Word that Washington added yet another unit to its steakhouse legion last month prompted more than a few yawns and eye rolls, my own included, around town. Of all the things a food lover could wish for in the city — a first-rate vegetarian restaurant such as Vedge in Philadelphia, a source for modern Moroccan food in the style of Mourad in San Francisco — another place to shell out a lot of money for legal vices is not one of them.
Besides, it seems like only yesterday that I was telling you about the fabulous lamb chops and buttery “chateau” mashed potatoes at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle and the surf and turf possibilities at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab. Relative newcomers to the scene, they also happen to be within a well-aged tomahawk’s distance of the newest arrival, Mastro’s Steakhouse, whose two-level, 400-plus seat restaurant in sundry shades of beef follows M & S Grill on the corner of 13th and F streets Northwest.
Mastro’s, part of a Houston-based collection of steakhouses, lacks the name recognition of its competitors. But it comes to the table with an arsenal of good ideas that set it apart from the herd. In fact, by writing about Mastro’s, I get to address some of the queries diners most frequently send my way:
Where can I go for live music? The new steakhouse offers live vocals every night of the week in the bar, beginning at 6:30.
My guest likes turf, but I prefer surf. The list of appetizers includes raw fish in some fine guises. Ribbons of hamachi brushed with soy sauce and draped along the curves of a bowl like so many petals on a flower is one of several successes. A nest of frizzy onions in the center adds pleasing crunch.
Give me some glam. Mastro’s puts coffered ceilings above your head, thick linens beneath your plates and waiters in white jackets and bow ties beside you. Cocktails the size of kiddie pools are shaken while you watch, and the bread basket overflows with pretzel rolls and garlic crostini so good you find yourself asking for seconds. Ask for shrimp cocktail and a trio of shrimp, plump as Kylie Jenner’s lips, sail from the kitchen, trailed by a plume of dry ice.
Maybe it’s because I spend so much of my life in restaurants, but is anyone else out there tired of being verbally walked-through menus that are as straightforward as Mastro’s? The first 10 minutes of a meal can be taken up by a waiter who wants you to know what’s most popular, how the beef is wet-aged for almost a month, cooked beneath a 1500-degree broiler and served on a 400-degree plate. (One imagines asbestos gloves in the kitchen.) The high cost of a meal here warrants extra attention, but I’m not sure a recitation of the menu is the kind of pampering most customers want.
On the other hand, the restaurant has been so dim on my visits, even at lunch, that having someone verbally review the choices is almost a necessity. Greater illumination lets a diner eat first with the eyes and take in the beauty of, say, a sushi roll that finds crimson tuna and creamy avocado draped over rice and a core of yellow pepper hugging spicy tuna. Heat, fish, citrus: The maguro lime roll throws a party in your mouth.
You’re likely here for steak. The bulk of the corn-fed Midwestern beef is prime Holstein. New York strip is dense, delectable and, like all the cuts here, rubbed with garlic, onion, paprika and more before hitting the grill, where the tangy slab picks up a lovely char. Thick, juicy bone-in rib-eye is its primal equal, although the single best meat I’ve had at Mastro’s is the glossy, fist-size, powerfully delicious, one-pound veal chop. Hot steaks on hot plates make for a lot of sizzle in the first few moments of a meal.
One detail the servers don’t call attention to, but should, is the background of the chef. Rob Klink cooked for 10 years at downtown’s Oceanaire Seafood Room, which accounts for such splashes as his crusty crab cake and baked halibut sporting a nubby coat of Japanese bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and parsley.
Part of the sushi menu, dominos of ruddy tuna sashimi, ignited with slices of jalapeño, deliver pure fish and sharp heat — dynamite, in other words. The wan swordfish, in comparison, makes me wish I had ordered meat instead.
From the boat of creamed spinach to the Idaho-size baked potato, every side dish I’ve tried is shareable, and pleasing to boot. The most decadent of the bunch is fashionable lobster mashed potatoes. There’s no better combination of sauteed seafood and buttery spuds than the one blended at the table with roasted garlic and charred green onions. At $35 a barge, one expects nothing less than perfection. A (relatively) lighter pleasure awaits beneath the folds of a black napkin in a wire basket: a mountain of shoestring potatoes that two of us have no trouble scaling — and diminishing.
Desserts are also colossal. Praised by the staff, the butter cake at Mastro’s is no match for the model at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle, and pecan pie is cloying in the extreme. But Mastro’s Key lime pie, accompanied by clouds of whipped cream, puts me in a Florida state of mind.
“If I can do anything for you, anything at all, just ask,” one overzealous server said not once but three times. (Um, can you pick up my dry cleaning?) The attention at Mastro’s can veer excessive, but one has to appreciate waiters who train for up to a month before hitting the floor.
The competition for beef-eaters in the city is fierce. Mastro’s not only covers all the expected bases, it goes overboard with extras for appetites of all persuasions.
Location: 600 13th St. NW. 202-347-1500. www.mastrosrestaurants.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $12 to $35; lunch sandwiches $18 to $25, lunch entrees $23 to $68; dinner entrees $35 to $68.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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