* (1 star) Old Homestead Steak House
7501 Wisconsin Ave. (at East-West Highway), Bethesda. 301-654-2006 www.theoldhomesteadsteakhouse.com
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Metro: Bethesda. Parking garage. Prices: lunch appetizers $6 to $11, entrees $11 to $37; dinner appetizers $6 to $18, entrees $19 to $95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $80 to $95 per person.
Steakhouses are now about as numerous as Jersey barriers around Washington; throw out a T-bone, and you're likely to hit one. With few exceptions, however, they all seem to stick to a similar script. The interiors tend to be big and dull. The wine lists tend to be big and overpriced. Almost all of them offer similar cuts and side dishes -- creamed spinach, hash browns and mushroom caps -- in portions so abundant they appear to have depleted entire fields and forests. Consequently, each one looks for any advantage it can brandish to distinguish itself from the lot and say, "Pick me! Pick me!"
The Old Homestead Steak House has some nice age on it: The New York original traces its roots all the way back to 1868. While the spinoff in Bethesda (there's another in Atlantic City) doesn't veer far from the classic steakhouse repertoire, the restaurant acknowledges the 2000s with a handful of entrees that feature designer Kobe beef.
A sense of history is helpful. And keeping current is a smart idea. Yet the detail that keeps me enthusiastic about the Old Homestead is the staff. Memorable service has not yet gone the way of the rotary telephone, but it sure is a rare treat these days. The employees at the Old Homestead -- the gracious receptionist, the server, the sommelier and the busboy -- act as if they all really care about a diner's pleasure, and they know their food. When you inquire about the oysters, not only are you told the names and where they're from, but what they taste like. Is the $41 Kobe burger really worth its price? my pals and I wanted to know. Our waiter took a diplomatic approach. At 20 ounces, it was big, he said, but probably more notable for its texture than its flavor.
To squeeze the most pleasure out of this restaurant, you'll want to soak up the service and bask in the company of a few good dishes -- the signature rib steak is a winner -- because the design is not anything you're likely to spot in Architectural Digest. The problems start with the Old Homestead's minimal signage and awkward location (in the far corner of a Chevy Chase Bank building), and continue inside. The front bar looks makeshift, a cross between a tiny airport lounge and the dairy aisle of a supermarket, thanks to a silly, life-size "cow" above the counter. Meanwhile, the sprawling dining room is broken up into so many nooks and crannies, you feel as if you're eating in a hallway or a cubicle. One way to avoid the eyesore is to sit outside; the Old Homestead is one of the few meat markets to offer alfresco dining.
A waiter is likely to ask whether you'd like a breadbasket or the chef's "planked" bread preparation. If you bite at this gentle sales pitch, what shows up is akin to Lincoln Logs -- oblongs of garlic toast -- neatly stacked atop a warm pool of Parmesan cheese sauce. It's satisfying, in a Hungry Man sort of way. So are the oysters Rockefeller, generous with spinach, cream and hollandaise; and the fried calamari, a light golden batter clinging to tender white rings. Even if you order just a few oysters on the half shell, they are presented on a big, raised metal tray of shaved ice; the oysters, if a bit thin at this time of year, are delicious. I like the crisp croutons and assertive dressing in the Caesar salad, but not the powdery cheese topping. And the kitchen's tuna tartare only reminds me how cliched that appetizer has become, while clams casino is less about seafood than heavy, damp topping.
Most likely, you're here for the beef. The restaurant prides itself on serving prime, dry-aged meat, but what I found on my plate didn't always strike me as either prime or dry-aged. Though it was cooked just as I'd requested it -- red, but warm in the center -- and had a delicate crust, the porterhouse for two was surprisingly restrained in flavor, a $75 disappointment. Similarly, juicy as the bone-in Kansas City steak was, my fork favored its turban of lacy fried onions.
The Old Homestead's flag-waving on behalf of Kobe beef left me scratching my head. Making a hot dog with Kobe beef is a waste, like sticking Pavarotti in the chorus. This novelty item is obscenely long and flanked by thimble-size "tater tots" that are made in-house. Don't fall for the joke. Even the beef on its own can be disappointing. Succumbing to curiosity, I ordered the Kobe beef burger, medium rare. What I received was a patty the size of a meatloaf, cooked to a shade of gray and with no more savor than a truck stop burger. (So the waiter was right. Too bad. ) To its credit, the staff noticed how little I ate of it and took the charge off my bill.
You don't have to eat beef to fill up here. The kitchen serves a roseate rack of lamb that is big enough, and luscious enough, to last through tonight's dinner plus tomorrow's lunch and a midnight snack, and there are several seafood main courses, too. Ha-libut covered in damp potato slices was woefully overcooked, but swordfish, cut thick and kept moist beneath a sun-dried tomato sauce, was as succulent as one could wish, and dressed up with a thatch of fried leeks.
Lunch entrees include a starch or a green, but dinner entrees need to be rounded out with an a la carte side dish. Creamed spinach is rich, hash browns are golden and soothing, and asparagus is nicely trimmed and cooked to retain some snap. Avoid the sweet potato "fries," which turn out to be enormous fingers of underbaked orange tubers, and the bland whole mushrooms.
With the exception of a dense and creamy cheesecake from the Carnegie Deli in New York, desserts do not provide a good reason to stick around. The "yodel" tugs at this boomer's nostalgia strings, but must it be so dry? Creme brulee sports a burnt sugar crust as dense as a manhole cover, while the Key lime pie needs more tang in its filling. The most fanciful finale is a little silver-colored tree sprouting hand-dipped truffles -- and carrying a $25 price tag. It's fun, but not that much fun.
Typically, I depart a steakhouse toting a lighter wallet and some meaty leftovers. At the Old Homestead, I found myself exiting with some nice service stories -- and free hands.
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Want to hear a positive story about parking? Justin Gray of Washington was only minutes into an evening at Oya (777 Ninth St. NW; 202-393-1400) when one of the restaurant's valet parkers let him know he had a flat tire. "Don't worry," Gray said the employee told him. "We'll change your tire. Go ahead and enjoy your meal." And so he did. Returning to his car after dinner, Gray found a fresh tire and "a trunk that was cleaner than when I arrived," he told me in a phone conversation. Nancy Koide, one of Oya's owners, confirmed the good deed. "We're particular about service," she says. And you don't have to suffer a flat tire to appreciate the parking program at Oya: The servers are trained to ask customers who are finishing dessert if they've parked cars there, in order to have the vehicles ready and waiting when it's time to leave.
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