Venue Review: Sullivan's Steakhouse
Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to tonight's featured event, a scheduled 10-round bout between two beefy new contenders for the title of heavyweight steakhouse of the Triangle.
In this corner, wearing dark wood paneling, is Sullivan's Steakhouse. Named for the great American bare-knuckle champion, John L. Sullivan, this upscale venture of the Lone Star Steakhouse chain burst onto the scene in August, setting up home turf in downtown Raleigh.
In the other corner, also sporting mahogany, is J. Gilbert's Wood-Fired Grill, a prot"g" of the Houlihan's chain and namesake of the chain's co-founder. Gilbert's has been quietly working the Cary circuit for almost two years.
At the opening bell, both combatants come out tentatively, testing each other for weaknesses. Sullivan's leads with a hot location on Glenwood South. Gilbert's counters with ample parking, but Sullivan's is quick to respond with valet parking. Round one goes to Sullivan's.
In the second round, the steakhouses open up and begin to show their styles. Both welcome diners with a deluxe and emphatically masculine feel, starting with well-stocked bars and pricey cigars. And both surround you with dark wood paneling, frosted glass and bronze statues. Where Sullivan's casts that bronze in the form of a cigar-chewing bulldog candleholder on each table, though, Gilbert's molds it into Remington statues of bronco busters atop half-height divider walls.
The macho statuary is symbolic of larger differences in style. Sullivan's is evocative of the era when its namesake wore the heavyweight title belt whose replica is conspicuously displayed in the foyer and industrial magnates chomped on fat cigars as they downed prodigious slabs of red meat. Now the cigars are confined to the bar and private dining rooms, but the tradition of conspicuous consumption has been revived in the large, open (and noisy) main dining room, whose walls are adorned with floor-to-ceiling wine racks and ranks of black and white photographs of John L. Sullivan and his contemporaries.
Gilbert's takes a more contemporary approach with a subtle Southwestern flair. Brawny faux stone columns and dark wood partitions provide the requisite masculine ambience and divide the space into cozy rooms suitable for a quiet business discussion. Except for bare tabletops (Sullivan's scores here, with white linen tablecloths), Gilbert's would also be a suitable spot for entertaining clients, or even romance. The judges are split between Gilbert's quiet privacy and Sullivan's see-and-be-seen dazzle; round two is a draw.
When the bell sounds for round three, Sullivan's comes out swinging, with a barrage of appetizers. Gulf coast oysters on the half shell are plump and briny, attractively presented over crushed ice in a scalloped glass dish. A quartet of extra-large shrimp dazzle, their tequila-lime marinade played off against a translucent honey-tinged sauce. A Caesar salad large enough to share boasts a dressing with assertive anchovies and an ample drift of shaved Parmesan curls.
Without warning, Sullivan's stumbles, serving up chewy fried calamari. Gilbert's swiftly seizes the opening and moves in with shrimp Durango, featuring six extra-large shrimp (for about the same price as four at Sullivan's) in a rustic ancho chile butter punctuated with diced tomatoes and fresh basil. After a minor slip - an average Caesar salad with dense, chewy red chili croutons (although bonus points are awarded for chilled plate and fork) - Gilbert's comes back with a flurry in the form of warm, golden homemade potato chips topped with melted Maytag blue cheese. Round three is another draw; looks like we have a real battle on our hands as we head into the meat of the contest.
The main event:
Both restaurants serve certified Angus beef, but they handle it differently. Sullivan's scores points by buying large primal cuts and butchering them into steaks in-house, a time-consuming practice that few steakhouses (including Gilbert's) can boast nowadays.
Gilbert's counters with an impressive feat of its own: grilling steaks over live mesquite coals, a technique that offers less control than the steakhouse norm of gas broilers, but rewards the effort with a distinctive smokiness. The Gilbert's grill cooks have apparently mastered the technique, because the steaks are consistently within a shade of the ordered temperature.
You'll get your steak just as you ordered it at Sullivan's, too, where searing beef over 1,800-degree gas flames quickly seals in juices. In the final result, the only significant difference between these two approaches: steaks are slightly smokier at Gilbert's, slightly juicier at Sullivan's.
