Prime Time

— I set out to review a little ethnic "gem" this week, but when my partner and I both came down with food poisoning six hours after eating there, my tummy told me I needed a good old steak -- meaning, a really good aged steak. I'd heard that LG's carried only USDA Prime and dry-aged their Porterhouses on premises. That sounded just right.

LG's Prime downtown is the newest of a chain of four steakhouses founded by Leon and Gail Greenberg in Palm Desert 14 years ago. The other locations are in Palm Springs and La Quinta. Why set down roots in San Diego? "It's just because the owners love it," said restaurant manager, Aaron Rojo.

The spacious room is a mix of carpeting and tile, Naugahyde booths with starched white linen cloths, and lots of wood and windows. It's a plush, modern ranch-house style, without a hint of flocked-velvet stuffiness. And it's quiet. The bar at dead-center has a dropped ceiling, so what happens in the bar stays in the bar. We couldn't hear a word from the diners around us, while the soft ambient music was a feast for my ears, featuring country blues, '40s jive, '50s R&B -- from Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers to Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, and Bobby Bland.

We started with a Caesar salad, sized for two. Since we were a trio -- including regular posse-member Sam, a connoisseur of fine meat -- our waiter sized it for three at no extra charge. The salad is made tableside, and you're invited (actually forced) to interact at every step. Our waiter, Juan, arrived wheeling a stainless-steel cart longer than the booth, a two-shelved miniature kitchen carrying all the ingredients and tools for the operation. Donning latex gloves, he started with four plump anchovies, the quality found in bottles from Italy (not the skinny, hairy-looking specimens typically growing atop a pizza). He mashed them with a fork in the bottom of the big wooden salad bowl, the whole time talking and seeking our approval. Next came the condiments and the yolk of a coddled egg (boiled two minutes to kill any salmonella bacteria). Finally, he swirled in a rain of grated cheese, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Think of it as an anchovy-Parmesan aioli dressing.

"Do you like it stiff, or I can lighten it up with more oil?" Juan asked. We wanted it thick. Fluffing up a white linen towel -- poof! -- he revealed a bowlful of romaine leaves. In went homemade croutons from the bottom shelf, more Parmesan, and presto change-o, we had a genuine Caesar salad. The anchovy flavor was subtle but unmistakable, and the ample quantity of cheese fit right in, without upsetting the balance. "How is it?" Juan asked. "Mmm," I purred, mouth full. "Yeah, it's a lot better made fresh than when the dressing comes from a can," he said. If you want to try it at home, kids, there's a printed brochure on each table that includes the recipe.

Looking over the appetizer list, we passed on the shrimp cocktail (been there) and crab cake (done that) but were curious about escargots Alfredo. More than curious -- I haven't tasted an Alfredo in 20-odd years, ever since the Food Police called it "a heart attack on a plate." We ordered the snails and were offered a choice of preparation: traditional garlic butter or special house Alfredo. "Have it your own way" seems to be LG's' motto; we were given options for nearly every dish. The escargots, served in a steel snail cocotte, ranged from tender to slightly tough (but none rubbery). The Alfredo sauce was scary-rich, but a few teaspoons under six little gastropods let you revisit the forbidden food without drowning in it. The dish came with garlic toast for dipping -- good toast and a good match.

A Portobello mushroom topped with crab offered no optional variations and no thrills. The crabs that LG's uses are a combination of sweet Dungeness and lackluster Snowflake. The crabmeat was served in a thin, red, creamy sauce, decorated with useless carrot curls that replaced the menu's promised sweet red peppers. We all found the taste flat, despite a touch of cayenne.

As you'd guess, multiple choices abound when it comes to beef. The menu offers nine different cuts of steak, plus surf and turf (filet with lobster tail) and prime rib roast. A chart defines each degree of doneness from "Black and Blue" through "Medium Well." It includes the printed warning: "Not responsible for steaks ordered Well Done." As in: "Why bother us if you want to eat your shoe?"

We chose "Jewel in the Crown," a 20-ounce bone-in Porterhouse that's dry-aged on the premises for 15 days. (See "About LG's' Beef" in the box below to learn about meat-aging.) For doneness, we chose "Rare Charred," cool and red in the center, with the exterior charred under the 1300? broiler. It was a truly fabulous hunk of beef -- two inches thick, with tender, well-marbled, full-flavored meat under a dark-brown salt-and-pepper crust. "This meat is more flavorful than what I remember at Morton's or Ruth's Chris," said Sam. Oddly, the flesh was salty all the way through, perhaps a concentration of natural sodium that can develop during dry-aging.

The boneless prime rib roast is wet-aged, so its flavor is less intensely beefy than the "Jewel." The thick-cut (two-inch) meat is nonetheless tender, although our piece was medium-rare (rosy) rather than rare as ordered, and hence less juicy than we'd hoped. The roast comes with the customary horseradish sauce and au jus.

