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Steak beats sizzle

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I love to eat out. I mean, I love to eat in too, but I really love to eat out.

When I worked in the restaurant industry, in those heady woebegone days of the mid-aughts, I used to go out to eat four or five nights a week.

These days, I have less disposable income, so I rarely get a chance to indulge myself in such a manner. 

When I found out about The Downtown Sacramento Partnership's "Dine Downtown Restaurant Week," I leapt at the chance to review one of the participating restaurants’ prix-fixe offerings.

I was given a 6 p.m. Tuesday reservation for two (I would be joined by my lovely girlfriend Jess) at Dawson's, a classic American chophouse found in the lobby of the Downtown Hyatt.

Dawson's is probably not a place I would have found on my own. I admit, when it comes to dining out, American cuisine is pretty far down on my list. I'm an unrepentant fusion-ophile, a sucker for all things nouveaux-ethnic. Korean Bul-go-gi tacos? Yes, please. Vietnamese Tapas? Sign me up. (I have my limits though, I consider California Pizza Kitchen to be an abomination).

A cursory glance at the Dawson's menu confirmed that there would be none of that tomfoolery on this night. Chef Ian Libberton has created a menu that is comfortable and comforting. The entrée list is textbook: four steaks and a prime rib, one chicken dish, one pork dish, one rack of lamb, two fish dishes (salmon and sea bass, natch) and a token veggie entrée (you bet your sweet bippy it's a mushroom tortelinni). Classic. Straightforward. Few frills. No tricks.

So it all comes down to execution, and I'm pleased to report the execution, though not flawless, was stellar.

We arrived five minutes before our reservation and were immediately greeted by the genial host, who, like all of the plentiful floor staff, was dressed in shirt and tie.  He led us past the dimly lit horseshoe-shaped bar and the open kitchen into the main dining room.

We were seated at a comfortable two-top next to a deeply varnished wooden railing that separated us from a row of booths and the aforementioned kitchen.

As we were seated in our large, comfortable chairs, I was suddenly reminded of  the immortal Ron Burgundy: "I'm very important. I have many leather bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany." Though I didn't see any books, I feel the setting he was trying to convey to Veronica Corningstone was something akin to the one in which we sat.

The host, while lapping our napkins for us, informed us that Michel, our waiter, would be right with us, then returrned to his post.
The moment he left us, another fellow arrived with water, and hot on his heels, a third gentleman arrived with bread, butter, an olive tapenade and a caveat: "The tapenade has a little anchovy in it, in case you have any allergies".

Thankfully, neither Jess or I have such an affliction, so we dug in post-haste. (As a trained professional, I both buttered and tapenaded my bread. If one is good, both is better).

Michel arrived and, in a charming French accent (not to be confused with the oft-heard "condescending French accent." He was from Nice, not Paris.), asked us what we'd like to drink. I ordered an Anchor Steam on draft, Jess stuck with the water and Michel went off to grab us the Dine Downtown menu. (I'm not implying that Michel did this, but when I worked at a restaurant and we had special prix-fixe menus, I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to make sure the customers got a copy of the menu. It's nothing personal, just business).

Jess and I decided to start out with a cup of the French onion soup and a Caesar salad. While waiting for the first course to arrive, I took a moment to survey the crowd. For a moment, I was struck by the fact that Jess and I were easily the youngest (at 20-something and 32) people in the dining room. Then I remembered that it was 6:10 p.m. on a Tuesday. We would be done with dinner in plenty of time to go home, watch Matlock and fall asleep in our Barcaloungers. As the meal went on, the crowd became far less senior citizen-centric. 

The first course arrived, and we wasted no time in getting after it.

The French onion soup was beautiful: a small cup crowned with the perfect amount of evenly melted cheese, just slightly browned and capped with a few rings of green onion. The broth underneath was silky smooth with just the right amount of oniony sweetness and melt-in-your-mouth bread cubes. It was one of the better examples of the classic dish that I've ever sampled.

The Caesar, though promising, was tragically overdressed. The uncut Romaine leaves were generously garnished with anchovies and pesto croutons and needed only a slight drizzle of the bright, citrusy dressing to complete the dish. Unfortunately, the dresser had a very heavy hand, and it rendered the salad a shell of what it could have been. A case of less is more, where more was, most certainly, less. An unfortunate, but easily correctable misstep.

For her entrée, the lady went with the grilled hanger steak while I chose the braised beef short rib ragout with gnocchi.

The entrées arrived soon after our first course had been cleared. The steak was served au poivre, and it arrived classically accompanied with trios of asparagus spears and crispy steak fries. It's a dish that countless restaurants serve, but few serve well. Dawson's makes the cut as one of the latter.

The sauce was savory and served to accent the medium-rare steak without overpowering it. It was cooked perfectly for Jess's taste. I'm embarrassed to say that I prefer my steaks closer to medium. I've always wanted to be one of those guys, like my father, who order their steaks "bloody."  I remember him once, at a chophouse, being asked how he would like his steak. He looked the waiter in the eye and answered, "still breathing." I always thought that was cool. Certainly cooler than "medium." I like my coffee with lots of cream and sugar, too. (Sorry dad).

The asparagus could have been a bit firmer, but I like my veggies very al dente. I built several perfect bites that included all three components and plenty of sauce, and I thought they were delectable. The crisp potato skins offered the crunch that the asparagus did not.

My short rib ragout was also very tasty. The gnocchi was relatively light, and the ragout was chock full of tender short rib, silky tomato and, to my delight, large slivers of garlic. The garlic must have been added very late in the cooking process, because it still had bite to it.  Wonderful.

We finished off the meal with one of each of their desserts, a chocolate lava cake and a vanilla bean gelato. I took a cue from my earlier tapenade and butter experience and turned it into one single, uber-dessert. Chocolate lava cake with bittersweet chocolate sauce and vanilla bean gelato. The whole was even greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts were pretty good in their own right.

All in all, it was a lovely meal. The service was superb, the ambiance cool yet comfortable, and the food ranging from good to very good. Kathleen, the manager, described the place as "a diamond in the rough," and I would agree, to an extent. She went onto say, "We are the best chophouse in town. People always go to Morton's or Ruth’s Chris, or McCormick & Schmick’s, and they come back saying that they should have just eaten here."

This being my first chophouse experience in town, I can only say that I once had a miserable experience at Ruth's Chris that left me both unsatisfied and broke, and I've heard not-so-great things about Morton's as well.

Dawson's may be all steak and very little sizzle, but it's a chophouse, isn't steak what you came for? 

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