2010.07.17 Outback Steakhouse

After a gruelling week, Gareth and I decided we deserved steak and mashed potatoes. But where do you find a decent steak in Harford County? The Laraupin Grill in Havre de Grace serves a couple of nice cuts, and they will cater to your cooking preference, including my tendency toward blue meat. While we appreciate their support of local talent, we were not in the mood for live music. And, we were not up to braving the city on ArtScape weekend. So, we decided to put our aversion to chain restaurants aside and try the Outback Steakhouse in Bel Air located in the Tollgate Shopping Center across from the Harford Mall.

We arrived at around 8:00 and had a short wait. When the hostess promised a 20-minute wait, she was right almost to the minute. This quick and efficient service appears to be the rule at Outback. 

The dining room was nicely arranged, the music unobtrusive. A server took our drink orders almost immediately. We both ordered iced tea, which was delivered in a matter of minutes with the customary bread and butter. Outback serves a distinctive brown bread with whipped butter. As restaurant bread goes, this was more flavorful than most. 

The appetizers looked like standard chain restaurant fare, as did the entrees Outback offers in addition to steak. We passed on these choosing to go directly to the steak. We both ordered the ribeye, Gareth's 14 oz medium rare and my 10 oz the usual "as rare as possible". We also both agreed on the garlic mashed potatoes. I got the Caesar salad while Gareth chose the house salad.

Our salads were fairly run of the mill. The lettuce was fresh and crisp, but my Caesar was tossed with a salty dressing that overpowered the lettuce and Parmesan cheese and prevented me from finishing. The croutons resembled breaded, deep-fried bread and I removed them form my salad, as did Gareth. He also ejected the shreads of cheese but ate the lettuce and tomatoes that remained.

Gareth's medium rare steak was definitely rare, but not too rare for his tastes. My thinner 10 oz was cooked to a pink medium, and I sent it back. A few moments later, a gentleman from the kitchen came to confirm how I wanted my meat and promised me a new steak cooked to my liking. Again, the wait was brief, and a new steak was brought out. The gentleman from the kitchen stayed until I had cut into the meat. While still not rare, the second steak was closer to how I had ordered it. Shortly after delivery, our server came to check on me and my order. What impressed me was the time she took to make sure I got what I had ordered. While I told her that the second steak was better, she recognized that it was still not to my liking, and took it back again. The third steak that came out was the thicker 14 oz version that was seared on the outside and a lovely juicy blue on the inside, and worth the wait. Both our server and the gentleman from the kitchen stopped by to check how I liked the third steak - attention that I will not forget. On a busy Friday night, I could have easily been ignored, Instead of treating me like a difficult customer, they focused on providing me with what I came there for - a nice cut of meat cooked to perfection. My only criticism is that thinner cuts should not be offered rare if the kitchen cannot accommodate the request. This is a small complaint in light of the effort made to fulfill my order, especially given the prompt service.

The mashed potatoes were average and easily ignored. Which we both did. Clearly the steak is the star of the Outback menu. I am not sure why they bother with anything else. Fewer chain restaurant staples on the menu may allow them to put more effort into the sides that are part of a traditional steak dinner.

The desert menu was also a fairly standard collection of chocolate cakes and cheesecake. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find carrot cake at the bottom of the list. Being an aficionado, I had to order. Gareth, true to form, got the cheesecake, stating that "it's hard to go wrong with cheesecake". He declined the toppings, which included several varieties of syrup and fruit. This was a good choice as the Outback cheesecake stands on its own. A crustless, pure cheese cheesecake, the texture was smooth and the flavor was tangy without the cloying sweetness or recently defrosted taste of many chain restaurant cheesecakes. While Gareth felt it was lacking in lemon, it was still one of the better cheesecakes I have had outside my own home.

And, now for the carrot cake. Our server offered me the choice of the full sized slice or the smaller sample size. I ordered the sample size, which was the size of most full slices. The icing was scant, but what was there was rich and creamy and enamel-eroding with a generous dollop at the crest holding a pecan garnish in place. The cake was moist but bland, but also missing the raisins I find so disconcerting. While the menu claimed pecans and the forbidden coconut, both were undetectable. Unfortunately, so were the carrots, leaving the cake with just a hint of spice as its only flavor. A thin film of icing grazed the back edge of the cake with a dusting of crushed pecans and coconut. The cream cheese icing was very satisfying and could have been the highlight of the cake, but there was not enough of it to make a difference. Carrot cake is a complex confection, and finding one with the correct balance of flavors and textures remains one of my favorite challenges. The carrot cake at Outback did not meet that challenge.

When we got the check, Outback did not charge us for my steak. They understand that a steakhouse's reputation depends on how they cook their meat. The attention they paid to ensuring I got the steak as I ordered it guarantees my return visit. The next time I want steak in Harford county, I know where to go.