October 24, 2013

Dining out: Prime Rib's trifecta? First-rate ambiance, service, cuisine

When it was announced last year that the famed Baltimore steak house, The Prime Rib, was adding an outpost at the Maryland Live! casino in Hanover, hopes were high, but so was the skepticism.

Another high-end, special occasion restaurant would be a welcome addition to north county and The Prime Rib had built a glittering reputation over its nearly 50 years, adding locations in Washington and Philadelphia.

Being taken to dinner at The Prime Rib? Somebody loves you.

On the other hand, would its old-fashioned, sophisticat­ed style of upscale dining fit it with the ring-a-ding-ding, Vegas-like atmosphere of Maryland’s biggest casino? Would the experience be kicked down a notch for the crowd more interested in roulette than rib eye?

The early buzz when it first opened seemed to tilt toward the skeptics: spotty service, uneven kitchen work and a hefty check at the end.

But a recent mid-week visit made it clear that the Maryland Live! edition of The Prime Rib is living up to its illustrious ancestors. Yes, the check will be hefty, but the traditional steak and seafood fare is expertly prepared, the wine list is extensive and nicely bal­anced, and the staff is smooth and professional.

First, the décor honors the restaurant’s legacy: warm atmosphere, subtle lighting, comfortable chairs, lots of leather and glass, and a stylish “wine room” for private parties. The dining room is secluded and set apart from the large bar and lounge near the entrance.

The management works hard to keep the ambiance intact. A sign at the entrance spells out the restau­rant’s code for dress and behavior. It would draw a chuckle if the place weren’t attached to the casino’s mini-Vegas environment. (Example: no firearms al­lowed, no baseball caps, no baggy shorts exposing body parts, torn denim apparel or tank tops. There’s a lot more, but you get the picture.)

Chef Michael Meisel presides over a kitchen crew that knows precisely what is expected of it. No trendy dishes, no pasta, no trying to cover the world map with a menu. There are a couple of soups, five sal­ads, and a string of hot and cold appetizers focused chiefly on shrimp, crab, clams and oysters. The seafood entrees include salmon, Chilean sea bass, tuna, flounder and crab cakes. Veal, lamb, pork and chicken have cameo roles to play on the meat side, but beef is the star of the show.

The three of us opted for glasses of wine to launch our meals. Twenty-four wines by the glass are offered ($9 to $18) from a list of more than 200 choices, start­ing at $40 and topping out at $550 a bottle.

An appetizer-sized serving of Crab Imperial ($18) was a winner — plenty of high quality lump crabmeat, well seasoned. The diner — doyenne of an old Baltimore family with a reverence for correct crab cookery — said the “real” thing was a bit creamier, but gave it high marks just the same.

An attractive platter of Oysters Rockefeller ($18) was the classic version, baked just long enough to finish the dish without erasing the briny goodness of the oysters. Again, quality ingredients.

My starter was another steak house staple: a simple wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with blue cheese dressing ($14). The lettuce lived up to its name (it was very cold) and the dressing just cool to produce a wonderful collision of taste and texture.

Based on the appetizer, one of us ordered the entrée Crab Imperial ($36) and, like its junior counterpart, arrived sizzling and brimming with good crab. The accompanying au gratin potatoes were a fine version — the cheese sauce rich yet light and the potatoes still firm.

Sides of sautéed and creamed spinach ($10 each) were ample for sharing by all and a great go-with for the two other entrees: rack of lamb ($42) and a spe­cial rib-eye steak ($63).

The lamb was presented as a pair of big rib chops, perfectly done “medium rare,” the meat rosy, juicy and nearly fork-tender. A masterful hand at the broiler was also evident in the large rib-eye steak (my choice). Beautifully seared and seasoned, the beef was ex­actly medium rare. I ordered a side of the Kennebec Fries and enjoyed their crisp rich flavor, all the while chastising myself for eating anything cooked in duck fat. (Never again for the rest of my life … maybe.)

Desserts at The Prime Rib carry no surprises — from bread pudding and berry crisps on the comfort side to Bananas Foster and dark chocolate ice cream. Our trio shared a slice of their New York cheesecake ($11) — a first rate example of the classic meal-ender.

I asked Jonathan, our superb server, what the res­taurant was like on weekends. He sighed and replied in a clearly understated tone: “It can be quite hectic here.”

It’s not hard to imagine with the huge crowds Maryland Live! draws on its busiest nights. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate their big wins or forget their dismal loss­es at The Prime Rib?


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