Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Caspers' Cherokee Sirloin Room

My love and I have a good friend in West Saint Paul who lives a half block from Caspers' on Smith Avenue South. We had heard good things about the steaks there, so it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a try. We had a fine time of course, because we were there with a friend, and there was never a shortage of laughter and conversation. Next time, though, we'll probably have Christy join us on our side of town.

It's not that we had a bad meal there. And it wasn't even a question of service. Our guy was new, and he told us so. He was very personable, and obviously trying, so we weren't bothered. And our food was a good value, as advertised. But we didn't have the time we wanted to have. Would it sound too new-agey to say the feel of the place was wrong?

First of all, Caspers' is basically atmosphere-free. You'd expect a place that's been there since just after the Earth cooled to have developed some serious personality, and that didn't seem to be the case here. I wanted a dim, cozy, comfortable chop house. What I got was formal night at the Legion Hall. The bar seemed reasonably inviting, but the dining room gave me the impression that a junior high dance might break out at any moment.

This would not, of course, have been that big a deal if the food had rocked my world. If no one bothered to decorate because they were all in the back exploring the nuances of the perfect steak, I would applaud that sort of devotion. And here we come to the heart of the matter for me, and this goes well beyond my experience with one local steak place. If the kitchen is getting it right, I will tell you how good the food is. And I love food, so if anything, I tend to err on the generous side. If a restaurant tries to tell me how good the food is, that's problematic. First of all, that invites criticism. Seriously. If I hand you a burger and wait patiently for your opinion, that's cool. If I hand you a burger and tell you it's the best burger EVER, you're almost obliged to start looking for problems.

I had a pretty average steak called (on the menu, mind you) "The Steak of the Millenium." How am I supposed to react to that? The fries were the same story. I was told beforehand that they would be the best I ever tasted. And they were just okay. Not very hot, and just okay. Miss J's steak and shrimp combo was a little more successful, and the au gratin potatoes were quite good.

The point is, if I ordered an unassuming, affordable steak and fries and got the same food I had here, I probably wouldn't complain. But steak and fries that tell me ahead of time that they're wonderful, and then aren't? I'm just a touch offended by that.

Maybe the problem is with the whole notion of the budget steakhouse. Good steaks are expensive, and there are good reasons for it. Go to Mancini's for the otherworldly ambience. Go to Lindy's for a steak that will feed you the next day. But if you really want a steak that will make your eyes roll back in your head, that's going to involve some scratch. No getting around it.

So take your $22, and go get Thai food, or Indian food. You'll eat like royalty. Plan ahead for the incredible steak dinner, and you'll have time to save the money you'll need. Better yet, find some wonderful meat, have the friends over, and do it at home. In that setting, everything will taste better anyhow.