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Wallet World

A friend of mine has a curious pastime. He likes to go out with a large group of friends to pricey restaurants, and, when the bill arrives, play what he calls "credit card roulette." All the guys in his gang put their AmEx Platinums in a pile, their waiter shuffles...
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A friend of mine has a curious pastime. He likes to go out with a large group of friends to pricey restaurants, and, when the bill arrives, play what he calls "credit card roulette." All the guys in his gang put their AmEx Platinums in a pile, their waiter shuffles the deck and then draws cards out one by one. The owner of the last card remaining on the table eats the check.

"The last two times, I lost," he tells me ruefully. "And we were at Drinkwater's. Man, that hurt."

No doubt. Drinkwater's City Hall is one of the Valley's priciest steak houses, with dishes costing dear, like a $12.95 shrimp cocktail, a $34.95 prime rib, and $6.95 creamed corn. The Scottsdale restaurant is a favorite for folks with huge wallets and even larger appetites, diners who don't blanch at tackling a 33-ounce rib eye and full-pound baked potato slathered in sour cream and butter. I've always been amazed at the ability of people to pack away such massive amounts of food -- surely it's just overfed politicians, Scotch-on-the-rocks-at-lunch businessmen, and fat cat execs out on the town abusing cigars and bloated expense accounts.

Except that my credit-card-dealing pal is young, bright-eyed and very healthy. With his trim figure, he certainly doesn't look like the type who indulges in the kind of gluttony found at Drinkwater's. I would wonder, too, how a man of his early years could afford to be so lavish with recreational spending, but then I remind myself -- he is a rising mover-and-shaker in Arizona's ever-explosive real estate market. These developer types can make more money on a single land deal than most of us do in a year.

I do like Drinkwater's, I tell him, but I'm curious whether he's eaten at our town's newest hot steak spot, The Capital Grille. An offshoot of the prestigious D.C. hangout, the Grille opened its doors this April in the Biltmore Fashion Park, beneath the all-you-can-eat sushi emporium Todai. We've already got Ruth's Chris, Mastros, Harris', Fleming's and Morton's within quick driving distance, and an Omaha Steakhouse right next door to the Biltmore. I can't believe that the Valley has yet another fancy chophouse. Do we really need another one?

For an answer, my buddy calls over his boss. We've been lounging at Bamboo Club in Tempe, sipping Sonoma-Cutter Chardonnay and snacking on a platter of crispy crab won tons, coconut shrimp with mustard sauce, pork pot stickers and Cantonese baby back ribs (sure, it's just 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, but I suppose this is a typical workday break for our flush local land moguls). The boss breaks away from chatting with a cute young thing at the bar and plants himself at our table.

"Just heard about Capital Grille. Big-time steak house, brand-new in the Biltmore," my friend says, and the boss lights up with a giant smile. That's all these guys need to know from me -- I'm forgotten in the rubble of vegetarian egg rolls and shrimp-chicken lettuce wraps as they whip out their cell phones and make reservations at The Capital Grille for that very evening.

So perhaps there is room here for another important red meat emporium. At least if it's one of Capital Grille's seductive caliber, and if we're one of the lucky types to pull down a six-figure income. The original Capital Grille, based in Washington, has long been a place to rub shoulders with politicos, and has been written up in gushing terms by Gourmet, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the German edition of Playboy ("Die 10 Besten Steakhauser Amerikas"). Expanding to 16 stores across the nation, Capital Grille has brought along its trademark dark wood, leather and linen tablecloth ambiance, and smooth, professional service. One friend of mine, a guy who obsessively seeks out premium steak houses whenever he's in a sizable city, started sharpening his steak knife as soon as I mentioned that the Grille was coming to our town.

