Philippe Reininger also fashions one of the city’s top crab cakes ($18, dinner only). Shaped with fresh jumbo lump crab, diced bread and just enough house-made mayonnaise to keep the treasure together, the appetizer perches on an elegant salad of artfully snipped sugar snap peas moistened with zesty remoulade. Garnishing the plate are micro pea leaves dewy with lemon vinaigrette. Bliss in every bite.

Singular steak
By the time I got to Bourbon Steak, I had 10 New York strip steaks from competing restaurants under my belt (and chin). One slice into the 14-ouncer ($54) prepared a la chef Adam Sobel, who recently rolled out a local meat program, rousted me from any cynicism. The source of my immense satisfaction: grass-fed, organic beef from Piedmont Ridge in Maryland. Per the chef’s request, the meat is aged for 50 days, or what Sobel calls “the sweet spot,” then briefly poached in butter before hitting the grill. Tender, succulent and juicy, the primal pleasure comes with a hint of earthiness. Try the role model with snap peas briefly sauteed with ginger, garlic and purple shiso from the restaurant’s own garden.

Star spuds
I consumed a field of potatoes in my search for a worthy partner to steak. The tubers I found myself most susceptible to were BLT Steak’s bite-size potato skins ($8), clinging with flesh and lavished with gooey cheddar and Gruyere, bacon chunks and sour cream in their cast-iron skillet.

Stellar service
John Stauch of The Palm is proof that restaurants are about more than what’s on the table. A presence at this downtown VIP draw since 1986, the Michigan-born, Maryland-reared steak bearer proved the single-most-impressive server of my weeks-long beef odyssey. “I like to treat everyone as if they’re a guest in my home,” he says. During a busy weekday lunch, I admired how Stauch took time to describe his employer’s best assets, reveal the name of the kindest president he ever served (George H.W. Bush, immortalized in one of the many celebrity caricatures on The Palm’s walls) and bond with the cute couple from Alaska who may never be back, but who will certainly remember the reception they experienced here.

Winning wine list
Bourbon Steak makes its fascinating roster of American and international wines easy to navigate, thanks to the careful delineation of grapes and regions on its menu. Selection isn’t easy: Hidden gems and hard-to-find boutique wines pop up throughout the list, at price points ranging from the thoughtfully budget savvy to the statement-making. Among the document’s many attractions are the 2007 Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône — one of the best by-the-glass pours of my tour for $10 — and representation from all the serious West Coast red wine producers. For diversity, consider the 2010 Arizona Stronghold Nachise — from Cochise County, Ariz. After eyeing the list’s premier crus and ripe old Guigals and Beaucastels, including the choice 2006 Claude Dugat Lavaux St. Jacques from Burgundy ($499), my friend the wine maven said, “I hope they have armed guards at the entrance to the cellar.”

Best-dressed (old-school division)
At The Prime Rib these days, the shrimp cocktail smacks of the freezer, and the New York strip steak goes down dull. And yet, I retain a soft spot for the downtown dowager, the subject of my inaugural review as Post food critic in 2000. No other steakhouse summons as much nostalgia and romance as this genteel Art Deco interior, which serenades patrons with live piano at lunch and dinner (joined by a double bass player on Friday and Saturday) and still asks gentlemen to dress the part (loaner jackets are stocked for guys without them). Also: The signature prime rib still rocks.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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