The Metropolitan Grill

820 Second Ave (Downtown), 624-3287. Lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm, dinner 5-11 pm; Sat 4-11 pm; Sun 4-10 pm.

While there are few things more satisfying than a slab of red meat with a side of potatoes, I think it's important to make the distinction between a steak and a steakhouse.

Steak by itself is easy and familiar: pan-fried at home, barbecued, slathered with A.1. Home steaks are domestic staples--bought fresh and cold and clean, wrapped in stiff butcher paper or pressed against Styrofoam--and they feel retro-wholesome, vaguely nostalgic, and undeniably American, like the sound of a box of frozen peas banging against Formica.

But a steakhouse involves atmosphere and reassurance and a different sort of nostalgia. Once it's served in a steakhouse, a steak arrives with connotations--masculinity, expense accounts, the handsome glow of success. In this ideal world, silverware and linens share equal table space with single malt scotches and cigars. Suddenly beef becomes a fetish: dry aged (more on this later), grilled over designer wood (mesquite, apple wood, etc.), served with solemn ceremony (professional steakhouse servers have no desire to be on American Idol--they are serious about what they do, and they make serious money).

On a recent Friday night, I went to downtown's Metropolitan Grill, and was pleased to find a packed, roaring dining room. (Recession? What recession? Here, meat lovers spend about $40 on entrées alone.) At the Met, chef Mark Hipkiss offers customary 1950s men's-club fare with a few nods to modern Northwest favorites--there is, of course, the ubiquitous seared ahi tuna appetizer, a wild king salmon dish, and various crab dishes--but cows are the headliners here: filet mignon, New York strip, sirloin, prime rib, porterhouse (AKA the beloved T-bone cut), chateaubriand, and veal, flanked by classic sides such as mashed/ baked/scalloped/stuffed potatoes, asparagus with béarnaise sauce, and creamed spinach.

This is excess with a deep voice and thick wrists--huge platters of impossibly rich food carried on shoulder trays, efficient servers gliding around like ships in a harbor, a team of maitre d's overseeing tables. With its plush green carpeting and booths, polished brass, mahogany everywhere, and walls covered with framed VIP photos, the Met's message is clear: This is dining that's sturdy, timeless, stubbornly optimistic. This place is recession/Iraq/PETA-proof. This is the Way Things Used to Be.

My meal started luxuriously, with a Dungeness crab cocktail ($14.95), a generous serving of firm, fresh leg meat arranged around cocktail sauce; and sirloin carpaccio ($12.95), raw in the center and sliced paper-thin, with herb aioli, supple and buttery, the perfect warm-up to the main event. A tomato and mozzarella salad ($8.95), however, was bland and disappointing (which I suppose is what we get for ordering tomatoes in winter).

But the steaks! Enormous and impeccably medium-rare, a filet mignon ($41.95) and a smoked rib eye special ($38.95) were flavorful and nicely salt-crusted, helping to seal in precious juices. Lamb chops ($35.95) were also savory, aided by a mint au jus that seamlessly blended chopped mint with meat stock, resulting in clear, strong flavors. Could we replicate these steaks (especially my gorgeously marbled rib eye, tinged with smokiness) at home? No way. What you're paying for at big-boy steakhouses like the Met, besides huge hunks of highest-grade beef, is the costly dry-age process: beef that hangs out in precisely temperature- and humidity-controlled meat coolers for about a month, so that the beef's enzymes eventually (safely) break down the protein structures in the muscle, resulting in a significantly tender texture and a more complex taste that can definitely be noticed.

Of course we had dessert, and of course it was overkill: The Met's baked Alaska ($16.95) is worthy of Las Vegas Boulevard--pound cake and ice cream covered in tall meringue peaks, dramatically flamed tableside (for a long time) and doused with chocolate-whiskey sauce. But this old-fashioned favorite is more eye candy than anything else, more a tradition than the work of an innovative pastry chef. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but there will always be a man in a tuxedo lighting baked Alaska on fire, and the good lord willing, there will always be steak.

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