Somehow, The Prime Rib made walking into the entrance hallway of a restaurant in the basement of a downtown Baltimore condo seem urbane and sophisticated in a way that I would never have anticipated. The feeling was further enhanced as I actually entered the actual restaurant walking past a dashing looking maitre d’ and spotting my three friends at the bar. (I confess I’ve never seen the three of them looking quite so sophisticated – was it that they were wearing jackets? the way the lighting illuminated an “up” martini? Perhaps the music from the nearby grand piano with a glass top which separated the bar from the dining room? The glistening, shining black walls with gilded moldings? Regardless, right then I felt the way I might have felt if I had been transported in time and space and had just entered some swanky upper east side club in Manhattan (I confess I’ve never walked into a really swanky upper east club in Manhattan but I’m sure as heck that it must feel something like this)
And in that moment, and not a little to my chagrin, I understood why people pay outrageous money to wine and dine at the Prime Rib. How do I express what I felt? elegant? urbane? sophisticated? Certainly special (and as if I was experiencing a totally different level of existence than I encounter at typical dining establishments I otherwise frequent like the Mt. Vernon Stables, Jennings Cafe or the Peppermill!) And I confess that, part of me at least, wished just then that I had worn a jacket on this hot summer evening like my three friends had done…
Fortunately, (at least from the perspective of my wallet!), I was dining here during restaurant week which helps constrained the bill but at the cost of significantly limiting the choices of what I’d be eating.
My three dining companions are way more familiar with the Prime Rib then me and made up their minds quickly. All three, given the choice of a garden salad, Caesar Salad or Roasted Tomato soup, immediately opted for the soup. For the sake of trying something different, I decided to try the Caesar Salad. (FYI – on the regular menu, the soup was $9; my salad was $10). Curious, I asked my friends what they might have gotten for an appetizer if ordering from the regular menu – they responded back they might have been inclined to order the shrimp cocktail or oysters on the half shell (both $18). For the main course, Marty opted for a filet (his 8 oz piece of meat would regularly be $49); JT decided on the Prime Rib (that involved a “Restaurant week” surcharge of an extra $5 but would regularly be $36); Ed ordered the Imperial Crab (regularly $36). I thought “Hey, it’s the Prime Rib! I’ve got to try their signature entree) and swallowed the extra $5 charge. Entrees at the Prime Rib do not include any side dishes. As a nod to “restaurant week” visitors like me, they include family style dishes of garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach (each would regularly cost $8).
We all enjoyed bread and butter – while simple sounding, both somehow were above average (The bread reminded me of the old Lays Potato Chip ad line: “Betcha can’t eat just one!”; all four of us polished off at least two pieces before our appetizers arrived!)
My first impression of the Roasted Tomato Soup were the tureens with lions’ heads knobs on either side that surrounded me on three sides. The soup was a dark rusty color unlike most tomato soups that I’ve had experience with. JT asked our waiter for an extra spoon and made a point of generously providing me with the opportunity of tasting his soup. The roasting of the tomatoes provided a range of taste that was very different. I liked it!
I had my own Caesar Salad to attend to though! The Romaine was chopped up into quite small pieces and three croutons (obviously “made here” probably from the same bread that we had been enjoying) were added. I asked for (and got!) a generous addition of coarsely ground pepper. The dressing seemed overly light to me – I would have enjoyed a richer dressing. I got some immediate insight into my companions avoidance of the salad options – I wouldn’t order the Caesar again and probably wouldn’t try the garden salad either.
While we waited for the entree course, our waiter silently came by and placed new utensils by us. I was fascinated with the huge handled silver steak knife in front of me
Marty’s filet arrived; when Marty had specified that he preferred his meat done well, the waiter had suggested that the filet be “butterflied” resulting into two thinner pieces of filet. The plate arrived decorate with a few leaves of dark greens and some shredded horseradish. Marty was well pleased with how it turned out.
Ed’s Imperial Crab with its large chunks of crab looked quite imperial in a small eye catching ceramic. His plate was decorated with a few leaves of green, a cherry tomato and half of a lemon (naturally encased in a fine mesh to prevent any inadvertent visitation from unwanted lemon seeds!) I wondered if the amount of crab would have been greater if ordered from the regular menu. (I’ll have to follow up on that and find out if Ed’s has ever ordered it from the regular menu!)
