Palmy Days

Would you believe the Gaslamp has a new steakhouse? Duh! The ever-spreading Palm has taken root here. The chain's 30th location caused a stir when it opened, with celebs and local politicos flocking to the place at lunch -- probably to check out their caricatures on the walls. I've heard little since but have remained curious. Despite my "I don't do chains" stance, I felt compelled to find out why this outfit was such a success story.

The Palm first opened 80 years ago on Second Avenue in Manhattan. The founders -- a pair of Northern Italians -- served the food of their native Parma. Somehow, the restaurant name "Parma" was mistranslated and ended up as the Palm, and despite the original orientation toward pasta, newspaper reporters and cartoonists who frequented the eatery begged for steaks at dinner. So the restaurant evolved into a steakhouse, to the point of acquiring its own wholesale butcher to ensure consistent quality.

Entering from J Street, look right to a handsome wooden bar with an old-timey look and a casual dining room with large-screen TVs tuned to sports channels. Among the wall art is a local masterpiece: a large Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the wages of sin. The restaurant is to the left of the entry, and like the bar area, the atmosphere is masculine, with more caricatures on the walls. Some are local figures, some are national celebs, and some are ordinary toons (e.g., panels of Hagar the Horrible).

On a weekday night with little traffic, we had our choice of seating and went for a booth. The considerate hostess did something I've seldom seen: she pushed the table aslant so that my partner and I could get seated without sucking in our breaths, then did the same for Frankie and Laurie, our neighbors and eating buddies. In a break from macho steakhouse traditions, the Palm's service staff is at least half female. Our waitress proved patient, considerate, and eager to answer (or get answers for) our every question. We had many.

The menu can be esoteric about the appetizers -- 11 of them -- some with mysterious titles like "Slater Special," "Shrimp Bruno," and "Gigi Salad." These dishes, we learned, are named for their creators -- restaurant staffers at the older locations. For example, the Slater Special was named for the waitress who came up with the idea of combining a half-portion of Shrimp Bruno and a broiled crabcake (otherwise available only as an entrée). The Shrimp Bruno features plump, tender prawns, semi-butterflied, with their rigid unshelled tails pointing skyward like scorpions. They're bathed in a Dijon mustard-Chardonnay sauce, simple but appropriate. The crabcake, with no filler, consists of large pieces of lump crab with chopped red pepper, chives, cilantro, mustard, and a touch of house-made mayo. It comes with a lively salsa of ripe diced mangos, more sweet than spicy. Normally, the dish includes just one shrimp, but since we were sharing, the waitress smartly suggested that we could buy an extra shrimp for $3, which we did. All votes in, we liked it a lot.

Clams Casino, on the other hand, weren't up to our expectations. Instead of the typical Sicilian dish of breadcrumbs, minced clams, herbs, cream, and (optional) crumbled bacon baked in medium-size clam shells, these were tiny Manila clams in a white wine-herbed garlic sauce, the clam meats whole, topped with slices of crisp bacon. The guys decided this version would best serve for a Super Bowl party tidbit.

Diving into the breadbasket for slices to dip in the clam sauce, I discovered an interesting Bread and Cie assortment that includes its fabulous fig bread.

The Caesar salad is nearly authentic -- the dressing includes "raw" (pasteurized but still liquid) egg yolk and plenty of anchovy, not to mention chewy aged Parmesan that lends the illusion of croutons though there are none. The romaine is all heart, torn in small pieces. The waitress also recommended "Tomato Capri" salad (a.k.a. Caprese). The tomatoes were acidic, cottony beefsteaks hothouse-raised in New Jersey, but the water-buffalo mozzarella was fabulous, tasting richer and more complex than any I've found in local markets. Each slice was set atop a fresh basil leaf, riding a thick slab of tomato. Cruets of vinegar and olive oil came alongside to dress it yourself. The mysterious Gigi Salad (named for Las Vegas waiter Gigi DelMaestro) sounded good, too -- with bacon, romaine, avocado, shrimp, and hard-cooked eggs -- but how many salads could we eat?

Main courses are all à la carte, steakhouse-style -- you get nothing but meat (or pasta), no vegetables. The "ring the bell" house signature dish at all locations is the humongous Nova Scotia lobster (three pounds and over) at market price (currently $21 per pound). At the table next to us, the "birthday boy," celebrating his 70-somethingth year, wore a lobster bib as he carved up a five-pound behemoth to share with his three companions, who'd ordered only a potato and a vegetable side dish each. I don't know how tender these monsters from the deep might be. I didn't order one.

The bulk of the entrées are USDA Prime-grade beef cuts from high on the steer -- these muscles do the least work, so they're always the most tender meats. We ordered "rare," and they arrived very rare. The rib-eye steak, no peewee at 24 ounces, was too red even for me, but Frankie found it alarming: "Where I come from, Ecuador, we don't eat meat this color," he said. Laurie, with a baby on the way, happily exchanged plates with him and plowed right into the protein. The meat proved flavorful but fatty, beyond the marbling -- talk about a heart attack on a plate! But people who frequent high-end steakhouses don't want their steaks narrowly trimmed -- they want to chew the fat to their hearts' content.

