Posted On: 02/01/2012
Kelly English Steakhouse
Harrah’s St. Louis, 777 Casino Center Drive, Maryland Heights, 314.770.8100
You’d think the last thing this city needs is another steakhouse. But what’s a casino without a classy, meat-driven restaurant to lure in the big winners and a few losers seeking solace in a large, juicy New York strip? After the demise of Range Steakhouse, Harrah’s is banking on celebrity chef Kelly English to add a bit of down-home Southern grits to the Vegas glitz of the Maryland Heights casino with his new Kelly English Steakhouse. Given that food is often a bigger draw than slot machines – in Vegas anyway – it’s not unusual for celeb chefs to attach their names to casinos. Nationally, Harrah’s alone has contracts with Kerry Simon, Bobby Flay, John Besh, Paula Deen, François Payard, Guy Savoy and Michel Richard. At 33 years old, it’s safe to say the baby-faced English is the youngest among these heavy hitters. But he also has the street cred to hang with the big boys: After training in New Orleans with Besh, he opened Restaurant Iris in Memphis, received Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef award in 2009 and was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast a year later.
English and Harrah’s renovated the old Range layout, expanding the space and nearly doubling the seating. The two dining rooms look expensive, fitting for any high rollers happening by. Dark wood coffered ceilings, linen tablecloths and elegantly appointed tables complete with hefty flatware, engraved wine glasses, and well-upholstered chairs all make for handsome rooms. In the back dining room, large Dr. Seuss-like ceiling fixtures dangle like deconstructed yarn balls made from shaved balsa wood, emitting a soft, amber glow. Step up into one of the roomy booths, and you’ll find an expansive table so wide it’s like trying to talk across a pool table. In the background, classic jazz dots conversation.
English updates the classic American steakhouse with flourishes of his Louisiana roots and the region’s Cajun and Creole influences. The usual suspects are all here – shrimp and grits, redfish, bread pudding, soft-shell crab – but more interesting are the Southern touches given to old steakhouse standbys as seen in a strip steak stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese, and a pork chop filled with Cajun dirty rice. About that chop … it came from a happy pig raised in Myrtle, Mo., on Newman Farm. English makes it a point to source as much meat and produce as possible from local producers. While quite tender and seared to a proper medium-rare, the meat’s flavor wasn’t as porky as one would expect from pasture-raised pork. Sadly, the rice was served next to the chop, not packed inside it, as advertised. The rice itself had all the funkiness of the classic chicken liver-laden dish, only more so; the intense fusion of flavors proved too much for one dining companion.
A 16-ounce monster bone-in rib-eye had the crunch of a good char on the outside and was marbled, if not riddled, with fat inside. A dollop of herbed butter added yet another layer of fatty lipids. There are also two filet mignons (an 8- and 12-ounce), prime rib and a mammoth porterhouse. The rib-eye may be the most flavorful of the bunch. In the company of such cuts, the inoffensive 8-ounce filet mignon seemed almost lean, though it was fork-tender and buttery in flavor. There’s no aggressive seasoning here, just simple salt and pepper will do for these Missouri grain-fed steaks. Steak-sauce-lovers, if they must, can choose from five house-made sauces. The bourbon au poivre and bordelaise are both concentrated and deeply flavored but – like the béarnaise, hollandaise and Creole mustard butter – superfluous to good meat.
Meat entrees come with a house salad of vibrant dark and light greens, tomato, cucumber and marinated onion (Go with the house-made Sherry vinaigrette.) and your choice of side. Both the wedge salad and the “salad” of Brussels sprouts contain morsels of bacon as smoky, thick and layered as though chopped from an unctuous slab of pork belly (It comes from Allan Benton Farms, a Tennessee country ham and bacon farm English uses exclusively.). The sides can be pretty good, too. Spinach “Madeline” (creamed spinach) is buttery and creamy with hearty slices of fresh baby spinach and a kiss of fiery heat to make it interesting. Mashed cheddar and Parmesan potatoes are chunky and spiked with piquant horseradish; the green beans are tender, emitting a slight smokiness.
In addition to the well-marbled, there is plenty of lean protein to try, including salmon, soft-shelled crab, sea bass and a redfish that bucks the Cajun spicy blackened version popularized by Paul Prudhomme. English sticks to the kinder, gentler Creole method – one of mild yet judicious seasoning and pan searing that complements the mild taste of the firm fillet. Smashed new potatoes supported the fish and a good dousing of a buttery sweet crawfish sauce capped off the dish.
As an appetizer, the lobster “knuckle sandwich” is worthy of attention: a slice of toasted baguette topped with thick pieces of glistening lobster meat with a tangle of tarragon, warm peeled grape tomatoes and microgreens accenting the pretty picture. A half-dozen fresh Gulf oysters – big and brackish – arrived with three sauces, mini bottles of Tabasco, a bowl of saltine crackers … and no oyster fork. Nor was there one to be had.
The selection of wines by the glass caters to those looking for familiarity, featuring wines readily available in any supermarket. It’s a disappointing, overpriced and forgettable list. During one visit, there was nothing spectacular about the bread service except for the house-made pimento cheese that I’d be happy just smearing on saltines (Was that an onion hamburger bun in the basket?). On another visit, the selection was better, boasting fresh-made, warm, crusty bread.
I worry when I see wine glasses engraved with a restaurant’s name; to me, it conveys an over-emphasis on trademarking a name. Harrah’s is certainly capitalizing on English’s celebrity status, and even though his contract calls him to be on-site half the time throughout the year, there is the risk of the chef over extending himself between Memphis and St. Louis. Kelly English Steakhouse will, like any casino restaurant outside of Las Vegas, never be a destination for the non-gaming diner; at this point in the game, there simply isn’t enough “wow” factor to justify the excursion to a sprawling casino, trolling through acres of parking and walking forever just for a good steak. And that’s the biggest gamble of them all.
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