In the world of steakhouses, there are two distinct types. There are the family style restaurants with casual settings and, often, for some reason, peanut shells scattered about the floors. These are your LongHorns, your Lone Stars and Outbacks, among others.
Then there are the high-end steakhouses, with no peanuts on the floor or in the pricing. In this category you’ll find the Del Frisco’s, Shula’s and Ruth’s Chrises.
Some of these restaurants fall under the same corporate umbrella – Lone Star and Del Frisco’s, for instance – sort of like Toyota and Lexus.
But just as luxury cars brands have their lesser models (a Lexus ES350 is basically just a Camry), so too the luxury steakhouses. Think of them as the low end of the high-end meateries. Or a third category: not casual enough to be a family restaurant and without the quality to be considered top-notch.
There are three restaurants that I would put in that category based on my previous experiences: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar; Palm Restaurant; and the Capital Grille. The dinners I’ve had at these restaurants in the past have been OK but not good enough to justify the hefty price tags. I thought it might be time to check back to see if there have been any changes, especially in light of Darden Restaurants buying the Capital Grille (and getting LongHorn Steakhouse in the deal).
I don’t know if the new ownership had anything to do with it, but the Capital Grille was the most improved among the three, and that includes service and overall experience as well as the steaks.
And what steaks. I had the Delmonico ($40), basically a bone-in ribeye, that was had a flavorful, well-seasoned crust and beautiful red center. The higher fat content of the cut made it juicy and tender.
My companion chose the Kansas City sirloin ($40), offered as a special on the night I visited. Also a bone-in cut, the steak had a characteristically coarser texture but was cooked just as perfectly as the other and was every bit as flavorful.
So here’s the surprise: Capital Grille serves steaks graded USDA choice, not prime, although you wouldn’t know that from the pricing. Just as with luxury cars there are quality levels within each meat grade. And to demonstrate the vagaries of the USDA grading system, we move to Fleming’s Prime Steak House, where the meat grade is in the name.
But here the New York bone-in strip ($42.95) was tough and loaded with sinew. It was an aerobic exercise just to chew it. Prime rib ($27.95) was a laughingly thin cut of meat. This is not the sort of thing a fine steakhouse would serve.
The prime rib ($39) at the Palm Restaurant in the Hard Rock Hotel, on the other hand, was a shockingly immense slab of meat. And despite its size it was through and through medium-rare and about as tender a piece of prime rib I’ve had in recent memory.
The bone-in New York strip ($48) was good but not as impressive as the prime rib. The Palm also serves USDA prime, and all three restaurants cook the steaks in broilers.
Service at Fleming’s and Capital Grille was good. Previously at Capital Grille the servers were intrusively friendly; they seem to have toned it down a bit without sacrificing quality. The service at Palm was aloof and perfunctory.
The atmosphere at Palm is the least upscale of the lot. The bare floor is just begging for peanut shells to be tossed on it, and as with all Palm Restaurants, caricatures of national and local celebrities are drawn on the walls. It’s a casualness that belies the money about to be spent.
Capital Grille is classier and decorated more along the lines of a stereotypical steakhouse, with large portraits that evoke chairmen of boards. With an open kitchen and full restaurant it can be noisy.
Fleming’s was quieter, mainly because the restaurant had few customers. The atmosphere is more modern and sufficiently upscale.
But I can’t recommend Fleming’s, not with the poor quality of the meat. I’ll gladly recommend Palm for anyone looking for prime rib.
And I’m pleased to give Capital Grille my full endorsement and welcome it into the pantheon of the upper echelon of steakhouses. It’s a good choice, if not a prime choice.
The Palm is located in the Hard Rock Hotel, 5800 Universal Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner nightly. This link will take you to the Palm Restaurant Web site. The phone number is 407-503-7256.