Deliverance came at the end of dinner at Steak 44, by way of a memorable and tasty dessert. Nearly everything else up until then, during my initial visit, had been a disappointment.
Located in the former Cork 'n' Cleaver site at 44th Street and Camelback Road, Steak 44 is the latest addition to the Mastro family dynasty of restaurants, a more casual sibling to Dominick's Steakhouse, opened in 2011 in the Scottsdale Quarter. The ambiance is clubby and stylish, with polished dark wood, tables topped with crisp, white linen, and some nice top-shelf touches like properly chilled salad forks and a warm towel at the end of the meal. Topflight service involves a staff of servers and a headwaiter with a more-than-passing knowledge of his wine list. The overall effect is of a tony bar with above-average dining rooms grafted on. I lucked out on my second visit and was seated at a wide-windowed booth far from the kitchen.
The menu here mirrors Dominick's in many ways, offering traditional but pricey steakhouse fare: USDA grade prime cuts, wet-aged for 28 days and butchered in-house. Chef Geoff Baumberger's signature spice rub and nicely charred crust elevate standard cuts of meat, but elsewhere, Baumberger either under-spices or over-auces his food.
On that first visit, I was promised warm herbed Parmesan rolls, which (20 minutes later, when I asked after them) arrived piping hot in a cast-iron skillet. They were gorgeous, light, and fluffy but somehow were completely bereft of any distinctive flavor. Starters also were neatly presented but largely unexciting. The beet salad is lovely to look at, its red and gold beets carefully arranged and dotted with goat cheese and a nice crunch of pistachios. Yet these sturdy ingredients, tossed in a lightly sweet dressing, lack any real pizzazz. Panko-encrusted fried deviled eggs also combine several elements and temperatures that somehow result in an oddly humdrum whole. The crab and avocado stack, one of the more exciting-sounding starters, turned out to be yet another simple affair, heavy on avocado and crispy wonton, with very little shellfish flavor.
I can never resist meatloaf on any menu, but at Steak 44 I found myself wishing I had. The dense, thick-cut loaf was made from ground ribeye, filet mignon, and pork, none of which I could properly taste thanks to an overpowering, super-salty bordelaise sauce. The bordelaise worked better with the bone-in short rib, which was nicely charred and offered a deeper flavor. Chicken Francese was tender and lightly sautéed in chardonnay and lemon butter.
It's ironic and disappointing that an upscale steakhouse wins big with seafood entrées and falls so flat on steak. An order of New Bedford sea scallops, cooked in white wine, were tender and buttery with a crisp char on the outside. Maryland style lump crab cakes had a nice crunch, too, and were moist on the inside and snappy with Old Bay seasoning.
But I came here for steak. The 12-ounce ribeye filet was served more rare than the medium-rare temp I'd ordered -- and a bit chewy, besides. With very little marbling, the wet-aged cut was good but didn't have the richness or depth of flavor one expects from such a prime cut. It, and a similarly lackluster bone-in filet mignon I ordered on a subsequent visit, was saved by Baumberger's distinctive, paprika-rich spice rub. But at these prices (between $37 and $54), I want steak that's great, not just good and nicely spiced. A restaurant with the word "steak" in its name should not serve a bone-in veal chop better than its filet mignon. Steak 44 does.
Side dishes, all served à la carte and each enough for two diners, were also hit-and-miss. The best among them included the no-nonsense creamed spinach; breadcrumb-crusted mac and cheese, made with provel, mozzarella, and cheddar, was another excellent traditional. A pair of petite baked potatoes, crammed with all the usual fixings, was crispy-skinned and hard to beat.
But mashed potatoes proved gritty and under-salted. Roasted sweet potatoes were a better bet, sticky with bourbon sauce and sugary marshmallow. A friend who's never much impressed with anything raved about the corn creme brulee, but I found that a crust of burnt sugar doesn't improve a ramekin of cream corn. It just makes it sweeter. And crunchier.
The dessert that saved the day was a rich red velvet bread pudding, layered with cream cheese and warm white chocolate with a scoop of vanilla gelato melting over the side of the dish. On a subsequent visit, a fresh-from-the-oven butter cake dripping with vanilla ice cream and strawberries was also sublime. But a cookies-and-cream sundae proved over-ambitious: puddled with hot fudge, its excess comes from popcorn rolled what might have been a decadent finish to an already-lacking meal.
Great steakhouses pride themselves on solid wine lists, and Steak 44 gets that right, offering high-end vino as well as strong mid-range reds served at appropriate temperatures. But I came to Steak 44 looking for a magnificent hunk of meat; in the end, a nice piece of chicken and a good bread pudding weren't enough.
Steak 44 5101 North 44th Street 602-271-4400 www.steak44.com
5 p.m. to midnight Saturday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to midnight Friday Bar open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Corn crème brûlée Beet salad Ribeye filet Red velvet bread pudding