Straddling the culinary poles of France and Japan, this Brannan Street vault still delivers for fans of American red meat
DINE "This doesn't really look like a steakhouse," a friend said recently while scanning the ambience of Alexander's Steakhouse, which opened last fall in the fabulous Bacar space. Since Alexander's isn't an ordinary steakhouse, it's probably okay that it doesn't look like one. It's probably additionally okay that it still looks more or less like Bacar: old brick, gleaming copper and chrome, a vault-like spaciousness, the wall of translucent glass cells in which bottles of wine are stored as if by giant oenophile bees. Even the lounge below decks is still there; it's is a peaceful haven from the tumult upstairs, with its noticeable Hooters atmospherics.
The central novelty of Alexander's (the original is in San Jose) is the sensibility of the chef, Jeffrey Stout, whose culinary poles are Japan and France. In this respect the kitchen's nearest relation in town is probably 5A5, the splendid Asian-inflected steakhouse in the Barbary Coast. Stout's wrinkle is to swirl some Gallic seasoning into the pot. And while most of the food's cues seem to be taken from east Asia, the kitchen does turn out such sly treats as truffled french fries ($12 for a good-sized stack). As someone who's not wild about truffles, despite or because of their expensive exclusivity, I was surprised to find this was an effective idea, with the earthy taste and scent of the truffles neatly nested in the crunchy, all-American bonhomie of the potatoes. Americanness isn't a neglected theme here, either, incidentally, from Maine lobster to a credible salad of iceberg lettuce ($10), with Point Reyes blue cheese, a fine dice of smoked bacon, and a tangy buttermilk dressing I thought to describe as "ranch."
"Please don't call it ranch," a voice across the table implored. Well, okay, but that's what it was. Next to the lettuce wedge sat cubes of candied applewood smoked bacon ($5), like a stack of miniature bricks. In their meatiness they could easily have passed for Canadian bacon.
For a steakhouse, there's a surprising amount of seafood, including Kusshi oysters ($4 each) and hamachi shots ($4 each), cubes of fish served like ceviche in martini glasses with an electric ensemble of chile coins, ginger, and truffled ponzu sauce. There was also, one evening, a main dish of halibut ($34), a perfectly nice filet that had a length of chicken skin roasted onto it. This wasn't quite a bad idea, but it wasn't a good one, either. Chicken skin would in theory provide some chicken fat, which is full of flavor and moistness, important considerations when dealing with fish. But halibut is a hardy fish that stands up well to chefly handling, and the chicken skin turned ornery in the roasting, like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Worst of all, the fish seemed to have dried out a bit during its time in the kitchen — not fatally, but still.
Well, you're thinking, what fool orders fish at a steakhouse? The point of such a place must be the beef, and what grander beef is there than prime rib? Alexander's offers it in two sizes: 14 ounces ($38) or 20 ounces ($42), the 20-ouncer seeming almost big enough to have been pulled from its own Cryovac pack. The meat, we were told, had been slow-roasted for hours and were presented with jus and a trio of horseradish creams.
(The service, incidentally, must be the among the wordiest in the city. Each item is described at length, with the particulars flying at you like buckshot. Complicating matters is the noisiness of the place, which is like being in the pit of the New York Stock Exchange when full and can make some of the servers hard to understand. I saw lips moving, I heard sounds, but I could not piece together a narrative. Like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I nodded, smiled, and hoped for the best.)
The beef looked splendid — rather on the purplish, rare side, but that was fine. It was also tough. This was a new prime-rib experience for me; in the past it's always been tender, if not quite butter-like. Alexander's meat had a good, rich flavor, but it was hard to separate flavor from texture when texture was calling attention to itself. I've often roasted my own prime rib at the holidays, but I've never had it show this kind of obstinacy.
Pastry chef Dan Huynh's dessert menu is littered with French terms (financier, crème brûlée), along with something called "dark dimensions" ($12) that sounded like an episode of The Twilight Zone but turned out to be a miniature playground of chocolate, including logs of malted chocolate ice cream and a small bowl of popcorn. All was tender.
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.;
Sun., 5:30–9 p.m.
448 Brannan, SF