Does Phoenix really need another steak house? That's what pops to mind considering the recent arrival of the swank, upscale Donovan's near 32nd Street and Camelback. I mean, if there's anything you can say definitively about Phoenix, other than the temperature of the sidewalk in August, it's that we're one meat-eatin' metropolis. Back in the day, Phoenix even boasted the largest stockyards in the country next to Chi-town. And though that's no longer the case, folks in the Valley don't lack for restaurants wherein they may partake of cow flesh. From Durant's and the Capital Grill to Ruth's Chris and Drinkwater's City Hall, these streets ain't safe for Elsie and her kin to roam.
But there's another reason for my initial cynicism regarding Donovan's: its La Jolla, California, lineage. I've never liked La Jolla, pretentious little boutique village that it is. As with all of San Diego, La Jolla is lush and attractive, but dull as the proverbial doorknob. So the fact that the original Donovan's thrives in its natural habitat and is now in its fifth year there leaves me colder than Johnny Carson's gray-haired corpse.
Nevertheless, the four-week-old Phoenix Donovan's has slowly begun to win me over, though I'm probably at about 90 percent satisfaction right now. First off, the service is very, very good. As you arrive, there's free valet, and a coat check. And from start to finish, complimentary bottled water is poured for you. The first time I went, my waiter was nervous, and overattentive. Maybe he forgot to take his Paxil that day. But on the second visit, I was in the hands of a real smoothie, who never made the mistake of becoming too familiar or watching over my party like a vulture on the make.
The interior decor reminds me of a toned-down version of Larry Flynt's Beverly Hills offices. I used to write for him quite a bit, so I speak from firsthand knowledge. No Tiffany lamps, like back at Flynt Publications. Instead, there are Craftsman-style lamps against the walls where the booths run. The heavy, dark wood all about is similar, as are the Remington bronzes, and the Erté-like figurines. Over here is a faux Rembrandt, and over there, inexplicably, is a life-size, golden sculpture of an eagle. On the box, Rat Pack crooners Sinatra and Dean Martin. And on the big, flat-screen TV in the bar? An ESPN poker tournament. Yeah, ol' Larry would love this place.
Of course, he could afford it, too. With steak entrees running anywhere from $34 to $45, there's no chance of confusing Donovan's with Sizzler. But the rationale for the high price tag, Donovan's might argue, would be in its mantra, "all prime all the time." That is, what you get at Donovan's always is a grade of USDA prime, whether it's a New York strip or a filet mignon. The boast has some merit, because at other restaurants, if it's not labeled as prime, it's probably choice, a step down from the marbling of fat and muscle that you get with prime.
There's more to a steak than just the grade of the beef, though. The most memorable, and flavorful, steak I ever had was in a little Vietnamese-French restaurant in Orange County, California. It only cost me $12, was wrapped in bacon, and had been cooked in red wine. Utterly magnificent! However, the quality of the beef itself probably couldn't hold a candle to what's laid out at Donovan's. On the other hand, I can't say that every steak I ended up trying at Donovan's was as tasty as that one I had back in the OC. Nor were they as cheap.
I sampled four cuts, all prepared precisely as ordered: filet mignon, New York strip, rib eye chop, and veal chop. With each, the seasoning seemed minimal, with just enough to allow the taste of the meat to shine. The New York strip was true perfection, the perfect balance between the leanness of a filet mignon and the marbling of a rib eye. But the veal chop was a real step above, fatty in parts, the muscle tissue bursting with juiciness in my mouth. No wonder I was soon scraping every last morsel off the bone, like some amateur cow coroner.
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Still, I wasn't exactly blown away by the sides accompanying the steaks. Unlike at other chophouses, that serve steak à la carte, at Donovan's, veggies are included, as well as your choice of potato. Thing is, the veggies are pretty basic, just snap peas and carrots. And as for the spuds, my baked potato was a bit dry, and the garlic mashed potatoes were just okay. Not a lot of effort had gone into them, apparently. This would be no great sin were it not for the fact that Donovan's wants the bragging rights to being the best, and that two adults could eat a pretty good meal elsewhere for the cost of one of Donovan's priciest cuts. So when I'm brought bread, for example, I want it to be as delicious as the bread you get at Durant's, instead of the plain, rather ordinary plate of bread that I received at Donovan's.
Despite this, the appetizers were magnificent, especially the Maryland crab cake, the bacon-wrapped scallops, and the seared lamb chops. The crab cake was one of the best I've ever had -- a big, flat patty wherein I could actually see nice chunks of crab as I ate. And just enough creaminess and spiciness had been added to make it more than plain crustacean meat. The bacon-wrapped scallops were big, plump, and with that ham-wrap, exceptional. You get four of them, as you also do of the lamb chops, which had been dusted with cayenne pepper and came with a béarnaise dipping sauce. With appetizers like these, screw the steak, I may just come back to eat starters at the bar.
Desserts were more of an afterthought: a brownie with vanilla ice cream, Key lime pie, crème brûlée, and so on. Not bad, by any means, but not extraordinary, either. Want to get me up to 100 percent satisfaction? Do something unusual, and go old school with cherries jubilee or bananas Foster, prepared tableside, or maybe even baked Alaska. Otherwise you risk being just one more great steak house in a Valley of great steak houses. Not that there's anything wrong with that.