JT and I both had indicated our preference for our Prime Rib to be cooked medium rare and that’s exactly how it arrived! The plates were decorated with some greens and shredded horseradish. The rib portion from the regular menu I think would have been thicker. It had been awhile since I had Prime Rib – I didn’t recall how visibly fatty it was. I was grateful for the large chunks of meat that weren’t quite so fatty (the next day, I was talking with Marty and he explained that he didn’t like all the fat that was characteristic of Prime Rib and that’s why he ordered the Filet) I particularly like the counterpoint of the raw crunchy shredded horseradish against the very different taste and texture of the meat; it produced a different range of taste than with the standard creamy horseradish sauce that I’m more used to.
Our side dishes were good but neither really stood out; while we could have asked for “second helpings” of either, we didn’t.
Somehow, we all found room for dessert! Ed and John both requested the Chocolate Mousse Pie; JT asked for the Creme Brulee and Marty decided on the Lime Pie. We shared tastes of the different desserts – Marty’s tart lime pie seemed best to me but none of them weren’t memorable. (If only one of the Prime Rib’s desserts approached being as memorable as the Coconut Cake at Jennings Cafe in Catonsville … <sigh> It’s the very definition of memorable dessert; I feel honored when the waitress who makes it from scratch in her home kitchen for Jennings smiles and says hello to me)
Interestingly, the one thing which stood out to me about the Prime Rib’s desserts were that they had real, “made in the kitchen” whipped cream with them; there is just no comparing the feel of real heavy whipped cream in your mouth and on your tongue with the stuff that comes out of an aerosol can!
Service was interesting. Our waiter seemed very serious and proper with nary an un-required word to us. (Both Marty and I were envious of servers at other tables who were friendlier and less formal); to his credit though, at the end of our meal, he offered us the option of separate checks which I wouldn’t have expected) There seemed to be a flurry of men staffing the floor. I’ve never seen water glasses at a table refilled more often than at the Prime Rib! (There was a young man dedicated to this one task who seemed to dubiously challenge himself to seeing how high he could fill the glasses without overflowing the rim of the glass)
All of the Prime Rib’s efforts didn’t insure a 100% perfect dining experience. The piano music could be delightful and definitely added to the ambiance – but seated only two tables away, it also made it difficult to hear the person sitting across the table from me. Spacing of tables is unusually tight and awkward and it detracted from the dining experience. It’s hard to be feeling sophisticated and elegant when you’re worrying if your chair is pushed close enough to the table to allow waiters and staff to pass behind you. As an example of the minimal spacing between diners’ chairs, the back of Marty’s chair was literally less than 2″ from the back of a chair with a man sitting at another table. Spacing between banquette tables along one wall allowed barely one foot between the adjacent tables. (What if biological necessity demands a visit to the rest rooms and there’s no way of getting up from the table without impacting people at other tables – How elegant is that?) There were a few service peculiarities – after removing our entree dishes, our waiter made a show of deftly removing crumbs from the table in front of two of us but totally ignored equally obvious ones in front of the other two of us. The coffee that arrived with my dessert was quite lukewarm; when I explained the issue to my waiter and asked for hot coffee, he added hot coffee to my two thirds full cup instead of offering me a new full cup of hot coffee. With the experience of a Caesar salad that I wouldn’t order again, desserts that I didn’t find memorable and where I’d have to pay an extra $8 to get some mashed potato to go with my $49 entree if ordering off the regular menu, the sometimes overly analytical and perfectionist aspects of my personality had re-surfaced a bit by the “morning after”…
All that being said, did I enjoy my evening at the Prime Rib? I did! Would I go back? Yes – but admittedly more likely to do so during another “Restaurant Week”. Would I order the Roasted Tomato soup without thinking much about it? You bet! Would I consider wearing a jacket when dining at the Prime Rib (even on a hot summer evening…)? Well, Maybe! <Wink>
FACTS: The Prime Rib – Mt. Vernon; 1101 N. Calvert Street; (410) 539-1804 ; http://www.theprimerib.com/ ; Open 7 days a week for dinner only; on Sunday from 4 pm to 9 pm; on other days, opening at 5 pm; Full bar; no vegetarian/vegan options; complementary valet parking;