The Capital Grille, Stamford

 

The Capital Grille ★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
Stamford Town Center, Stamford (203/967-0000)

Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 3. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday 4 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $17, entrées $26 to $45, desserts $6 to $7.50.

Take a look at the crowd at The Capital Grille in Stamford on a Tuesday night. Obviously, the place is doing something right. Actually, the Grille, which opened in the new, improved Stamford Town Center this summer, is doing quite a few things splendidly, starting with the reservation process. A real live person, Stephanie to be precise, answers the phone and sounds happy to hear from us. Yes, 7:30 will be great. Would we like a table or a booth?  

Valet parking is free. An easy-to-spot sign tells us where to pull up, two attendants whisk our car away and later fetch it with alacrity. 

Decoratively speaking, Stamford's Capital Grille is English country house with a dash of Austrian hunting lodge thrown in. Large, ornately framed original oil paintings-landscapes, still lifes, portraits-suggest that we are all to the manner born. A ton of African mahogany and rich espresso-brown walls insulate us from the more mundane aspects of reality, but not to worry, the atmosphere is anything but austere. Our waiter has already vouchsafed his life history, a power table of suits is talking ballgame, and a family in the far corner of the room is singing "Happy Birthday" and blowing out candles on a cake.

Kevin, a connoisseur, buries himself in the wine list, and from among 350 offerings comes up with a red and a white he thinks we'd like. He asks for the white to be served at once and the red decanted for serving later. This task, in fact the entire wine presentation, is performed with unostentatious correctness.  

The menu, monumental in more ways than one, leaves no doubt that The Capital Grille is first, foremost and fanatically a steak house. Ten cuts and preparations vie for our attention, every one of them dry-aged on the premises: Kona-crusted, porcini-rubbed, doused with 12-year-aged balsamic, au poivre with Courvoisier cream, and a classic unadorned 24-ounce porterhouse for purists. Who could ask for more?  

But there is more-seafood, lamb and chicken round out the main-course roster and there are appetizers, soups, salads and sides galore. Portions are huge. But isn't that what holidays and steak houses are all about?

Our mission, of course, is to go the distance from appetizer to dessert. Somebody's gotta do it, right? Calamari with hot cherry peppers turns out to be pretty exciting. It's a whisper-light tempuralike preparation, with a fiery after-bite-more than enough to feed four. Crab cakes are are more than crab cakes-in fact, they are studded with good-sized chunks of lobster meat. We're intrigued with The Capital Grille's chopped salad, a lively mishmash of shredded greens, crunchy raw haricots verts and an indefinably delicious vinaigrette-type dressing. Chef's secret? If so, it's a good one.

A hard act to follow? Not with entrées like these. A filmy crust of pulverized Kona coffee mixed with cocoa powder adds a smoky, exotic note to a good, thick sirloin without in any way diminishing its robust beefiness. With each bite we like it more. A mammoth porterhouse seduces us with the tenderness of its tenderloin and proves that a good steak properly aged for three weeks does taste richer. In recent years I've had some namby-pampy lamb, but not here. These double-cut ribs are full of flavor. Swordfish, which I hesitate to order anywhere except off a fishing dock, turns out to be a winner with a firm but not rubbery texture and a sweet, fresh sea taste.

A side of creamed spinach, however, is a downer-more cream than spinach and too salty, to boot. Au gratin potatoes, rich as Croesus, come in a deep oval bowl-too rich, in my opinion, to pair with marbled steak. (I'd order it for lunch with a salad, myself.) Fresh asparagus cooked al dente needs no embellishment so we eat it with only a dab of the hollandaise, which is uninvitingly thin and bland. 

Desserts are house-made, opulent and for the most part familiar. The most unusual is an ice cream sandwich made with thick, chewy, brownielike cookies and chocolate-chip mint ice cream flavored with fresh mint. The usual suspects-flourless chocolate cake, crème brûlée and chocolate mousse cake-appear on the menu, and the waiter lovingly describes a coconut cream pie made with fresh coconut and whipped cream. My favorite is the Key lime pie, stunningly tart and clearly flavored with real Key lime in an old-fashioned graham cracker crust.

From start to finish, we've been impressed with the servers here-as crisply drilled as West Point on parade. They step lively, describe every dish in detail, make intelligent suggestions and, if pressed, admit their personal preferences. At the end of the meal, our waiter gives us his business card.

Time to assess the game. We're glad we came, and I now why a lot of people feel the same: The prices are fair, the food is for the most part splendid, the service outstanding. In short, you'll have a capital time-with holiday shopping right next door.

The Capital Grille, Stamford

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