VALET PARKING HAS COME to Rockville Pike. And that tells a lot about Oscar Taylor. It offers more than you need in just about every way. The porterhouse steaks weigh 20 ounces, the slice of carrot cake is a full pound. You get so much service that by the end of the evening you have probably talked to the waiter more than you have talked to your mother in a month.
If Walt Disney had ever set his designers to do a suburban restaurant, they probably would have come up with Oscar Taylor, which has branches in Phoenix and San Diego as well. This 10,000-square-foot restaurant has a giant bar-lounge ( Singles World), private one-table rooms (Newlyweds World), spacious dining areas with mock-Renoir murals (Grownups World) and deli cases filled with fresh meats, fish, bakery goods and take-home salads (Family World). Every decorative material known to man, it seems, was employed here, from flowered wallpaper to dark wood, from carpet to tiles on the floor that create the aura of a butcher shop and remind you that this is a steakhouse. It is a theme park for carnivores.
As such, it has all kinds of surprises. The soup is served in a hollowed-out roll; the bread basket has at least four kinds of rolls; the onion rings are in that modern-day form, the fried onion loaf; the french fries curl from having been julienned in a food processor -- and both are admirably grease-free and crunchy.
"Is this your first time?" asks the waiter, and you expect him to give you a Visitor's Guide to Oscar Taylor. He does give you a pitch about everything, and tells you how much everything weighs (jokes about calories abound at this point).
The drinks are well made, though the pina colada looks a little disconcerting with what the waiter called "blue kirsch" swirled through it, and the bloody mary tastes like pure worcestershire sauce. The wine list is small and uncommunicative, but the prices are reasonable -- Fetzer barrel selection cabernet sauvignon at #15, for example.
The rolls, which come first, ought to have more texture since they are homemade, but they are fresh and crusty. Next, appetizers: Don't start with clam chowder if it is available, unless you just can't resist eating your soup from a roll. It was thick and tinny tasting when I tried it, and a misrepresentation of Oscar Taylor's kitchen. Even clams on the half-shell one day tasted well past their prime. The barbecued shrimp are better, juicy and tender in a moderately fiery rosemary and garlic-spiked sauce. Potato skins are enough for a meal, laden with cheese and bacon -- as gooey as any nachos you might ever have had. You could also start with several of you sharing a Garbage Salad, which is one of those terrific all -American inventions of shrimp, salami, provolone and parmesan cheeses, sunflower seeds and lots of diced vegetable in a tubful of greens But Oscar Taylor should work on it's dressings, which have the consistency of undiluted canned soup but not nearly so much flavor.
It should also learn to sear its steaks, for they are fine, well marbled and aged prime meats carefully cooked. But they would be much improved by a more crusty surface. The veal chop -- pale, milk-fed meat cut thick and cooked to the faintest pinkness -- gets it crustiness from a cheese batter coating, which doesn't do much for the flavor of the veal. The hamburgers -- large, fat, juicy and lightly handled -- came out more flavorful from the grilling. The meat I didn't like was the highly touted barbecued ribs. They were served in an impressively large portion, yet didn't have much meat on the bones, and the meat itself had a soft, dull texture and its sauce little character.
But Oscar Taylor is as much a fish grill as a steakhouse. If you hit it right, the fish can be excellent. Mesquite-grilled salmon was cleanly fresh tasting, moist and smoky, though its hollandaise was vapid. And blackened fish -- grouper when I tried it -- may not have been authentic in its method, but tasted juicy spicy and just plain good. Another day, however, the swordfish had an odd texture that was so soft it seemed to dissolve. In any case, its flavor was fine but it disappointed. And crab-stuffed shrimp tasted greasy and a little tired.
Oscar Taylor cooks vegetables nicely -- fresh squash or spinach or a mixture of chunky fresh vegetables. But too often they are in a cream sauce that at its best is a dead ringer for canned cream of celery soup; one day it even tasted burned. There are tossed salads, homestyle applesauce, good coleslaw, baked potatoes or potatoes au gratin that are most notable for their half-inch thick layer of cheese on top.
The dessert tray is hard to resist, since it displays every flavor and color of the rainbow, many teamed with chocolate. That carrot cake is a good nutty moist one, though you feel a little silly tackling a pound of the stuff on your own. There is also something our waiter swore was called "To Die For Chocolate," and while I wouldn't go that far, it was a terrific pudding-textured fudge wedge. But beware of anything very green or very pink or layered with an inch or two of whipped cream or mousse. It is likely to be super sweet and without enough character to be worth breaking whatever resolution it disrupted. Too many of these homemade desserts seem meant to impress more than to taste good.
Lest that sound like Scrooge in Disneyland, let e sum up Oscar Taylor: Much of its food is good, all of it is generous and little of it is overpriced. Above all, Oscar Taylor has a spirit of fun.