Every steakhouse must include a few bones to toss to non-beefeaters. The featured alternative is rack of lamb (market price), served Midwestern style with old-fashioned mint jelly. I didn't try it, but I know this isn't the kind of place to mess with such new-age fripperies as, say, rosemary- lemongrass crusts.

The other choices consist of roasted chicken breast, fried shrimp, and a couple of fresh fishes of the day (halibut and salmon that evening), baked or "Cajun." "Salmon," said my partner. "Baked." Our fish was purportedly peak-season wild Alaskan King, which, alas, tasted more mild than wild. Topped with dried parsley flakes for looks and garlic-butter sauce for flavor, the fillet was baked with such care that its rose-pink flakes were translucent. Alongside was a ramekin of Hollandaise sauce that stayed liquid as it cooled, even when I stashed the leftovers in the fridge. It finally congealed after 24 hours, but the colloid tasted less like true butter-based Hollandaise than some lemon-spiked "heart-healthy" butter/oleo spread. The same was true of the watery Béarnaise sauce that we ordered à la carte with the steak. Both were clearly made from scratch, but based on weirdly lightened-up recipes -- all in all, not satisfying enough to merit the extra two bucks.

As at all steakhouses, your main dishes contain only a slab of protein. If you want something more, it's a separate order. We chose LG's' creamed spinach, which took some getting used to because the greens were mature and chewy, not the usual baby-leaf purée. Since the thick cream sauce is topped with melted Parmesan, the more we ate, the more we welcomed a firm texture that stood up to the dairy fats. Assorted mushrooms (cremini, oyster, shiitake) came thickly sliced and sautéed with garlic butter, but were somehow less rewarding than they sounded.

The wine list has won Wine Spectator awards, and part of its allure is the inclusion of mature French Bordeaux and California cabernets, some bottled as long as 20 years ago. These cost an arm and a leg, and on occasion all four limbs and a chunk of torso, but their prices are close to retail (compared to the usual 200-plus percent markup) -- probably because this long-established restaurant chain bought them young and affordable, and cellared them until ripe and exorbitant. But there are also decent buys and good quaffs in the $40--$60 range.

The dessert menu is a desert, with outsourced sweets so klutzy I didn't even average them into the restaurant's rating. A thick-crusted key lime tartlet was filled with a substance resembling lime-flavored toothpaste. The best part of the warm apple pie was the "à la mode" of McConnell's vanilla ice cream. The white chocolate macadamia cheesecake was okay, if exhaustingly sweet. But who needs dessert after huge helpings of Prime meat, anyway? Enough is enough!


The only grade of beef served at LG's Prime Steakhouses is Prime -- the top USDA grade. Prime has the most marbling: The meat is crisscrossed with tiny, barely-visible veins of fat, which melt into the flesh as it cooks, lending rich flavor and a tender texture. Your arteries don't want you to eat this every day, but it's a spectacular indulgence.

Each location of LG's has its own in-house butchers. The company buys whole rib-loin beef subprimals -- essentially, the best parts of the top half of a steer. Butchers cut them on the premises and age them for at least 15 days. Most of the cuts are wet-aged, but the Porterhouse sections are separated for dry-aging. The Porterhouses are available on the menu as a fat-rimmed 30-ounce "Gold Strike 49'er" cut ($54.49) and a 20-ounce "Jewel in the Crown" (market price, currently $43.95).

Any aging process tenderizes beef, but different processes change the flavor. Dry-aging consists of hanging the meat uncovered in a temperature-controlled meat locker. Contact with air makes the meat shrink, and its surface dries out until black. As the beef shrinks, its flavors grow concentrated, "beefy," and faintly nutty. Before the meat is cooked, the butcher has to trim off the ugly-looking crust. That, combined with the shrinkage, makes the meat more expensive per pound. Dry-aging also requires a lot of physical space, another reason few meat purveyors still do it. Such beef is now a luxury item, so hard to find that few Americans have ever tasted it.

In wet-aging, large cuts of meat are thoroughly sheathed in air-proof plastic. They, too, are hung in a climate-controlled locker, growing tender -- but without the air and the shrinkage, the flavor grows no richer.

A recent variant of wet-aging is Cryovac-aging, a process that's popular among the meat-cutting and mail-order giants of the Midwest. There, the rib-loins of freshly slaughtered cattle are cut into individual steaks and roasts, vacuum-packed in thick plastic shrink wrap, and frozen. The meat slowly ages inside the frozen pack, often growing remarkably tender but no more flavorful. (In fact, Cryo meats often taste insipid.) When aging is complete, the company ships the frozen meat to the purchasers (commercial meat purveyors, restaurant supply houses, and large restaurants.) The advantage is that Cryovac-aged meats are easier and less expensive to send across the country than beef aged by the other two methods. Happily, LG's doesn't use Cryovac beef, but ages its own meats the two old-fashioned ways.

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