Both restaurants offer half a dozen or so steak cuts, covering the usual territory from filet mignon to strip steak. Gilbert's offers a $17 sirloin steak for the budget-conscious, and Sullivan's serves tenderloin brochette for a couple dollars more. At the other end of the scale, both serve a whopping 24-ounce porterhouse, and Sullivan's kicks in with 20-ounce bone-in Kansas City strip (a k a New York strip). Whatever cut of beef you prefer, neither restaurant is likely to disappoint. For sheer show-stopping heft, the offering at Sullivan's - such as a 12-ounce filet that's as tall as it is wide - is slightly more impressive. By the slimmest of margins, round four goes to Sullivan's.
Even in a steakhouse, not everyone eats steak. Sullivan's aims to satisfy them with a traditional list that includes lamb chops, smoked pork chops, tarragon chicken breast with portobello mushrooms and a hefty veal chop with a showy frenched bone, drizzled with jus. For seafood lovers, the list includes an entr"e portion of tequila lime shrimp, an eye-popping tuna steak of roughly the same proportions as the 12-ounce filet, and cold water lobster tail that'll fire up your Platinum card to the tune of 50 bucks.
The nonbeef selection at Gilbert's is longer and more varied, a contemporary American menu with several of its dozen listings marked by a Southwestern accent to match the d"cor: chipotle-glazed grilled salmon with corn and black bean relish, molasses barbecued pork chops, fire-roasted chicken with red chile onion rings and a vegetarian dish of mesquite-grilled vegetables with roasted corn polenta. Herb-marinated tuna, a ä-inch thick steak as big as your hand, is fresh and succulent, topped with crisp threads of fried leek. By mixing up its punches so well, Gilbert's takes the round.
The bell for the sixth round rings, and both contenders bring out the side dishes. Sullivan's sticks with the steakhouse tradition that brought it this far and includes nothing but bread and butter with the price of an entree. Each side dish (creamed spinach, saut"ed mushrooms, onion rings and au gratin potatoes are all winners) sets you back another four bucks or so, a blow that's softened by the fact that they're all large enough share with one, two or three other diners.
The price of a steak at Gilbert's, on the other hand, includes bread baked at Neomonde, choice of au gratin or excellent salt-baked potato and a fresh vegetable. A recent dish of broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese kale with a mild crunch and an appearance between broccoli and asparagus, is evidence that the brash kid from the Southwest has some fancy footwork in this area. Round six to Gilbert's.
Sullivan's looks tired in the seventh round. Crme bržl"e for two is velvety under a crackly glaze of burnt sugar, but the crust on deep dish apple pie is barely cooked, so pale and doughy it's a surprise it ever made it out of the kitchen.
Gilbert's takes the opening and fires off a one-two punch of crumb-crusted blackberry-peach cobbler and a sinfully dark and moist tri-layer confection called chocolate velvet cake. Gilbert's is on a roll and takes the seventh round.
Calling on reserves of strength reminiscent of the marathon bouts of the original Sullivan, the Raleigh steakhouse responds to the eighth bell with a barrage of blows in the form of one of the area's most extensive wine lists. The 400-plus label list is especially strong in cabernets and red Bordeaux, including several labels with prices in the three and four figures. Those not wishing to drink away their children's inheritance, however, will find ample selection priced in the $30s and $40s.
Gilbert's 100-label list would hold its own against most others, but it's rocked back on its feet by Sullivan's, which wins the round going away.
Sensing a weakening of its opponent, Sullivan's pursues its advantage with an exceptionally knowledgeable and efficient wait staff whose only significant flaw is overeager salesmanship (such as, when asked for a wine recommendation and shown a bottle under consideration, suggesting almost exclusively wines that cost twice as much).
There's no such pressure at Gilbert's, where service - while not as thoroughly trained as at Sullivan's - gets the job done pleasantly and unobtrusively. A slight edge to Sullivan's in round nine.
In the final round, it's time for the weary battlers to crunch numbers and put a price on a steak dinner. In a head-to-head comparison of a dinner for two consisting of Caesar salad, 16-ounce New York/Kansas City strip steak with two sides and dessert, Gilbert's finishes strong with a $72 tab, compared to $87 at Sullivan's.
The bout has been a real crowd-pleaser, and it couldn't have been closer. The final tally gives four rounds to Gilbert's and four to Sullivan's, with two rounds a draw. Since the tie-breaker states that the most important single part of a steakhouse dinner is the steak. round four is given double weight, and Sullivan's is declared the winner. There, amid a swirl of celebratory cigar smoke in the bar, chants of "Bring on Ruth's Chris" can distinctly be heard.