Thursday, October 28, 2010
Frankie's is for special occasions
SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times
Frankie Rowland's Steakhouse has served some of the best steaks in the Roanoke Valley for nine years.
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Frankie Rowland's Steakhouse has been a contender for top (and most expensive) Roanoke restaurant since it burst onto the downtown scene nine years ago. But in these lean economic times, I decided to find out whether the taste of a certified Angus Frankie's steak could justify the hefty price tag.
The recently expanded dining room at Frankie Rowland's exudes all the hallmarks of a traditional American steakhouse: dim lighting, rich wood paneling, a finely appointed bar, wine lockers and white tablecloths. The conservatively dressed waitstaff, in tuxedo shirts, black pants and white aprons, move about unobtrusively. Yet despite an environment that encourages a hushed atmosphere, the noise level in the dining room can become distractingly shrill.
For the uninitiated, it should be noted that the menu at Frankie Rowland's is completely a la carte, meaning the salads and side dishes do not automatically accompany the steaks -- for those you pay extra. The sides are served family style, however, and one order can usually be shared adequately among three or four people.
My first of two visits began with Frankie's signature drink, a Pineappletini made of freshly cut pineapple steeped for two weeks in vodka ($9). Because I was in a celebratory mood, more drinks followed, including a heavenly Hendrick's gin and tonic ($9) and one of the cheaper bottles of wine on the list ($48).
We started our meal with oysters Rockefeller ($18), an exceptional dish of oysters topped with spinach, bacon and bechamel and baked until bubbly. The oysters, served on a mound of rock salt, were divine when splashed with a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice and hot sauce.
While my wife's favorite, the lobster bisque ($14), has in the past been thick, creamy and infused with a rich lobster flavor, I found it unacceptably watery and thin on both my visits.
I skipped the salad, which would take up valuable stomach real estate needed for my 20-ounce New York Strip ($47), even though my wife and I planned to split it. When I ordered my 10 ounces of beef cooked to medium, the server told me that it would arrive with a warm, red center. Indeed, that's exactly how it arrived. Though it was my fault entirely, Frankie's honored my request for a little additional fire and quickly returned the now pink-centered steak.
I thought I had asked to split the crab cakes entree so we'd each get one, but the server must have misunderstood as we each only received half of one crab cake ($15). The miscommunication was a blessing, however, as the somewhat sour-tasting crab cake was easily the worst dish I had during my two visits; I could not finish it.
The rich, creamy baked campanelle ($8), a gooey mixture of small, bell-shaped pasta and four cheeses, blew me away. It easily warrants five stars. The asparagus topped with thick, creamy hollandaise sauce ($8) was also a winner.
You might think that after this high-protein, high-carb gastronomic free-for-all I couldn't possibly think about dessert, but you'd be wrong. The molten chocolate lava cake and a cup of Frankie's wonderfully rich coffee were perfect soulmates. Even though it had been faintly overcooked so that no river of chocolate "lava" flowed from the center, the intensely rich, warm, fudgy cake topped with vanilla ice cream was the perfect finish.
My second visit started with an appetizer special, oysters from the Hama Hama River delta off the coast of Washington. These were lightly breaded, fried and topped with Boursin cheese. They were disappointing. Despite being known for their firm meat, I found the oysters flaccid and runny. My wife had equally bad luck with her mealy, inedible sliced tomatoes topped with mozzarella and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.
Prospects brightened, however, on the arrival of entrees.
My friend's fall-off-the-bone beef short ribs ($33), flavorful and sweet, was the best dish of the evening. My wife and I created our own surf and turf, splitting a generous fillet of perfectly cooked salmon ($29) and a 10-ounce filet mignon ($39). Although good on its own, the salmon was even better when lathered with the accompanying syrupy bourbon pecan sauce. The butter knife tender filet was perfectly crusted on the outside and remarkably juicy on the inside.
The individually sized berry cobbler topped with Grand Marnier vanilla ice cream ($9) was more tart than sweet. Though I could not detect the Grand Marnier, it was delectable.
The service at Frankie's is among the finest around. The well-trained, seasoned servers flit about with considerable focus yet remain, for the most part, unobtrusive. They swoop in and replace drinks without making a fuss, clear plates efficiently and know the menu.
The only noticeable problem occurred on our second visit when the servers repeatedly bumped my guest's chair. The fault for this probably lay more with inadequately spaced tables than with the servers themselves. Nonetheless, it was annoying.
The bottom line
Frankie Rowland's ranks among the valley's top restaurants for food and service, but whether it's worth the steep price is a trickier question. My first dinner for four, a pre-reunion celebration with decades-old friends, came to an eye-popping $425.60 before gratuity, including $128.50 for alcohol. The second dinner, also for four but with a lower bar tab, totaled $389.92 including tip.
I recognize that in austere times, with folks losing their jobs and foreclosures common, debating the value of a nearly $500 meal may seem downright insensitive. Unquestionably, I find the restaurant's recent price hike difficult to swallow.
But, cognizant that financial circumstances differ, I also evaluate Frankie's as a foodie who doesn't spend money on golfing, boating or traveling to Virginia Tech games or NASCAR races.
Through that lens, I believe limited visits, within one's means, can be appropriate. Moreover, a couple sensible with their ordering and judicious with the use of alcohol could have a special evening rather reasonably. And although there were a few missteps on my visits, the steaks at Frankie Rowland's have few competitors anywhere.