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Silicon valley steakhouses


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#1 Max

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Posted 22 August 2005 - 07:54 PM

Iíve searched, slowly, for a solid steakhouse in that area. Not hoping for New York or Chicago or Texas, mind, but if possible, something a little interesting. Below are experiences from 10 prospects, eight briefly and two in detail -- one "bad" (Grill on the Alley) and one "good" (Spencerís).


The Black Angus, aka Stewart Anderson Cattle Company, chain, when opening in western states in the 1970s, seemed an above-average formula at moderate prices. It survives (unlike many concept restaurant chains, characteristic of 1970s area dining by the way, that faded nearly or fully). But by the 1990s, visits to the Sunnyvale Black Angus brought indifferent meats almost grimly served. Some neighborhood steak houses, also moderate, draw regulars, but visits found no special angle. Cattlemanís in Sunnyvale (Ross Drive off 237), Mister Steer in Santa Clara, Blakeís on San Pedro Square in downtown San Josť. The Outback chain opened a location in Cupertino a decade or so ago and I thought it gave decent value. The forced "Gíday" Aussie theme intruded though, and orders were chaos in the hands of very young employees once or twice (havenít visited in some years).

Moving up a little in my opinion, The Garden City, famous card club at Saratoga and Stevens Creek, was known as much for its steak/chop restaurant as for gaming and scandals, 10-15 years ago. I never went for cards, but enjoyed a couple of outstanding steakhouse meals in middle 1990s. (Kitchen was simpatico: learning that my companions agreed to bone-in steaks not just for flavor but to leave me leftovers for stock, kitchen provided with the "doggie" boxes some well-done Prime Rib ends that enhanced the broth.) But the scene evolved; recent reports discouraged revisit. A friend favors Sundance [Mining Company] in Palo Alto, which I thought decent, noisy; sort of a 1970s look (and name; in fact "Established 1974") -- reminiscent of Black Angus when that chain was new. Forbes Mill in Los Gatos, a large bustling place, offered broad wine selection a year ago, highlighting nearby Santa Cruz Mountains producers (Ridge, Cooper-Garrod, Ahlgren, etc.) Such a place by the way can be as expensive as any "high-end" restaurant, when all is tallied. There I got a fine piece of meat and the hobgoblin of steak houses, hokey side dishes. Fresh vegetables accompanied the "ŗ-la-carte" steak, but the "wild mushrooms" dish looked mostly ordinary cultivated buttons and the "pilaf" was an institutional parboiled-rice mix, lukewarm. The bťarnaise sauce came, after a second request, late and cool, but was the right stuff, we must count our blessings. (One chef who knows sauces was badly disappointed dining at the Santana Row Left Bank, for example, receiving a hollandaise instead, from a server who then argued with him that it was a bťarnaise.)


Lately, High Concept steakhouse chains are a growth segment in US restaurant business. In-flight magazines are thick with advertisements for them ("Locations in Denver, Houston, Miami, ..."). A little of this has come to silicon valley, as follows.

In the late 1990s a "Grill on the Alley" replaced Les Saisons (an old-style French restaurant) in the Fairmont Hotel, downtown San Josť. The remodeling laid on, with a heavy hand, Old-Fashioned Hard-Boiled Steakhouse Look. Green-shaded bankerís lamps in the dark leather-covered booths, Cole Porter music, "Hand-Stirred Martinis" neon window sign, separate Martini menu. After it had been open for some time, a visit found inconsistency. My steak was cooked very wrong, and unflavorful; companionís tournedos were fine. Second visit half-year later yielded decent dishes for three of us but my porterhouse, ordered medium rare, came seared outside, completely raw and cold inside. (Youíd get that if you cooked steaks by time, but the time was set for steaks at room temperature and this one was from the fridge.) Andrew Trice has said that cooking steaks to order is tricky in a general kitchen, but this place specialized in them. Oddly, when I mentioned the uncooked steak to the waiter, he acknowledged it and vanished, never to be seen again, deepening the error. (I didnít pursue it and the steak wasnít fully wasted -- the stockpot again.) Evidently Sheila Himmel of the SJ Mercury News and other commentators were lucky and missed this facet of the Grill, but two gaffes in a row (and failure to correct one of them) argued a restaurant out of control, warning me away.

Spencerís, in the San Josť Doubletree Hotel (off 101 at SJ airport) is a Hilton concept that opened there in 2004. I heard of it soon from locals, going actually to enjoy California wines from the broad list. This list has a continuum of prices and is dominantly California. Very many wines are also available by glass, thanks to a large wine-bar cooler-dispenser that preserves partial bottles. So the venue is also a wine bar (de facto if not de marketing). Iíd been by it once before to meet someone in the hotel, the lobby then full and bustling, steakhouse to one side, friendly-looking sunken bar-lounge and sushi bar nearby. Open Table (www.opentable.com) takes reservations.

