Butcher Bloc

Harris', 3101 East Camelback, Phoenix, 508-8888. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Is Phoenix ready for more prime time?
The operators of two new steak houses, featuring pricey, top-of-the-line, prime-graded beef, certainly think so. They've recently set up shop a few blocks apart on pricey, top-of-the-line, prime Camelback Road real estate.

One is Harris', a highly regarded San Francisco operation taking its first expansion step. The other is Omaha SteakHouse, the first restaurant spin-off from Omaha Steaks, the well-known mail-order steak company.

It's a competitive field--Valley carnivores have several prime-beef options. Two national steak-house chains, Ruth's Chris and Morton's, already target money-is-no-object beef lovers in the Camelback corridor. Local landmarks like Don & Charlie's, El Chorro Lodge and the Pink Pony have their loyal fans. And many tony resorts and gourmet restaurants, while not classic steak houses, also offer prime beef on their menus.

But although the field is crowded, it's a long way from being saturated. To steak-house investors salivating over the favorable demographics, the Valley is still a field of dreams: Build it, and they will come.

That's particularly true for the high-end steak-house segment. While beef consumption is way down--Americans are eating only half as much per capita as we did 25 years ago--this narrow restaurant niche is thriving as never before. In a twisted way, it makes sense: Since we don't eat beef nearly as often as we once did, when we do eat it, we want the very best. And it doesn't take more than a bite or two to determine that Harris' marvelous steaks are among the Valley's top cuts.

Harris' doesn't have a typical steak-house atmosphere. Don't come here looking for bourbon-and-water masculine clubbiness--there's no sports-themed art, no wood-accented, polished-brass feel. Instead, Harris' is subdued, almost feminized. The walls are decorated with calming paintings of cactuses, and calming music is piped in from the lounge, where a tuxedoed pianist deftly plays the standards.

Female diners have picked up on it. On both my visits, half of Harris' customers were women, a far higher proportion than you'd find at its competitors. I suspect Harris' non-beef menu items, which include chicken, fish and pasta, also contribute to their comfort. The point was driven home after I ran into a female friend here, a calorie-counting vegetarian who'd normally rather dine at Chernobyl than eat at a steak house. Not wishing to spoil the beefy yearnings of her group, she gamely agreed to eat at Harris'. The vegetarian platter certainly made it easier for her to acquiesce.

The meal builds slowly. Bread crisps and a port-wine-cheese spread are the first nibbles you'll encounter, followed by a basket of fresh bread.

Don't linger over the pricey appetizer list--it's not where you want to fill up or lay out a disproportionate share of your dining dollars. The "traditional" onion soup means it's not French style--no bubbling cheese, no crouton. It's a serviceable broth, no more. Lackluster buttermilk-battered onion rings don't make much of an impression, except an oily one on your fingers. The smoked-salmon plate is a better bet, featuring lots of silky smoked fish teamed with capers and hard-boiled egg. Salads are the best pre-steak option. Caesar salad is well-done, right down to the anchovies. So are the baby greens with caramelized pecans. Go ahead and splurge on the extra $1.75 for a sprinkling of Roquefort cheese--you'll hardly notice the cost by the time you add up the bill.

But Harris' isn't about onion soup, smoked salmon and salads, or chicken, pasta and vegetarian plates. It's about beef. And the beef is superb.

There are no shortcuts here. Harris' has its own butcher. The meat is dry-aged on the premises for about three weeks, an expensive process that elite steak houses have pretty much abandoned. (Dry-aging means hanging beef in an open-air refrigerated meat locker.) These days, steak houses tend to use the less costly "wet" or Cryovac-aging process. Is one method better than the other? No, not really; it's a matter of taste. Dry-aged beef is more likely to have a firmer texture and a somewhat stronger flavor.

Do your own taste test. Harris' signature steak is a bone-in New York sirloin, about a pound of beefy flavor. Like all the beef here, it's grilled over mesquite, and it's astonishingly juicy. At $32, you'd expect great things from the porterhouse, and it delivers. It's probably the best steak here, an invigorating 22 ounces of animal protein. The filet mignon reaches the same heights. Here, perhaps, the differences between dry and Cryovac aging become apparent. Not only was this filet optimally tender, it had much more flavor than you usually find in this cut. Pepper steak isn't in quite the same class as the others. It features a rather small boneless New York strip, crusted with a bit of pepper.

If you're looking for a beef alternative to steak, look no further than the prime rib. Harris' 24-ounce executive cut on the bone is the best piece of prime rib in town. It's mesmerizing, a thick-cut blend of taste and texture that will get all your primal juices flowing.

