Cafe Reviews

In Charm's Way

"Darling," whispers my companion.

Alas, the endearment is intended not for me but for the restaurant in which we are dining, Annie's Steak & Pasta Company. This pretty little place looks a bit like a country-lodge sitting room and serves a cuisine reminiscent of the old-fashioned steak-and-spaghetti houses of Omaha, Nebraska. Frankly, Annie's is darling.

While sexist generalizations tend to get people in an uproar, the truth is that Annie's primary virtue is its feminine appeal. Crocheted lace curtains, trellised room dividers, hanging plants, bright tartan accents, lots of intimate booths, small-portion options and immaculate bathrooms make up that appeal. Also, while I can't vouch for universality in this matter, our very polite and enthusiastic waiter looks as if he's stepped right off the pages of the "Men of ASU" calendar.

The only caveat necessary amidst all this pleasantness is a firm admonishment to keep culinary expectations in check. The food isn't bad, but neither is it much more than ordinary. About the best that can be said is that the price--which includes salad bar, crusty bread and attractive side dishes--makes Annie's a good value.

My guest and I start off with the salad bar and an appetizer of tomato bread. This is a clean, fresh and modest little salad bar, not an appetite killer, and it features crisp vegetables, an assortment of tasty salad dressings and especially good, heavily herbed, marinated beets. The tomato bread is sort of a semi-ornate, open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, with its melted cheese and sliced tomatoes on two ample slices of garlic bread brushed with olive oil and herbs.

As for main dishes, there are a half-dozen varieties of broiled steak and the same number of pasta presentations. Add a few chicken dishes, shrimp scampi and a fish of the day, do some mixing and matching, and you've covered the menu. What is especially nice is that the steaks are available in small portions (filet mignon comes as small as a six-ounce cut), and the side-dish option of pasta versus potatoes is appealing.

While the menu does not indicate the grade of beef served at Annie's, it's safe to assume that it is something short of prime. My guest's New York strip puts up a bit of a tussle with the knife, but is flavorful, juicy and cooked to the requested degree of doneness. Interestingly, while spaghetti is a specialty here, my guest's crisp-skinned baked potato ultimately proves the superior accompaniment.

It's the pasta that's a bit of a problem at Annie's. Again, we're not talking awful, just ordinary. My dinner, the Pasta Trio, is lots of spaghetti with one meatball and three forgettable sauces: clam (a peppery, white cream sauce version that's too pasty); house special (a homestyle ground beef and tomato sauce with canned mushrooms); and marinara (an ersatz rendition with red wine that's the tastiest of the lot, but which is wasted on a meatball that has the consistency of wet papier-mache).

To Annie's credit, the portion is extremely generous. And when I remark to the waiter that I really like only one of the sauces, he immediately offers to bring more of it. But if it's a marinara meal you're in the mood for, you'll do better at almost any authentic Italian restaurant in town. Annie's homemade desserts seem of a piece with the rest of the culinary effort. We try some zucchini cake that takes itself a bit too literally (it's chock-full of chopped zucchini pieces), but is at least fresh and moist. Perhaps the cheesecake or the rum cake might make a better choice. In all, despite the somewhat less than captivating culinary performance, I'm inclined to give Annie's Steak and Pasta Company a recommendation. For one thing, the service, right down to the polite and attentive busing help, is stellar; for another, the price is eminently attractive and fair. Most of all, though, Annie's is charming to a fault.

Why, a feminine someone might even be tempted to call it darling. If steak and pasta can be parlayed into an appealing combo, why not steak and fried rice? At first glance this might seem to be the very notion behind Pearl's, where Cantonese cooking and charbroiled steaks share equal billing on the bill of fare. Unfortunately, the experience does not work that easily.

For some reason, Pearl's two cuisines are saddled with equal-but-separate status. If you want a steak, your accompaniments are a salad, a dinner roll, corn on the cob and a choice among French fries, baked potato or, if you're feeling especially cross-cultural, white rice. If you opt for a Chinese combination plate or family dinner, you simply do not have any options that come by way of the charbroiler.

Naturally, it's easy enough to work your way around this bamboo curtain by sharing with your fellow diners. But the fact that Pearl's does not itself directly promote such togetherness is, however, an important insight into the culinary effort here. Ultimately, Pearl's atavistic what-Americans-will-eat attitude mars not just the spirit of global gastronomy, but shows up poorly on the plate as well. To put it bluntly, Pearl's serves the sort of Chinese fare that found an American following in the 1950s. By risking little flavor beyond soy and salt, by jacking up the fat level in fried foods, by concentrating on ingredients like celery and canned mushrooms and by coating everything with thick cornstarch sauces, places like Pearl's originally provided a risk-free introduction to Oriental cuisines. But nearly forty years of growing consumer sophistication have created a powerful demand for freshness, authenticity and nutritional consideration, and have largely passed Pearl's by.

Hence, there's really not much point in a close analysis of specific dishes. This is a restaurant in which Cashew With Barbecued Pork and Meatless Subgum Chow Mein look and taste alarmingly similar. Part of the reason is that Pearl's emphasizes low prices over quality, so the discovery of some of the namesake ingredients in meat preparations can take on the characteristics of a hunt.

Ironically, Pearl's does serve a decent steak at a fair price ($6.95 for a complete New York strip, rib eye or T-bone dinner). Our strip is lightly marinated in a soy-based dressing and, while a little less than tender, is flavorful and moist. The overcooked corn on the cob, the packaged dinner roll and the wet baked potato all seem a little sorry, but the steak is definitely the best part of our experience.

Service at Pearl's is ingratiating, if not particularly effective. Our happy and sweet young waitress continually acknowledges our drink order without ever actually filling it. At one point in the meal I attempt to chide her by asking if she usually brings the soup before the main course.

"Not when we're busy," is her cheerful response.

To be fair, Pearl's is busy. Not really much more than a box of a room with mirrored walls, peach tablecloths and artificial flowers, there's a bustling, crowded, upbeat feel to this place, at least on the Saturday night I visit. And the place does smell good. Who's to say? Maybe this 1950s stuff is more appealing than I realize. Perhaps Pearl's is really the Chinese Ed Debevic's.

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Steven Weiss