Carnivore Cruise

Side dishes aren't what they should be. (The great steak houses always have great sides.) Fries and garlic mashed potatoes have no character. Partially thawed steamed veggies are inedible.

The two desserts are also weak. Prickly pear cheesecake is all sugar, with no cheese flavor. Tijuana Moose, chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup, seems better only in comparison.

Restaurant-starved Ahwatukee needs a decent steak house. Once this place tweaks its side dishes and dessert, it should fill that niche. Tijuana Country Club won't turn the neighborhood around alone. But it's a start.

Melbourne Steakhouse, 2130 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 963-1243. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

T.S. Eliot once remarked that "talent imitates, but genius steals." A writer who's merely gifted, he suggested, simply mimics his betters. But it takes a brazen genius to have the courage to lift from them outright.

Unfortunately, Eliot's observation doesn't apply to steak-house entrepreneurs. Melbourne Steakhouse's proprietors have clearly spent some time studying other Australian-themed steak houses. They label the rest rooms "Sheilas" and "Blokes," and hang photos of Down Under celebrities in them. The dinner booths each sport a small vocabulary list of Aussie words and their American translations. The menu features dishes with goofy Australian names for familiar American fare: "Wallaby Soup"; "Bushman's Platter"; "Adelaide Ribeye"; and "Wallaroo Chops." Decor runs to reproductions of aboriginal art, crates stamped "Melbourne" and metal crocodiles.

I don't know if the folks behind Melbourne Steakhouse imitated, stole or independently dreamed up the idea of an Australian-themed steak house. It really doesn't matter. That's because the food here shows no genius, and very little talent.

Take the appetizers--please. "Ultimate Onions" are described as a "Down Under Sensation." Right, and I'm Crocodile Dundee. They're just a mound of oily battered onions with a right-out-of-the-freezer-bag taste.

We also sampled an appetizer called Sheep Dip. (There's a name to get your appetite juices flowing, mate.) The menu says Sheep Dip is a blend of two cheeses, artichokes and spinach. I say it's tasteless glop, served in a tiny ramekin. I felt as if I were in the middle of a Woody Allen joke from Annie Hall. One diner complains, "The food in this place is terrible." The other nods in agreement and says, "Yeah, and the portions are so small."

Meals come with either house greenery or a pseudo-caesar salad. There's also "Bunbury Bread." That turned out to be a mushy whole-wheat loaf that had all the essential elements of great bread except taste and texture.

Like Tijuana Country Club, Melbourne Steakhouse prices its beef in the $12 to $19 range. But the similarity ends there. The 18-ounce Georgetown T-bone--it's like a porterhouse, but with a smaller filet strip--doesn't provide sufficient reward for a week's worth of healthful eating. It lacks the beefy punch that otherwise gets me thumping my chest with delight. As I ate it, I couldn't drive the notion out of my head that, for an extra 10 bucks or so, I could have gone to Morton's.

I have no memory of the uninspired New York strip, except that it was a bit dry. Filet mignon wasn't as butter-soft and moist as it could have been. Only the prime rib set off a few of those chemicals in my brain signaling that I was having a good time.

The Aussie Bushman's Platter certainly didn't. This combo of fatty pork ribs and tough chicken breast should be deported. And if a member of your group tries to order salmon, do everything in your power to talk her out of it. It's coated with a sickly sweet bourbon sauce that ruins the fish.

Don't look for much help from the sides. Mashed potatoes, perked up with chives and cheese, were too light and fluffy for my taste. "Melbourne chips" were nothing-special French fries. Rice pilaf was strictly institutional.

Desserts continued the pattern. Neither the cheesecake nor the low-quality chocolate chip ice cream on a cookie-crumb base will make you want to linger.

Melbourne Steakhouse is long on concept but short on execution. I'd suggest a little less attention to the Australian theme, and a little more attention to what's coming out of the kitchen.

Tijuana Country Club:
Stuffed mushrooms
$6.00
Prime rib
14.95
Porterhouse
19.95
Tijuana Moose
4.00

Melbourne Steakhouse:
Sheep Dip
$4.99
Filet mignon (5 oz.)
8.99
T-bone
18.99
Cheesecake
3.95

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