South Coast Plaza’s hardly lean on steakhouses. Like your pricey Prime porterhouse huge and well-marbled? Think Morton’s. Prefer a sumptuous seafood tower before your bone-in Kansas City strip? Mastro’s is hard to beat. So when The Capital Grille opened in October, inserting itself between the two titans of surf and turf, it set the stage for a fine-dining smackdown.
Perched above Seasons 52 in what once was the top floor of The Clubhouse, The Capital Grille announces its presence with a stately white portico at street level. Pass through the doors and climb the stairs, or take the elevator up—either way deposits you in the bar, a sweeping, generously lighted room that feels more like a lobby. A granite-topped bar and portraits of O.C.’s own Gene Autry and John Wayne add visual interest to the expanse of high and low tables.
Padded stools make comfy stations for enjoying a meal, though they’re sparsely populated on my visits. At one lunch, our bartender affably advises us on fare as well as signature cocktails. Sweet caramelized onions and buttery melted Havarti cheese boost the opulence factor of the already rich rib-eye steak sandwich—so big we split it, along with a paper cone of swell finger-size fries. The fresh basil gin rickey can’t trounce a refreshing adults-only Arnold Palmer spiked with lemon vodka that goes down so easy it should include a designated driver.
Since lunch service is one of The Capital Grille’s slight distinctions (Mastro’s serves dinner only), a second try confirms the kitchen really shines at midday. Prettily plated and classically constructed, Wagyu beef carpaccio melts with each bite, countered with bitter arugula slicked with lemon vinaigrette. A terrific burger is compulsory at a pricey steak salon, and the signature cheeseburger—made with chopped sirloin, bacon, and Havarti cheese—is a juicy, 10-ounce superstar on onion brioche. But it’s the crab-lobster burger that really surprises; the lump-rich patty is assertively spiced, lightly bound together, and pan-fried to a golden crunch.
At dinner, the cuisine varies more and certainly is more expensive. Both nights, with reservations, we wait long enough to finish most of our cocktails. The upbeat crowd is a mosaic of thirty- to sixtysomethings, punctuated by date-nighters, business diners, and women enjoying a night out, one with a sleeping infant in tow. Roomy, high-backed booths are the dining room’s prime seating, but alas, there aren’t many and they’re difficult to score. Tables in the main room put diners in the bustling thick of things. The rearmost dining area, quieted by glass doors, has smaller tables and feels more relaxed.
Starters are hit or miss. A tableside drizzle of sherry can’t give a cup of lobster bisque what it really needs—concentrated flavor. Velvety smooth but light on lobster essence, the pale, barely warm potage is poured over lumps of meat that also lack potency. For the same $10, go for a far better cup of thyme-flecked white clam chowder that’s creamy and loaded with plump, sweet clams and tender potatoes.
Tomatoes soon will be ramping up, so why offer a Caprese-type salad now, undermined by insipid, out-of-season fruit? At least our waiter wisely touts the pan-fried calamari with hot cherry peppers, a splendid dish for sharing. The tender, zaftig rings have a whisper of breading for slight crispiness that also soaks up just enough of the tangy juices of the rough-chopped red peppers.
Steaks are the menu’s sly and interesting lot. Extreme beef buffs exalt the value of dry aging, a costly process that adds tenderness and complexity, and concentrates the amino acids that lend a umami savoriness to meat. The restaurant cleverly flaunts its devotion to doing this on the premises, though it only dry ages half its steaks. The Delmonico is Prime, the elite grade expected of top steakhouses, but The Capital Grille dry ages its Choice Certified Angus cuts, a cagey strategy that pays delicious dividends in the coffee-rubbed, bone-in sirloin, tender and deeply savory under a light cloak of shallot butter. The surface is nicely carbonized from ultrahigh heat—but for too long, as the medium-rare reveals precious little pink at the center.
Overcooking plagues the signature Delmonico, too, a bone-in rib-eye dusted with ground porcini mushrooms and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar that’s intense, acrid, and best requested on the side. The sliced filet mignon’s flavor is mild, so the accompanying sauté of cippolinis and wild mushrooms bestows welcome buzz. Rotund ovals of beef tenderloin paired with a petite butter-poached lobster tail is a tempting play on surf and turf. But at $46, the duo doesn’t add up to the tastiest total. The finely grained loin needs a sear with more gusto, and the limp Maine lobster isn’t worth the gamble at this price.
Of the sides, creamed spinach is unexceptional but serviceable, lobster mac ’n’ cheese loses appeal as it quickly turns lukewarm; the unfussy, surprise winner is mashed earthy red potatoes, luxed up with cream and butter. Desserts deliver some welcome luster, especially since dinner entrées don’t sparkle. Stellar picks include a coconut cream tartlet crowned with wide curls of toasted fresh coconut, a weightless ricotta cheesecake with a brûlée lid, and a satiny, deeply concentrated dark-chocolate espresso wedge with a drift of whipped cream.
There’s no denying The Capital Grille covers much of the same territory as its elegant neighbors: courtly service, deep wine lists, cushy surroundings, and lavish fare prepared with ace goods. Divining the difference means focusing on details, where the devil often dwells. To get the most from The Capital Grille, strategize the subtleties: Know your beef cuts and aging techniques, be adamant about temperature specifications, splurge on dessert, and—easiest of all—go for lunch.
House burger, crab-lobster burger, rib-eye sandwich, Wagyu beef carpaccio, New England clam chowder, fried calamari with peppers, Kona-crusted sirloin, porcini-rubbed Delmonico, adults-only Arnold Palmer, coconut cream pie, chocolate espresso cake.
Lunch, $10 to $30; dinner, $10 to $47.
Center booths in dining room; booth No. 21 for viewing action in the exhibition kitchen.
It’s not on the menu, but ask for the pan-seared tofu over chef’s choice of seasonal vegetables and grains.
3333 Bristol St.
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.