On a recent Saturday the near-empty hotel parking lot underscored that itís a business hotel, getting most of its guests weeknights. Likewise the steakhouse, which had a fair crowd by mid-evening but was not nearly full. The staff we talked to were sharp and solicitous and seemed well-trained. Temporary sommelier Scott Casey, filling in from Arizona, was very helpful, offering details and tasting experience with the wines. He said that he grew up with European parents enjoying wine at meals, and took to wine professionally fairly young. This gave him a depth of insight, obvious on our visit (much harder to get if you come to wine later in life, I think). It also equipped him to deal tactfully with occasional brash wine collectors who like to mess with restaurant wine professionals (an occupational annoyance).

We took our time, to pace things out and try multiple courses. First "crusty" onion soups. These came in individual one-liter tureens covered with thick layers of mixed melted cheeses. Mindful of food coming, we sampled the cheese layers, but treated them as lids. The soup had an herbed, lightly sherried broth and plenty of onions. Better balanced, to my palate, than the Left Bank soup formula (so sherried or brandied, itís cloyingly sweet). After a pause to digest, we ordered steaks and side dishes: broiled beefsteak tomatoes, mushrooms, almond rice (the server warned of large portions for some items and, following his advice, we asked for a half order of the rice, which was about right). We ordered different steaks (which Spencerís broils) and shared them. My porterhouse was fine and well cooked. My intrepid dining companionís rib-eye (house specialty), though, was outstandingly flavorful, Iíd order it on a future visit. With these steaks came small salads and the side dishes. The rice was rice, mushrooms indifferent; tomatoes were very ripe, seasoned with fresh basil shreds, but covered, like the soup, with heavy melted cheese -- not what Iíve gotten elsewhere when the menu said "broiled tomatoes," but easy enough to remove. Another, long, pause later, for dutyís sake we finally tried a dessert course, the apple "pie." This staggeringly deep-dish assembly had thin crusts filled with flat dried apples and a few raisins, not overly sweet, and arrived flanked by a blob each of ice cream and heavy, lightly sweetened whipped cream. This dessert could serve three.

Actually you could make a pretty good meal from any two of Spencer's soup, a salad, and the apple "pie." Or just the "pie" by itself, with coffee or tea. Especially if you donít have the hours we allocated to this. (Of course, in such premises it may be hard to resist trying a steak.) In this one visit we thought the service solid, steaks excellent, side dishes adequate, and that it would be worth going back just to get that soup or "pie" once more. It was the best experience of those here.

#2 jschyun

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 04:19 AM

Lovely writeup as usual.

almost grimly served

hehe

Have you tried Birk's Steak and Chop House? I think it's somewhere near you. I have heard some good things about it. Also do you know if Sundance the Steakhouse is related to the Sundance Mining Co. you mentioned? Just curious.

#3 Lee Surlees

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 04:29 AM

Hope Max doesn't mind, but I'll respond to Joann's question. Sundance Mining Co. and Sundance Steakhouse are one and the same. They changed names several years ago. I haven't been in years, but back in the late '70's & early '80's, when it was the Sundance Mining Co., it was probably the best steak & lobster house you could find south of SF. I kind of got away from that sort of menu over the years, but I do remember many a wonderful evening at Sundance. (Max...our local roots are showing again!!)

#4 Max

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 11:11 PM

Thanks Lee for the Sundance info. My business card from them says one thing, their Web site says another, their domain name yet a third. One restaurant though.

Have you tried Birk's Steak and Chop House?† I think it's somewhere near you.† I have heard some good things about it.


Birk's came up also on another (very ancient) forum I posted to. I have not tried it for steaks and probably should. In the 1990s, Birk's established itself as the "new" hip power-business-lunch venue for silicon valley: among other things, siphoning some of the high trade from Lion and Compass in Sunnyvale (securely established in that role in the 1980s). I can testify that those places did attract senior and historic personalities of silicon valley, as well as a few of us mere diners who were there for the chow. Birk's set itself up as a Mesquite grill rather than "steakhouse" but I'd like to try it for steaks also. And Alexander's.

In fact I was back at Spencer's again already. They had the house-specialty rib-eye ("Spencer steak") on the bone this time, rather than filet. Damned if it wasn't one of the best pieces of beef I've ever had in a "steakhouse." Better than the first visit there, reported above. Onion soup was oustanding again also. (That was "dessert.")


By the way, jschyun --

Lovely writeup as usual. 

almost grimly served

hehe

-- that's very kind of you. I'm not sure if it factored into the "hehe," but since you seemed to like that, below is my original 1995 comment on that steakhouse, simplfied in the recent 10-steakhouses note above. This was posted to a slightly ancient, and long-gone, food forum we both contributed to (BARG):

... what Matt Kramer, when he was writing about food in Portland, termed a compromise between "break-the-wallet" and "break-the-tooth."  But I've been to this one in Sunnyvale a few times in the last five years and been consistently disappointed.  Indifferent meats formulaically, almost grimly, served.



#5 jschyun

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Posted 24 August 2005 - 11:38 PM

Thanks Lee Surlees and Max! I'm always looking out for steakhouses because of the company I happen to keep these days. Thanks also for the info on Spencer's as well. As it happens I've stayed at that hotel before and the food was not bad, but didn't think to eat a steak there.