The Grille dry ages its beef on premises, in "state-of-the-art" meat lockers, for 14 days. Steaks are hand-cut daily, generously seasoned and grilled to order in oversize portions ranging from 10 to 22 ounces. Yet all the other super-premium steak places age their meat, too, and serve the custom-butchered beef in huge chunks. They all use the best quality prime grade beef. Meals at most are à la carte, with the same classic he-man stuff on the side such as shrimp cocktail, lyonnaise potatoes, creamed spinach, tomato and sweet onion salad. So is this new Capital Grille worth all the fuss?

Yes, actually, it is. Besides its fine food, Capital Grille radiates swaggering power, from its crisply uniformed servers to the ostentatious breadbasket, brimming with a collection of artisan loafs and lavosh. I can guarantee the high-profile business and social crowd will love the cushy treatment (we're greeted by name -- from our reservations -- and the manager stops by to make sure we're happy and personally provide his business card, as if we're big shots or something). Folks like my AmEx roulette players will absolutely devour the attention.

Meat eaters will swoon over the juicy beef -- it's impossible not to be awed by the sizzling platters, the steaks crisscrossed with grill marks and dressed simply with a sprig of herbs. It's a toss-up as to which cut I like the best, the impressive 24-ounce porterhouse bursting with deep flavor, or the tender 22-ounce Delmonico (rib eye). Though it doesn't take much prompting to turn me toward the sirloin, either, rubbed with peppercorns and drizzled with a velvety rich Courvoisier cream sauce. The veal chop is a signature dish for good reason, too, drizzled with tangy Roquefort butter sauce, and I gnaw another plate of lamb chops to the bone, relishing the crisp edge and cool interior of the four double-cut ribs.

Capital Grille also gets points for not treating diners who aren't in the mood for red meat like second-class citizens. A broad selection of lighter entrees brings the best of the best, like live lobster (broiled, from one to five pounds), grilled swordfish jardiniere, seared salmon with mustard sauce, shrimp scampi over linguini, and a delightful tuna fillet, grilled rare and capped with roasted red potatoes and artichoke hearts. One evening's special of sea bass brings sparkling clean fish paired with scallops and summer vegetables -- fish is flown in fresh every day except Sunday, my server confides.

What really converts me to the Capital Grille craze, though, isn't necessarily meat. It isn't fish. It isn't the succulent roasted chicken, spitting buttery juices when carved. It's the Grille's marvelous appetizers and accompaniments. One evening, in fact, has me bagging up my main dish to take home; I've gotten so stuffed eating starters and sides.

The magic starts with oysters on the half shell, Malpeque models served on chipped ice. A spritz of lemon is all these critters need; they're so silky flavored. French onion soup served bubbling in a crock is golden good; split pea soup, thick with legumes, is fun for its novelty. I'd happily feast on steak tartare as an entree, smitten as I am by the minced raw meat mixed with raw egg and dotted with onion and capers. I haven't enjoyed calamari this much in ages, either -- the secret here is pan-frying, and a mix of hot cherry peppers and scallions. I could very happily eat the Grille's mashed potatoes by the bucket (I don't want to think about how much cream and butter has to be in the recipe), paired with a glorious side of roasted wild mushrooms in natural juices.

And here's a dinner salad that's easily worth $4.95, even if it is just a giant wedge of iceberg. That's because it just happens to be the most excellent, crisp lettuce, draped in robust bleu cheese and sprinkled with crunchy bacon. A simple garden salad is exquisite, each piece of produce picked for its handsome looks and fine flavor.

Simply put, Capital Grille feels as good as it tastes, and the mood is infectious. One evening, I find myself riveted, watching the antics of a neighboring table. It's a herd of tanned, manicured men, still dressed in suits on a Wednesday night, and having way too much fun for a weekday. I've been watching them sip their way through an impressive array of wines, bottles selected from the Grille's circa-300 label collection. Their silver steak knives flash like precious jewelry in the low-lit room, and I imagine that this dinner is a stop between working a perfect job, then going home to a perfect house and perfect wife.

Just being at Capital Grille makes me feel I might be rich and powerful, too, and it's a feeling I really like. Even if, for me, the feeling lasts only until the bill comes.

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