The prime rib roast, tall, wide, and thick, was also well- marbled -- but not fatty. It came with the customary ramekin of horseradish. After two bites, it seemed bland, and I found myself bored and already scheming what to do with the leftovers. Far too much for one person, it's approximately the right size to feed an Asian family of four or five, if not quite all the starving children of Africa.

The choices of seafood beyond the lobster are limited to four: Pacific salmon, Mexican swordfish, shrimp sauté, and an entrée-sized version of the crabcakes. The swordfish steak proved a huge cube of tender fish-flesh set over lemon sauce, but the meat didn't taste like local swordfish (which by law can't be harvested on drag-lines for mass consumption at chain restaurants). Caught in warm Baja waters, it had a spongy texture and a milder flavor that didn't thrill me or anyone else at the table.

Although the slant is Northern Italian, Italian entrées are limited to a skimpy five veal-scallop dishes (you can substitute chicken breast) and four simple linguini plates. (No lasagna, ravioli, etc. Also no steakhouse-style veal chop.) We went for the Clams and Shrimp Posillipo, served over linguini -- a terrific choice so long as you're not a vampire, since it's not only garlicky-tasting but actually dotted with whole cloves of cooked garlic. The seafood and pasta are cloaked in a fast-cooked marinara, sweet and fresh rather than concentrated, with pieces of canned Roma tomatoes still visible. The dish is finished off in the oven just long enough to cook the shellfish and release their juices into the sauce, and it arrives on a long, hot metal tray. The portion is sized for a shared mid-course (between the antipasto and the entrée) in a classic Italian dinner for, oh, a family of six or seven. Still, there were few leftovers from this platter.

The à la carte sides offer a choice of six veggies and five potato dishes. The mushroom caps were large, watery, and underseasoned, served on a tray at the center of the table. The waitress had the creamed spinach divided into four portions. Thick and gummy, it tasted more of cheese than cream. One of the signature dishes is called "half and half," mingling cottage fries with fried onion rings. Still sticking to my New Year's resolutions (for the longest time on record), I resisted the temptation to eat yet more fat.

As we were finishing the entrées, our waitress made a pitch for the "837 Club." Membership costs $25, which brings you a $25 gift certificate to use at your next meal. Members who spend $500 at the Palm in one year get one of those three-pound lobsters for free on their birthday. Our high-flying dinner for four put me more than 60 percent of the way toward the free lobster, but I begged off anyway. I just don't see myself as a Palm pilot making frequent flights through this port. If I join anything, it'd be the Turf Supper Club.

The dessert tray displayed bonbons sized for King Kong. The wedge of carrot cake was bigger than a brick; at the wide edge, it was about 8"x8"x8". Ditto the chocolate cake. "They're the best desserts of all of our locations, and each is shipped from the city where it was invented," said the waitress. The cheesecake is from Philadelphia, the chocolate and carrot cakes from a bakery somewhere else in Pennsylvania. There are four desserts made in-house: crème brûlée, tiramisu, Key lime pie, and mixed berries. This was the group that interested us. The Key lime pie was a normal-sized slice, and was among the best I've tasted, with an intense, puckery-sweet flavor from genuine Key lime juice. The tiramisu, a cube nearly the size of the carrot cake, was classic but dull, short on the coffee flavor and heavy on the cream. My decaf espresso, made in a brand-new macchinetta, was outstanding.

The Palm, still owned by the descendants of its founders, came up with a formula that people wanted and welcomed nationwide: selling a uniform, high-quality product that varies little from location to location. Like a Howard Johnson's for the affluent, it's the same restaurant wherever you go, in its food, atmosphere, and even the details of decor. Every location has its own chef, but the menus are nearly identical and feature the best dishes invented by staffers at all locations. The appeal to the business traveler is self-evident -- it's the right place for people craving familiarity and a full belly, not "adventure travel." The restaurant's regulars probably regard the high menu prices as an asset -- combined with the clubby atmosphere, they bring an aura of exclusivity to high rollers who want to impress their business contacts. Whether or not the local movers and shakers in this town add the Palm to their usual haunts, the conventioneer trade is guaranteed.

As for the cooking, the restaurant's on-paper average came to halfway between two and a half and three stars. Initially, I was inclined to the higher rating because the service was so excellent. Then, after retasting the food at home, I realized that the only dishes I truly loved were the Key lime pie, the seafood linguini, the mozzarella in the salad, and the espresso -- all mere sidelines at a steakhouse. With their own meat purveyor providing the beef, the Palm clearly goes for milder-tasting meat than I prefer.

The ultimate fate of the giant roast beef: I had 11 ounces of lean meat left after trimming it rigorously of fat. I sliced it thinly against the grain, doused it in a Thai marinade for a few days, and finally reheated it under the broiler to serve in a Thai beef salad. My partner and I liked it better than the original. My partner nuked and ate the last of the seafood marinara for lunch, and the swordfish went to the starving cats of Golden Hill.

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