SAM & HARRY'S
-- 1200 19th St. NW. 296-4333. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: lunch appetizers $6.95 to $8.95, entrees $7.95 to $19.95; dinner appetizers $7.95 to $9.50, entrees $14.95 to $26.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $55 to $75 per person.
THIS HAS TO BE THE GUTSIEST restaurant in town. Opening a top-priced steakhouse in the middle of a restaurant recession -- and within a block of the Palm and I Ricchi -- should draw a crowd just to see what warrants the chutzpah.
But it takes more than brashness to bring people back a second time. And Sam & Harry's is doing that too.
New as it is, Sam & Harry's offers old-fashioned comfort, in a sprawl of dining rooms whose decoration takes no risks. The restaurant looks like one of those law offices where I'd guess the lunchers spend the rest of their day: dark wood trim, flowered upholstery, leather furnishings. Only the gigantic paintings of jazz players distinguish Sam & Harry's from a conference room at Arnold & Porter.
As far as the menu goes, it's Morton's, Gary's and Joe and Mo's all over again, though the waiters are not yet so proficient. On the other hand, they aren't yet jaded either.
Beef and booze seem to go together, so along with the prime steaks you can get prime drinks here. You can also get a tableful of guys singing old college songs after those generous drinks take hold. As for the wine list, it is short and sweet, ranging from a reasonable beaujolais at $12 to a glorious pommard at $42, to a separate sheet of even more costly wines. The most original feature of the wine list is that it includes several quarter-bottles and a nice selection of half-bottles.
At the beginning of the meal, a plate of marinated vegetables -- mushrooms, peppers, carrots, onions and such -- is brought, along with a basket of rye and raisin pumpernickel; fortunately, the rest of the meal has more character than these free introductions.
The menu is predictable: appetizers of smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, oysters, fried squid, crab cakes and soup of the day; main dishes of steaks, prime rib, veal or lamb chops, chicken breast, lobster, scallops and grilled fish (you guessed it -- salmon, tuna and swordfish). There are giant salads and more giant side dishes, such as fried onions and Mom's Mashed Potatoes.
As the menu suggests, this restaurant's strength is simplicity. Forget sauces or anything that smacks of cleverness. The cranberry soup with ginger and mint cream would serve better as dessert-of-the-day than as soup-of-the-day. And basil beurre blanc, thoughtfully served on the side rather than poured over the salmon, tastes like a hot buttered lemonade mix.
You can do much better here by sticking to the meat and potatoes. The 24-ounce "dry aged prime porterhouse steak" is a heroic piece of meat. It is not cooked evenly -- parts are singed while others are pale gray -- or seared as well as at Morton's. But it is every bit as flavorful and juicy. The spicy seared rib eye is even better. This beautifully marbled and flavorful piece of beef is coated with a sizzle of spices more restrained than the usual spices for blackened beef, and deeply browned yet juicy and pink inside, accompanied by fresh horseradish. Lamb chops are as good as I have ever tasted, three double-thick ones to an order, impeccably trimmed and crusty from grilling, their meat tasting definitely of lamb. They are topped with garlic butter and a waft of fresh mint, precisely enough. The veal chop too is a flavorful hunk of meat, cut thick and cooked barely pink, as good as veal chops get. But its mushroom sauce adds little more than an irrelevant creaminess and a faint, disconcerting sweetness.
An odd glitch at Sam & Harry's is the roast beef. One weekday evening at 8:30 the waiter said it was sold out; when I found it available another day at lunch, it looked pink and juicy but tasted tired and dry, its brown edges soggy. It made me wonder whether the previous waiter had just been trying to divert me from criticizing it.
Sam & Harry's fish dishes don't nearly equal the meat. Salmon might be perfectly cooked, but the fish has been bland except for a faintly bitter aftertaste. Swordfish hasn't even had that; it tasted blank. Soft-shell crabs, a special one night, were densely breaded in a tough parmesan- flavored armor and deep-fried, as if one hard shell were being replaced with another. As for the lobsters, they tend to run more than three pounds at $14 a pound, and though the meat is sweetly fresh, it has been rubbery. One expects no such flaw in a $40-plus entree.
With such large portions, appetizers might be irrelevant. Besides, they are predictable premium-quality stuff: the usual bland but beautiful jumbo shrimp, pale and pearly smoked salmon that is oddly teamed with raisin pumpernickel, fried squid that has a commendably delicate texture and barely any coating (with zesty tomato relish that doesn't quite match), and the usual raw oysters. There is one standout, however: Sam & Harry's serves stupendous little crab cakes, the lump crab meat barely bound together, studded with capers and seasoned with zest, then saute'ed to a lacy crispness. Their sauce, a crunchy and powerful pink remoulade, is the best sauce I've tasted here.
Even more worthy of attention are the side dishes. Onion crisps taste of well-browned onions and otherwise live up to their name. Mom's Mashed Potatoes are so wonderfully classic they could bring tears to your eyes. And the sliced white and sweet potatoes baked with cream and cheese are a revelation; the sweet potatoes don't taste sweet after absorbing all that cream, and the combination is brilliant matchmaking. Fat french fries called Roadhouse Potatoes are fresh and light with no excess grease, but they haven't the flavor of the other potato dishes. And other cooked vegetables are pedestrian: Saute'ed mushrooms swim in cooking juices, and the asparagus are peeled but not trimmed, so that the ends are stringy. A steakhouse salad fulfills your vegetable needs more appealingly, with its crunchy mix of greens and fresh croutons.
When a restaurant's dressings and sauces are too sweet, desserts are often pushed to proportionately greater sweetness. Thus the pecan chocolate-chip pie is a fierce sugar attack, the double fudge chocolate cake is more like double fudge squared, and while cheesecakes are not particularly sweet, they are so rich and dense that the waiters should consider leaving the steak knives on the table.
So you need to pick and choose here. But to the extent that Sam & Harry's is about meat and potatoes, this restaurant can make every Sam and Harry proud.