Sizzle Shtick

Desserts are the weakest part of the meal. Most of the sweets aren't made in-house, and they have an institutional look. The pecan pie, for instance, is strictly routine. The homemade raspberry bread pudding needs a punchier vanilla sauce.

The after-dinner espresso was so wretched, we complained. The waitress apologized and said the machine was not reliable. But if the machine isn't working right, it should be shut off before customers start squawking.

Carvers is already a first-rate steak house, a place that will satisfy all beefy cravings. With a little tweaking, it could turn into something even more formidable: a first-rate restaurant.

Austins, 3636 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 675-9085. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Is there anything to distinguish Austins from most of its steak-house rivals, like Outback Steakhouse and Lone Star Cafe? Not that I can notice.

Austins is a chain outfit out of Nebraska, serving exactly the same kind of food, in exactly the same kind of setting, as just about every other chain steakhouse in America.

Can you be a restaurant designer? Take this simple test.
1. Hanging on Austins' walls are
a) Picasso reproductions from his "Blue" period
b) photos from the Robert Mapplethorpe collection

c) cutesy stuffed animal heads: a fox with glasses, a deer with a football helmet, and a buffalo head with a "No hunting" sign around its neck

2. To make customers feel at home, management pipes in
a) chants of the Benedictine monks
b) Dr. Dre
c) twangy country music
3. Every television set in the room is tuned to
a) Benny Hinn
b) scrambled signals from the Playboy Channel
c) whatever is on ESPN

The food is just as predictable as the decor. It's not bad at all, especially the meat. It's just indistinguishable from the competition's.

There's nothing very creative or compelling about the appetizers, the usual assortment of dips and deep-fried munchies. You're better off filling up for free on the fresh biscuits--they're even better once you coat them with Austins' honey butter. The soup or salad that comes with steak dinners is also a reasonably effective way to deal with hunger pangs.

The meat is impressive, most of it Angus beef from Nebraska. Platters hover around $15, but you can get smaller cuts, like a six-ounce, center-cut sirloin for $9.95, or massive cuts like the 30-ounce porterhouse for $25.95.

The 18-ounce T-bone is the best choice: sizzling, beefy and juicy, with just enough resistance to put your jaws pleasantly to work. The House Steak isn't too far behind. It's a 14-ounce rib eye encrusted with pepper and spices, served on a hissing iron skillet. This preparation is somewhat offbeat, but it works. Prime rib also presses the right carnivore buttons. It's a thick-cut slab, notable for its deep flavor, satisfying texture and lack of gristle. In comparison, however, the 11-ounce New York strip seems rather ho-hum, lacking both beefy wallop and juicy tenderness.

Nobody in the kitchen is working overtime on the side dishes. Mashed potatoes are decent enough, as long as you can keep the cook from ladling on the horrendous gravy. French fries and rice pilaf taste like they came out of a 50-pound bag. The assorted steamed vegetables seem to be seasoned only by Austins' ventilation system. Your best bet is to fork out an extra $1.25 and spring for the twice-baked potato, an honest-to-God spud covered with a glop of orange cheese.

Don't bother lingering for dessert. There's a very sweet chocolate brownie that comes with a scoop of second-rate vanilla ice cream. The lackluster cherry cobbler might be homemade, as the menu says, but "homemade" isn't necessarily a synonym for "high quality."

Like most corporate restaurants, Austins has a goofy tale on the back of its menu. The heroine is Sadie Austin, who says things like, "I'll open me a roadhouse and it'll be a Nebraska beef, 100%, true blue, all-American, star-spangled, best-in-the-world roadhouse! (No Australians need apply.)"

However, in small type at the very bottom of the page, you'll find the true story. It reads: "Austins Steaks & Saloon, Inc., is a publicly traded company. NASDAQ symbol: 'STAK.'"

My advice: Buy stock, and eat at Carvers.

Smoked-chicken sausage
$4.95
Grilled rib eye
16.95
Prime rib (12 ounces)
17.95
New York strip
18.95

Prime rib (12 ounces)
$13.95
House Steak
15.95
T-bone steak
16.95
Brownie sundae
3.

95

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