Unlike its major competitors, Ruth's Chris and Morton's, whose side dishes are an expensive a la carte option, Harris' side dishes come with dinner. But, frankly, I'd rather pay and get better ones. Roasted rosemary potatoes have some flair; so do the garlic mashed potatoes. The scalloped potatoes, baked potatoes, vegetable medley and creamed spinach ($4 extra) are simply innocuous.

Desserts, however, are simply scrumptious. By going light on the appetizers, you may have room for these house-made beauties. Creme fra”che ice cream coated with a port-wine-berry sauce and surrounded by mini-palmier cookies is an exceptionally refreshing way to finish off. Chocolate mousse is rich and velvety. And the chocolate amaretto cheesecake is outstanding--thick, heavy and intense.

There is one drawback to Harris'. Once you discover how exceptional dry-aged prime beef is, you're likely to be spoiled forever. For high rollers and the expense-account crowd, of course, that's no problem--they can eat quality steaks whenever they choose. But how can budget-challenged beef lovers find a way to pay the tab? My plan: Bankroll a visit by turning off the air conditioner for a couple of days. Harris' is worth sweating for.

Omaha SteakHouse, Embassy Suites, 2630 East Camelback, Phoenix, 553-8970. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Omaha Steaks began selling its prime-grade steaks by mail almost 50 years ago. Business has been good, so good that the company recently decided to open its first restaurant outlet, in the lobby of the Embassy Suites hotel, adjacent to Biltmore Fashion Park. Why Phoenix? I was told that mail-order sales are particularly strong in our beef-crazed town.

I remember the first time I had an Omaha steak, long ago at the Malibu home of a friend's well-heeled parents. I couldn't decide which was more stunning, the opulent setting or the grilled beef.

These days, however, I'm a great deal less impressed by Malibu pretensions and somewhat less impressed by Omaha steaks. I suppose my verdict will sound like damning with faint praise, but I can't see any way around it: Omaha steaks are excellent, but they don't rise to the level of Morton's, Ruth's Chris' or Harris'.

Appetizers, however, are wonderful, especially the sherry-tinged French onion soup and the powerful lobster bisque touched up with brandy. Crab-stuffed shrimp is a $10 extravagance, but undeniably tasty. So are the garlicky fried artichoke hearts filled with crab and cheese, moistened by a tangy lemon beurre blanc. A salad fashioned from tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil in a balsamic vinaigrette has basic appeal.

It's not quite fair to talk about "shortcomings" when discussing Omaha SteakHouse's prime beef. But when you're paying between $20 and $27 for a piece of meat with no side dishes, there's really no room for imperfections.

First, portion size. The server said the Chateaubriand for two was a pound. Maybe, but only if she put her thumb on the scale. My partner and I each got three thin slices of beef that couldn't have come in at more than a quarter of a pound. The tenderloin itself was first-rate, but what kind of steak house sends its diners home hungry for animal protein after they've downed a Chateaubriand?

Second, texture. Whether it's the rib eye, New York strip or porterhouse, the steaks here lack the dazzling combination of firmness and tenderness that defines the beef at other top spots.

Third, beefiness. Except for the juicy New York strip, the flavors here aren't quite as hard-hitting as they are at the competition.

The a la carte side-dish spuds are also nothing special. The only distinction of the cottage fries--mammoth roasted potato wedges--is their gargantuan size. Lyonnaise potatoes derive most of their flavor from salt, not fried onions. The "shoestring" potatoes turned out to be ordinary French fries. Only the asparagus with hollandaise sauce got us beaming with side-dish pleasure.

Desserts are made elsewhere, a subtle sign that Omaha SteakHouse isn't prepared to sweat all the details. Upper Crust Bakery (the supplier, I was told) is certainly reliable, but its triple chocolate cake, fruit tart and carrot cake don't match up against Morton's chocolate Godiva cake, Ruth's Chris' whiskey bread pudding or Harris' chocolate amaretto cheesecake.

Omaha SteakHouse looks to be in a bit of a squeeze. It's priced with the big boys, but can't quite keep up with them in quality. And while its steaks are far superior to those at budget steak chains like Austins, Outback and Lone Star, it can't compete with them on price. What a dilemma: On the one hand, it's not quite good enough; on the other, it's not quite cheap enough. This is not a niche that restaurants can afford to occupy. Let's see what Omaha SteakHouse plans to do about it.

Filet mignon
Prime rib

Omaha SteakHouse:
New York strip
Chateaubriand for two


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