However, for all its excellence Norman's had one major flaw: location. Not in the sense that it was situated in a bad neighborhood or far off the beaten path. No, it sat on a major thoroughfare. The problem was the building. Before it became home to the Greatest Ribeye Ever I Et, it was a Bennigan's. Don't get me wrong; they did an amazing job renovating it. It was beautiful, comfortable and exuded "classy" out of its butt. But if you've ever been in a Bennigan's (or anywhere in its family tree: Chili's, TGI Fridays, Applebees, etc.) then you know how big those buildings are. Norman's was far too big to be able to get enough customers in the door. And let me tell you, it wasn't cheap. The menu was a la carte which, as you know, is French for "that costs extra". You easily spent $70 a person there. Now, that's not to say it wasn't worth it (did I mention how good it was?). However,in a smaller market like Fargo you have to think small when it comes to pricy cuisine. The best places in town are all orders of magnitude smaller than a Bennigan's. And with the exception of the Silver Moon Supper Club--which is now Mezzaluna, a very strong contender for "best restaurant in Fargo"--they're all still around. This is because you can get 50 or 60 Fargoans to come and pay $40 for a steak. You can't fill a Bennigan's on a nightly basis with those prices.
Which brings us to Saturday night. Donna and I decided to have a date night so I made a reservation at The Beefsteak Club, the new steakhouse in town. As is the custom of my people we began the night elsewhere (in this case the Hotel Donaldson) with
We arrived at the Beefsteak Club at 7:30. While the HoDo was rapidly filling up by 7:00, The BSC was nearly empty. There was no one at the bar and there were two tables seated. When I say there was no one at the bar, I mean that literally. There wasn't even a bartender. No hostess either. Not the best way to make an impression. I realized later that there was no hostess on duty--the only server was pulling double duty--and the bartender was also acting as an expediter/food deliverer. Usually when a restaurant only needs one server and doesn't see fit to have a hostess working it's because business is bad. I suspect this is the case at the BSC and I think I know why.
If it hadn't been for an article I read in the Forum, I wouldn't have known this place existed.
I get the word of mouth thing, I really do. You think, if my food is good enough word will get around. In a lot of cases you'd probably be right. But it doesn't seem to be catching on at the BSC. This place is in sore need of an advertising budget. A 15 second TV commercial. A Sunday newspaper ad. People out on the streets handing out samples. Preferably all of these things. As a side note, I realize that this past Saturday was not nice weather-wise and that certainly depressed the turnout downtown. But like I said, the HoDo was filling up by the time we left to walk the half-a-block to the restaurant, so there were people out that night.
The building is nice, though it looks very different from the Italian joint that used to be there. I can't remember if it was called Stella's or Isabella's when I was last there. I know I only went there once because it was the worst experience I've ever had in a restaurant, and I've been to places that served hobo meat. I wish I had been blogging back then, because I'd have another page to link to. Oh well. Suffice to say, the BSC ownership have nothing to do with that atrocity so let's move on. The current facility is a little echo-y as there isn't a ton on the walls, and what's there doesn't do much to absorb sound. I'm a big fan of the minimalist aesthetic, so I'm okay with the decor. I just wish it was a little less like enjoying a meal in a canyon.
Next to the meal itself the service is the most important thing in a restaurant (and I don't just say that because I used to wait tables). Our service experience was actually quite nice. She brought us both water without being asked once it was clear that we were having cocktails and not soda (seriously, all you aspiring servers out there: if your table is drinking anything other than soda, BRING WATER). She was present but not hovering, which is a danger when you're not overly busy. She was pleasant and had an answer when we asked her what she liked on the menu. Her only mistake was asking me if I wanted steak sauce. I'm not in a Sizzler. My reply to her was a mock-horrified, "I hope not!" All in all a class act. I tipped the hell out of her.
The food was a mixed bag, however. As with Norman's, the menu is ala carte. Despite it's $61 price tag, I beat back visions of starving children in Alabama and ordered the ribeye. Donna had the more sensibly priced filet ($31 for a 10-ounce cut). We rounded it out with a four cheese pasta dish, mashed potatoes, assorted mushrooms (at the recommendation of the server) and a caesar salad. The salad was quite good, a little soggy but nothing to get upset about. Frankly, I think it must be hard to get that right because so many places screw it up royally. The mushrooms were delicious. I would love to tell you what all the varieties are but I didn't have any paper to write the names down and most of them were in Japanese. If you go there--when you go there--get them.
The pasta and potatoes were good, not great. Both were seriously under-salted. Of the two I think the pasta was better. You could get the cheesiness from it and the flavor was there just beneath the surface. It just needed a little salt to bring it out. The potatoes were frankly just mashed potatoes and while you may be thinking, "well, what did you expect", I can make a better version myself.
Price-wise however, the side items are very reasonably priced. Most of them are $4 (the pasta was $6) and easily serve two. This really encourages you to try a lot of different things. Next time I'll try the creamed spinach for sure.
Now, on to the steaks. It would be very difficult for me to say that a place has better steaks than Norman's. However, in this case I don't have to. My ribeye was not as good as the best Norman's used to produce. That is not a slight, though, as the beef was delicious. I mean, really, really good. It was not, however, $61 good. $45 good? Absolutely. $50 good? Yeah, I could see that. Not more than that though. I have no idea what the margin is on that ribeye, but if there's any room to cut it, they should consider it. I do want to emphasize that it was a great steak though. Best in town, frankly, now that Norman's is gone. Tender, cooked perfectly. I realized after a few bites that I was using my butter knife to cut it. I'm not joking. Great marbling. Beautiful cut. It's just not worth $61 (to me anyway).
Luckily I can heartily endorse the filet. It was fantastic. Juicy and tender, ever-so-slightly undercooked for Donna's taste, at least in the center (she ordered medium-rare), but that's the part I taste-tested anyway (I go for rare, baby). Great flavor, beautifully presented. When I go back (and I will) that's what I'll have.
For desert we had a piece of cheesecake the size of Jupiter. Seriously, other, smaller deserts were orbiting this thing. Occasionally a parfait would collide with a streudel and rain sweetness down onto the table. A pecan pie was red-shifted. Okay, I'll stop now. But it was big. Really big. Frankly it was too big. It could easily serve three and probably four people. It was good however, and the presentation was simple but elegant. The blueberries and strawberries however, while visually pleasing, weren't really very appetizing. I'm sure that's because they aren't in season. It might be a good idea to just use whatever fruit is ripest rather than forcing the berries. I'd rather have an out-of-place kiwi or something than unripe and tasteless strawberries.
It's obvious that the chef is still tinkering with some of his dishes as he came to our table after the desert plates were cleared to ask us for feedback. We talked about the need for salt in some of the side dishes and he seemed receptive. We did make an effort to stress to him that we enjoyed the meal and would be back. There's room for improvement in some of the dishes but nothing that can't be fixed easily.
So all in all The Beefsteak Club is a mixed experience, but all the pieces are there for it to become great. The service was good (if a little thin) the food was uneven (ranging from great to middling), but the potential is there; they get the big things right and the little things are all easily fixable. I'll be going back and you should try it too. If it does manage to rise up to the level of a Norman's (and it's not that far away), we need to make sure we don't lose it.